Mourning the Mahavishnu

McLaughlin replays Ramallah 2014 (Photo credit: UNWRA)

Israeli Arab songstress Miri Awad recently criticised Roger Waters, best known as bassist for progressive rock band Pink Floyd, for his advocacy of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against the Jewish State. He, with British pop rebel elders such as Brian Eno and Elvis Costello, lead a musical boycott of Israel.

Miri Awad prefers dialogue instead; she is right. Music can be a positive force for universal sharing across cultures. As Madonna said in Israel in 2019, ‘Let’s never underestimate the power of music to bring people together.’ Elton John, in 2010, referred to the boycott: ‘No one could have stopped me from coming. We are spreading a little peace and love on this stage and we’re happy to be here.’

The jazz-fusion guitarist John McLaughlin (‘Mahavishnu’) caused me grief on learning of his part in the boycott, unknown outside jazz-fusion circles.

John McLaughlin has played in China, France, India, Spain, Turkey, USA, etc., despite alleged injustices said to be committed by their governments against minority populations. He plays in Ramallah despite torture, corruption, incitement and dictatorship there. His political activism has an exclusive focus against the Jewish people of Israel.

The definition of antisemitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association –widely-accepted by scholars and governments (e.g. Australia, Canada, UK, USA) – specifies as antisemitic the singling out of Israel for unique opprobrium. The unique global academic and cultural boycott launched in 2004 to delegitimise self-determination by the Jewish people and ethnically cleanse them from Israel is antisemitic.

John McLaughlin also pressures others over whom he has influence to join his boycott, like Zakir Hussain, who cancelled his booking to play in Israel in 2012.  The irony of musicians who signal virtue by boycotting Israel is that they use music to divide and condemn people. The Mahavishnu case is particularly perverse as he professed an Eastern-inspired doctrine of universal love.

How did this happen? We can plead excuses, e.g. some musicians with global travel schedules lack time to learn and think. It is just 1960s foolish hubris. It is the fault of cultural background or negative family influences. But it is wrong.

Nick Cave noted in 2018: ‘I think the cultural boycott of Israel is cowardly and shameful… In fact, this is partly the reason I am playing… As a principled stand against those who wish to bully shame and silence musicians.’  Gloria Gaynor observed in 2015 that ‘The cultural boycott of Israel is a form of censorship. …. Music is a wonderful tool for peace and for bringing people together.’

As an example of the positive peace potential of music, Leonard Cohen offered to play both in Tel Aviv and in Ramallah or in a joint concert that would bring peoples together in 2009. (Cohen’s various offers to play for Palestinian audiences were all rejected because he didn’t boycott Israel.) He donated his Tel Aviv concert proceeds to peace groups.

Another example was described by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson in 2015: ‘My view about playing in a war zone is that if I think it will make even the teeniest bit of positive difference then I’ll be there … I am able, every two or three years when I play in Israel, to leave behind some money for a very simple cause – co-education of people of all sides of the cultural and religious divide.’

For me, unfortunately, learning of that boycott behind the music of John McLaughlin means that it brings despair. Within the sublime soaring guitar notes there is now an awareness of a horror that has darkened our human past and clouds our future.

I will never be able to enjoy his music the way I did, knowing that its shining grace also gleams with a commonplace evil. I loved him but lost him. To mourn, it is necessary to admit sadness and to express anger.

To finish on a healing note, Ray Charles observed in his autobiography, ‘In 30 years on the road, I had never experienced anything like Israel… I can’t remember ever feeling more loved.’

Gregory Rose enjoys jazz-fusion and thanks Creative Communities for Peace for some of the quotations.

About the Author
Gregory Rose is a professor of law at the University of Wollongong Australia. He teaches international law in relation to marine affairs and transnational crime and has edited books on prosecuting the profits of environmental crime, and on detention of insurgents in international military operations and published widely on mechanisms for the effective implementation of international environmental standards.
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