[This article is the outcome of a collaboration between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy’s NAWA]
On January 19, 2013, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced the death of Lawand Qamishlo, one of its field officers during the Serê Kaniyê-Ras Al-Ain battle against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist factions. In less than a week, the Botan group, which is one of tens of music bands belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, i.e, the party behind the YPG), released a song titled 'The Martyr Lawand'.
It isn’t strange that the group responded so quickly to the incident, so its members are “fighters” of a different kind in the party ranks. They sing to the public about PKK literature, and praise “resistance” in prisons and their fights. Therefore, a song -- from the perspective of the party -- is a tool to aid the revolution and to rally the masses. Music has shaped the social engineering of the Kurdish community, be it in Turkey and Syria to the swathes of Rojava in northern Syria.
The Institutionalization of Music
Since its inception in the late 1970s, the leftist-Marxist PKK has been aware of the role of music as a revolutionary tool in strengthening its ideological discourse. Party members both at the leadership and field levels brought in artists and poets, such as Safakan and Dalil Dugan, who all died in military confrontations while serving in the ranks of the Guerrilla Forces (HPG, People’s Defense Forces), the PKK military wing. Many followed, as others kept on the fight as part of the party’s Cultural Committee.
The Committee systematically produced content revolving around arts and culture to achieve its ideological agenda, which can be summarized as “increasing awareness among the Kurdish community and mobilizing it to support the political and military objectives of the PKK.”
Songs soon became the most widespread medium published by the party given their ability to spread quickly among a community that was largely plagued by illiteracy, and given that the Kurds generally have an affinity to music. This medium later gained a direct organizational dimension through the creation of large bands (according to Kurdish standards) connected directly to the party.
In the beginning of 1982, the famous band Barkhwadan was launched from Lebanon thanks to the efforts of the Turkish PKK cadres who had moved to the country in the late 1970s, including PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. The songs published by the band fueled nationalistic sentiments in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The result was that hundreds of young men and women joined the armed “resistance” in the Kurdistan mountains against Turkey.
Haval (“comrade” in Kurdish) Bahoz[i], an old PKK cadre who is currently active in the arts and culture movement in Rojava says that in the early 1980s he was in direct contact with several Kurdish groups, including the PKK. However, he decided to immediately join the latter after listening to the famous song by Barkhwadan titled ‘Vaye PKK Rabu’ (‘Here has come the PKK’).
In May 1994, the first broadcast from a Kurdish channel (Med TV) was aired from the Belgian capital, Brussels, thanks to the efforts of the PKK cadres and the Barkhwadan band members who moved to work in Europe. The TV channel became the stage for the PKK and its ideology, while its songs were heard in most Kurdish homes in Syria. Images of women and men fighters in the Kurdistan mountains were broadcast as well.
But thousands of miles from Brussels, in northern Syria’s Amuda, it was common place to see women working the cotton fields under the scorching sun while humming the tunes of the latest revolutionary songs. The PKK had in fact launched a donor campaign to fund the TV channel. Pro-PKK families worked the fields and donated their daily or seasonal profit to the party, which was one of the ways poorer families exhibited their “voluntary” commitment to the PKK.
Blind[ii], a former activist in the party, tells SyriaUntold: “For the money we took from people, we used to give them slogans and songs in return.” He was part of the campaign for Med TV at the end of 1995. Blind doesn’t recall a specific figure for the amount that was raised in Darbasiyah city alone, where he was active, but he notes that it was “rather large.”
Alongside the channels that targeted the masses, Kurdish fighters in the mountains had their own radio channels such as Judy-Qandil-Media. This famous radio station, based in a small Kurdish village in southern Russia, would air its awareness programs and revolutionary songs to the fighters via medium frequency.
The Russian authorities shut the station down in 2000 in response to Turkish requests after PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan had been arrested. “Comrades carried broadcasting devices to smuggle it through the mountains to our headquarters in Qandil, but the Iranian authorities confiscated them at the Iraqi borders.”
In 2017, the PKK-linked TV and radio stations have risen to more than 20 radio stations and five TV stations, and these include: Ronahi TV, Sterk TV, Cira TV, the music channel MMC, and Gerilla TV. All of them broadcast the same speeches and send out the same political messages with revolutionary songs taking up a sizable chunk of the airtime.
Do Not Abandon Your Comrades’ Arms and Songs!
In a unique war ritual in the Kurdistan mountains, the final hour of preparing for any battle is saved for listening to revolutionary songs and dancing to their rhythms. “With the same jovial spirit and enthusiasm we ended our dancing, we enter the battle field,” says Raman[iii], an old PKK fighter who used to be active in the party’s media institutions in the 1990s. According to him, more than two thirds of the PKK budget would be assigned to media, in all its forms, with music taking the lion’s share.
One of the most important messages the PKK media focused on while covering the daily lives of the fighters in the mountains was the image of the musical instruments that were shown side by side to their arms. This image was not made up, even if the party overemphasized it.
The mountains were center stage of a tough war between the HPG and the Turkish army which left tens of thousands dead, but which also added brilliant artistic talents to the Kurds’ musical library, especially in terms of the revolutionary songs.
