Coup the music

Observations on tunes

Westerners observing the coup in Thailand may have found themselves confused by the mood music: instead of martial drums, blaring trumpets and stirring choruses, the army-owned television station broadcast a steady stream of cool jazz. True, the coup was a bloodless affair, but it was still a weird accompaniment to tanks and marching soldiers.

Disappointingly, the quirk was pragmatic rather than artistic. The music in question was all composed by the ruling monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, an enthusiast who has played sessions with such jazz legends as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Lionel Hampton and Maynard Ferguson. This was base flattery from coup leaders desperate for royal approval. It was a reminder, too, of a long history of musical involvement at moments of political crisis.

During the 1991 coup attempt in Russia, for example, when Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest in the Crimea, most Russians got their first hint that something was up when Moscow TV programmes gave way to a looped broadcast of Swan Lake. If the conspirators believed the ballet music would have a calming influence, however, they were mistaken - the coup collapsed two days later amid mass protests and divided military loyalties.

Music played a more decisive role in Côte d'Ivoire, where the December 1999 coup was inspired by the lyrics of musicians such as Serge Kassy and Alpha Blondy. Blondy's song "La Queue du Diable"("the devil's tail") accused the then president, Henri Konan Bédié, of "holding conferences with champagne and caviar while the people struggle to survive".

Galvanised by such words, dissatisfied army officers rose up and deposed their president. One of the first things the celebrating soldiers did after seizing power was visit Blondy's house in the hope of shaking him by the hand. "I hid under the bed," the singer said afterwards. "This is Africa - people change. I didn't want to be crucified."

The Taliban found less to cheer for on the Afghan music scene when they swept to power in 1996. In a predictably po-faced move they banned music altogether, opting to fill the airwaves with Koranic declamations.

The US armed forces take an equally predictably different view. When they invaded Panama in 1989 they bombarded the Vatican embassy, in which General Manuel Noriega had taken refuge, with rock'n'roll - 24 hours a day. The first track was "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns n' Roses, and every day the US troops greeted the general with a hearty "Gooood morning, Panama". After ten days, Noriega surrendered.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act