Moddi: More than just music with meaning

By: Katie Rice

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Photo: Katie Rice

The Norwegian singer released his most recent album, Unsongs, just two weeks ago. However, Pål Moddi Knutsen, better known as Moddi, made it clear that this was more than just a record: it was a three-year long project.

Prior to his career as a musician, Moddi was an activist and member of Socialist Youth, as well as Young Friends of the Earth. His stance as an activist was reignited in 2014, when he chose to cancel a show in Tel Aviv, Israel in protest of Israel’s occupation in Palestinian territories. He simply stated his reasoning by saying “silence can sometimes be stronger than the music.” This act of defiance caught the attention of Norwegian Singer Birgitte Grimstad who shared the story of Eli Geva, a song that went unheard for 30 years after she was banned from performing it during her visit to Israel. The song tells the story of an Israeli officer in 1982 who refused to lead his trips into Beirut during the Lebanon War, the tumultuous history of the song renewing his faith in music. Feeling inspired, Moddi performed a cover of the song and realised how powerful music can be and decided to find other songs that went unheard due to bans and censorship. This was the birth of his current project, twelve songs from twelve countries that he has translated and reconstructed to share the stories that have been silenced for a variety of reasons. A few of the stories include Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ which led to their imprisonment, as well as ‘Our Worker’, written by Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was executed during the Chilean coup d’état in 1973. Every song has a story and when mixed with Moddi’s melancholic melodies, they resonate deeply with anyone who gives them a listen.

When I arrived at the venue on Monday night, to say I was surprised to find myself in a church would be somewhat of an understatement. However, I was taken further aback when I walked into St. Giles-in-the-Fields Church to find the folk singer standing by the entrance wearing a camping backpack and intensely reading the Bible to a woman. For a moment, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, but I took a deep breath and sat on the hard wooden pew. As a regular concert-junkie, I am very attuned to the typical concert format: a couple opening acts followed by the headliner. However, I should have known this show would not conform or follow the “rules” of the music scene.

Vanessa Berhe entered the stage sans instruments and took the mic. Soon I realised that this would not be a musical act, but rather a talk on the turmoil in Eritrea, a small country on the east coast of Africa. She shared her story as a first generation Eritrean-Swede. While Berhe grew up in Stockholm, she was raised in an Eritrean household and was made aware of the dictatorial government and complete censorship in her family’s homeland. Her story further unfolded, revealing that her uncle was one of eleven journalists to be arrested in 2001. In an effort to free her uncle from his wrongful imprisonment, Behre founded One Day Seyoum in 2013.

Typically, when the main act appears there is outrageous applause, and a certain energy circulates through the crowd; however, this gig proved once again to veer from music norms. Moddi made an understated entrance, almost going without being noticed. The captivating singer introduced himself and proceeded to describe himself as a “barefoot hobbit”, continuously mixing humour with the heavy message and tone of the evening. His set was a mix of the twelve controversial songs, less heavy songs from his first two albums, as well as a final song in his mother-tongue. All of the songs were performed solely with a guitar, his voice, and Katrine Schiott on the cello and backup vocals. Moddi’s rendition of the infamous Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ was unrecognisable to the original. A song chock-full of anger and chaos turned into a beautiful lullaby of sorts. The message was loud and clear through his delicate melody and gentle voice. Although during the recording process he had a “fear that the project was running a huge risk of being politically correct”, the essence of the songs remained. He originally planned on recording the Punk Prayer music video in a Norwegian church, but ultimately they deemed the lyrics (even with his translation) unfit in the house of God.

Following every song there was utter silence. Everyone sat stunned with emotion and reverence for this injured world we share. This silence was always followed by a reverberating applause. I found myself enthralled in his music and soon forgot about the hard wooden pews and what a concert “should” be. At the end of his set, he received a standing ovation and returned to the stage for a final song. After the last chord there was once again silence and a feeling of peace and purity in the room. For a moment there was neither hate nor conflict, but rather simply an understanding that we are all human beings sharing one Earth. He closed the show by saying “The secret to world peace is set love to music and let it be heard and reverberate. Thank you for passing these stories along, they deserve to live.”

Albums like this are what music should be: filled with real content worth sharing and a message worth listening to. When I asked how he dwindled his options of over 400 songs down to a mere twelve, he simply replied with a chuckle and asked “Would you accept my answer if I said gut feeling?” With his wild blonde curls and laid-back nature, it would be more surprising if he answered differently.

You can see more of the project at http://www.unsongs.com