Famous Kurdish singer Shahid Mezgin was a woman in her twenties who led a group of 700 HPG fighters. She was part of the Barkhwadan band and died in a bloody battle against the Turks in 1990. The band is proud of its singers-fighters “who did not abandon their comrades nor their songs on the battlefield.”
Mezgin had sung for the martyr Safakan. When she passed away, another artist in arms, Hozan Sarhad, paid her his tribute in the famous song ‘Mizgin a Leheng.’ Sarhad had learnt music in Turkish institutions but then joined the HPG with his wife and died on the battlefield. Obviously, he found in the PKK music machine many to sing his martyrdom.
Syria’s Kurds Dance to the PKK Tunes
In the mid-1980s, after decades of repression that had reached its peak under the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), Kurdish celebrations, such as Nowruz, became gradually more public in Syria. Nowruz became the perfect occasion for the Kurdish community to showcase their revolutionary tunes in the public sphere and with some freedom.
In almost each neighborhood, there were two separate celebrations on Nowruz: one was for the supporters of the traditional Kurdish movement (popularly named “Barzanin” after Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP) and the other for PKK supporters (“Apocin,” from Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan). The former’s celebrations were rather slow and dull, while the latter’s celebrations were filled with revolutionary songs that were sung by children and seniors, men and women alike.
The PKK had set up local musical bands in every Kurdish town in northern Syria, some of which turned into production houses . For example, this is the case of Koma Agirî, a production house that belongs to the party’s namesake band in Amuda.
The party also established bands targeting Kurds in exile around the world, as well as having a special cultural presence in Lebanon and Libya, both which hosted military training camps for PKK members.
The PKK Songs in the Syrian Conflict
In 1999, the fate of the PKK in Syria, which had been long sheltered under the Asad regime, was adversely affected by the Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey. In early 2012, after being banned for years, the party took to the public sphere again.
In PKK-run Rojava, arms were not the only component, as songs took center stage again and the party inaugurated several cultural and artistic centers.
“Comrade” Jamil, the co-president of the Mohammad Sheikho Foundation for Arts and Culture in Al-Qamishli said: “We opened our first cultural center in the Qudur Bek neighborhood in Al-Qamishli. One of our seasoned comrades said at the inauguration ceremony that the social revolution starts in Rojava, and we as artists must keep up by creating messages that capture the heart of our audience.”
The arts and culture movement within the PKK took to “capturing the heart of the audience,” and started re-running old revolutionary songs while broadcasting new ones that go with the new phase in Syria. At the end of 2012, with the battle of Serê Kaniyê-Ras Al-Ain, a new chapter of the revolutionary song was born in Syria.
While looking at the musical and artistic productions of the PKK, three main attributes in the structure of the new songs come up: turning martyrs into legends, immortalizing a certain military position, and showing scenes of the fighters’ lives on the front lines.
Surprisingly, the current artistic production does not target Kurds only. Estimates range around 15,000 for the number of Arab fighters within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is an alliance between the PKK and other non-Kurdish factions. For the sake of these combatants, tens of revolutionary songs have been released in Arabic, glorifying both Arab and Kurdish fighters alike. Arab popular musicians have released several songs for the Kurdish units, which are even sung at Arab weddings.
Jamil from the Mohammad Sheikho Foundation told SyriaUntold that they are working in coordination with guerrilla fighters to cover military campaigns artistically. “We would get the news of one of our comrades being martyred before the official announcement. We immediately get together and start writing a song for him/her. We have often been able to execute this in less than 24 hours, where the song would be ready to be played at the funeral.”
Jamil and his group have just wrapped up recording a song titled ‘Ar-Raqqa’ two days ago. They shot some of the music video’s scene inside the war-torn city and hope to broadcast the song the minute “Ar-Raqqa is declared liberated.” Jamil admitted that the caliber of the musical work isn’t up to par, but it doesn’t seem that artistic excellence is the key here. Instead, having the songs infiltrate the hearts and minds of listeners is what the party is betting on.
Some Arab bloggers and commentators have classified political songs in two categories: One is the “committed” song, which hails cadres and the political elite within a political structure. The other is the “revolutionary” song, which is made for “the masses” in times of war and upheaval.
However, this categorization doesn’t seem accurate for the PKK artistic production, if one takes into account the party’s populist ideology and how it conceived the Kurdish community -- across different classes and components -- as an organic reservoir for its political and military avenues.
Therefore, there was no clear categorization for the audiences and even for most of the artistic, literary and even intellectual production. Often one would run into an illiterate Kurdish woman who would recite, without fully realizing, intellectual and philosophical lines that PKK cadres have worked hard to ingrain into “the masses” over many years.
Many are the reservations and criticisms that have been directed at the PKK since its inception. However, it is worth saying that the party has had a unique experience in the Kurdish political arena when it comes to shaping and socially engineering the Kurdish community using different methods, songs only being one of them.
[Main image: A PKK fighter carries her tembûr, a traditional Kurdish musical instrument (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].
[i] Following the legacy of many other leftist movements, PKK members are usually known by their nom de guerre preceded by the word “comrade.”
[ii] A pseudonym was used for security reasons.