by BOB DORAN
THE EASY EXPLANATION IS THAT Bruce Cockburn is a singer-songwriter from Canada, but that's a serious oversimplification. He is also a poet-reporter, a activist-humanitarian and a damn good guitar player.
Cockburn is on the road right now; when I caught up with him he was in Princeton, N.J., about to play another concert. It's another stop on a musical journey that began in the '60s, one that has taken him to the far corners of the world, sometimes to play music, sometimes just to see what's going on.
[Bruce Cockburn in front of a bombed campus theatre in Baghdad. Photo: Linda Panetta/Optical Realities Photography. www. opticalrealities.org]
When he traveled to Baghdad in January, he went with a group that included an activist bishop, a nurse and a photographer -- he had a guitar with him, but his mission was to observe, in part so that he can bear witness in song. He says he's still processing what he saw there.
"I got back just in time to leave for this leg of the tour, so there wasn't any time to sit around and process Iraq, but it's taking shape in my mind as we go and I look over my notes. Linda Panetta, the photojournalist who went with us, was showing me some photos of the trip, that brought things back."
NCJ: What were things like in Baghdad?
"What I found in Baghdad was a place that showed all the traces of having been a fully developed, thriving First World city, one that, after 13 years of sanctions and a war, was looking pretty battered. A lot of the city is still standing because of what they call "smart bombs" -- I'm not comfortable with the term, they're not very smart and the people who use them aren't, either -- but they were selective about what they bombed, so there's a lot that wasn't conspicuously damaged by the war itself. But if you look a little closer you see obvious signs of fighting in the streets, bullet holes in the walls, stuff like that."
NCJ: So-called collateral damage?
"Government buildings were deliberate targets. The collateral damage was the result of Saddam's policy of putting military and otherwise sensitive institutions next to hospitals and schools. For example, you have a military institution that was bombed that happened to be next to the art college in Baghdad, so the college lost its cinema school -- their theater was destroyed. There are still shards of movie film flying around on the ground."
NCJ: What did the people tell you? How do they feel about what's going on there?
"The people, everyone almost without exception, said to us that they were glad that Saddam was gone. And generally people were grateful to the U.S. for that, but the goodwill that that might have brought towards the U.S. is draining away really fast -- it's virtually gone because people are confronted with such difficulties in their daily lives, and they blame the U.S.'s policies for that.
"For instance, in the city of Baghdad, electrical power is a part-time thing. You've got electricity in the daytime and it goes off at night, because there's not enough to go around. People who can afford them have generators, but people made comparisons to the aftermath of the first Gulf War when Saddam had the power up and running in a week. Here it is almost a year later and the Americans can't get it together.
"This is what the Iraqis are seeing from their point of view, and it's just one small example of how they see the priority of the occupying forces being about anything other than the welfare of the Iraqi people. The people sometimes used strong language to express their feelings about the American occupation, but there wasn't a lot of animosity; there was frustration and resentment, but not outright hatred."
NCJ: You brought your guitar along. Did you play with Iraqi musicians?
"On one occasion I got to play with an oud player; the oud is the Arabic lute, it's a beautiful, beautiful instrument. There was this young guy in his 20s who was a very accomplished lute player and a good singer. We had been invited to the same lunch at a gallery operated by a visual artist; while he was cooking lunch the oud player played and sang. After lunch I pulled out my guitar and the guy immediately grabbed his oud and we started jamming, just improvised for a while. It was amazing actually, we really connected. I got to play in other circumstances, too, just because I had the guitar along. We went to a shelter for disabled women, for example, and I pulled the guitar out there and played. It gave people a chance to think about something other than their plight -- there was a lot of joy that came out of it."
NCJ: Of course, the role you play as a musician is much more than offering a soothing moment. You do a lot more. You show the darkness in the world, but also offer hope for the future.
"For me, hope is a recognition of the reality of things. I don't really think much about hope or its absence. I use the word because it's convenient, because others understand the idea. Without trying to get too cosmic, it's really because everything in the universe is connected to everything else -- and that includes us. We're connected to everything; we're mutually interdependent -- and if we recognize that, somehow the concept of hope and worrying about the future just pales and falls into the background, because reality is big and vital and ongoing, no matter what happens.
"You can express it in terms of the divine or in terms of physics or whatever, but everything overlaps and ends up being what I refer to as one big soup -- or Big One Soup. Everything is part of everything else, so the evil [in the world] is part of the good and the good is part of the evil, and they're all different facets of the same gem that is life.
"That doesn't make the evil less deplorable or the good less enjoyable, but it makes it possible to keep going -- on the assumption that everything else is going to keep going too, which is kind of like hope. In order to move forward with your life you have to think it's about something, that it's worth doing, otherwise, why bother? Why not just sit there and die?
"People who face extreme difficulties develop an attitude that says, `If I do things right and don't screw up too much and I'm lucky, I'll make it through this day OK.' I think there are people in Baghdad who feel pretty helpless, who realize that they may never get out of their circumstance and their kids might not, either. Even those people are willing to look for bright spots and take advantage of whatever possibilities come up."
NCJ: Did you get a sense talking to people in Baghdad that they look forward to a time in the near future when things will get better?
"No, I didn't. I think people are really worried about how things are going to be. They'd like to envision a time when things improve, but it's hard. The next year or so is going to be crucial and if the right things don't fall into place, who knows what the future will bring?"
NCJ: A lot of people are thinking the same thing -- about the election coming up here.
"That's right. You have to hope. And no matter how helpless you feel, get the hell out there and vote, because if you don't, then the result will be guaranteed."
Redwood Community Radio KMUD-FM presents Bruce Cockburn in concert, Sunday, Feb. 22, at Mateel Community Center, Redway. Music begins at 8 p.m., preceded by a Mexican dinner benefiting the station starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance. For details, call KMUD at 923-2513.
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