Never mind the Bruce Springsteen-led Vote for Change movement, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, punkvoter.com or even the two "Rock Against Bush" albums. The most thought-provoking musical statement made this election year just might be a CD of heartbreakingly beautiful songs for babies.
Due in stores today, "Lullabies From the Axis of Evil" (and surely this has to be the only collection of lullabies with the word "evil" in the title) brings together women from Iraq, Iran and North Korea, has them sing traditional lullabies of their lands, and pairs them with Western women performers who offer translations of the songs. The CD also features songs from other countries and territories that have a prickly history with the United States, including Syria, Cuba, Afghanistan and Palestine.
Erik Hillestad, a veteran Norwegian music producer, conceived the album when he heard President Bush's 2002 State of the Union speech. "I got quite angry when I heard him say 'axis of evil,' because this is not the speech of a responsible politician, and it is very dangerous," Hillestad said in a phone interview from Oslo last week.
"What I really wanted to do was try to speak to these people behind this curtain, this enemy line, and learn more about people in these countries," he said. "I chose to use lullabies because they are the most opposite kind of rhetoric to the words of power that Mr. Bush and his colleagues use."
With the help of friends, colleagues and journalists, Hillestad made contacts with singers -- some professional, some amateur -- in the aforementioned countries, and late in 2002 he set out to meet the women and record their songs. Gaining access to some of the embattled zones was difficult. Travel to wartime Afghanistan and prewar Iraq was especially restricted, so he ended up hitching flights with human rights groups and the Red Cross to Kabul and Baghdad. Entry to North Korea was hampered by bureaucratic delays and, in the end, Hillestad turned to a colleague to record Sun Ju Lee, a 35-year-old mother of two, singing "Stars Are Rising."
For a studio producer used to fancy gizmos, Hillestad traveled light. He took just two microphones and a small DAT recorder to the women's homes and recorded a cappella versions of the lullabies.
"It was really a motherhood atmosphere," says singer Rim Banna, who had given birth to twins just months before the recording at her home in Nazareth. "I felt filled with emotion to sing these songs for this project."
Banna, who sings on two of the album's 15 songs, also sees the album as a message. "For me it is an answer to Mr. President Bush," she says. "It is an opportunity to say, 'Listen to these voices, these women.' The lullabies are a mirror of the cultures and they can be a bridge between cultures."
It may seem odd that a lullaby would take on such symbolic and political overtones. And yet these are lullabies brimming with symbolism. Several refer to enemies and abandonment, to living in exile, to guarding borders and to protection from . . . evil. They are traditional songs that pass down traditional fears. The first music to a baby's ears, loaded with history and lamentation.
There is, of course, much to lament, particularly for someone like Halla Bassam, one of two Iraqi singers on the album. The newly married 27-year-old says the lullabies she sang for Hillestad have taken on a more somber meaning for her of late. Tanks and soldiers patrol her street, and she has witnessed fighting.
Reached by phone in Baghdad, she expressed her worries through an interpreter. "I'm afraid that when I have a son or a daughter, that the situation will still be dangerous," she said. "I'm afraid he will be injured or killed. Every day there is a child killed here. I'm afraid now more than before."
Bassam also worries that a stereotype of Iraqis is taking firm hold in the West. "This song ['Peace Song'] is a letter from me to the people of the world that there are good people in Iraq and the Iraqi people want to live in peace," she said.
When Hillestad finished his travels, he returned to Oslo with the intimate recordings and worked with composer Knut Reiersrud to arrange the music. So seamlessly has the mix of ethereal Western and Eastern music been added to the haunting melodies, and so organic are the results, that it's difficult to believe the recordings were not done simultaneously.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the project for Hillestad was finding Western artists, particularly Americans, to add their voices to the songs. Many were asked, he says, but either didn't respond or said through their management that the album was too politically risky in those days leading up to the war in Iraq.
In the end, however, artists from nine Western countries, including the United States, would take part. One American who immediately jumped on board was Rickie Lee Jones, popular singer-songwriter and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration.
"George Bush and Dick Cheney and [John] Ashcroft are the axis of evil," Jones said in a phone interview from her home last week. "They are a triad of evil, and so of course they would think in those terms. To go down in history as the president who called the Middle East people evil is a terrible legacy. In political times to try to evoke religion and the ideas of goodness and evil, when you're fighting about oil -- to try to get the American people to think of these people as evil because you want their oil -- this is what he's trying to do."
If President Bush intended that "axis of evil" be applied to the governments of these countries and not the people, it is a message that is neither understood nor accepted by many of the album's participants. Singers, and sisters, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat are self-described dissidents in Iran, but they still object to the president's words.
"I am not satisfied in my country with this government," Mahsa Vahdat said in a phone interview from her Tehran home. "We have very complicated social and political problems here. But it is very heavy, very sad, to have the people of my country called this name."
Elana Fremerman, singer with the retro-country and jazz band Hot Club of Cowtown, performs on two of the tracks. "It was a pleasure being involved in a project with beautiful music," she says. "The fact that it was also a means of helping people in the West understand that not everybody over there is just carrying around a Kalashnikov, that was frosting on the cake."
On "My Tulip, My Pearl," Fremerman and Iranian singer Pari Zanganeh -- who alternate verses, as do most of the "partners" on the disc -- are accompanied by the Washington National Cathedral's girls choir. Hillestad says he was intrigued with the idea of using a choir from what he described as the official center of religious life in the United States. Greg Rixon, a spokesman for the Washington Cathedral, shies away from any symbolic inference. "We didn't see it in political terms at all," he said. "This project is rather universal in that the suffering that the whole world endures during war is most poignantly felt by women and children. And we believe it is that sentiment that is reflected in this disc."
More than anything, the album reflects the protective instincts of parents everywhere. On "Don't You Worry, My Child," Kulsoom Syed Ghulam of Afghanistan and Lila Downs of Mexico express that message with a moving eloquence:
Don't you worry my child,
My little darling.
Leave the world far behind
When you are sleeping.
Don't be afraid of the night.
I'll be watching.
Lying right by your side
Hillestad hopes the sentiments expressed in this song and the others will help humanize the "axis of evil" countries. "When the Western world is writing stories about these countries, they only write about just a small elite or a little group that has seized power," he said. "But most of the people there are just like most of the people on the planet."
Hillestad says 10 percent of the profits from the disc will go to Worldview Rights, which describes itself as an "organization for promotion of human rights, democracy and conflict resolution using communication strategies and applications."