29 October 2010

Freedom For Suu Kyi? Revisiting Damien Rice's "Unplayed Piano" and U2's "Walk On"

The Associated Press reports this morning that mounting pressure from regional neighbors may finally convince the military junta of the nation of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to release Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi after elections are held in mid-November. The democracy icon has been imprisoned or held under house custody for 15 of the last 21 years. (In 1990, she received 82 percent of the vote in her country's elections, but was denied power by the ruling dictatorship.)

The talented, but publicly withdrawn, Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice was approached by the US Campaign For Burma back in 2005 with a request to contribute an existing song for a benefit album to call attention to the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi. In an rare interview that year with The Guardian, Rice did not want to be pictured as another Bob Geldof, and was loath to be seen as a political activist: "He is just a regular guy, he says somewhat beseechingly, a musician 'who has seen something that is wrong and is trying, in some small way, to help'."

After visiting Burma and learning more about the situation, Rice penned an original piece entitled "Unplayed Piano," one of the more affecting songs of the past decade. A duet with then-partner Lisa Hannigan, the lyrics spotlight the isolation of the prisoner and a solemn, but respectful, plea to not forget a leader in what is now one of the most closed countries in the world:

Unplayed pianos
Are often by a window
In a room where nobody loved goes
She sits alone with her silent song
Somebody bring her home

Here are Rice & Hannigan performing "Unplayed Piano" at the Nobel Concert in Oslo in 2005:

Because of the 9/11 attacks and U2's appearance on a national US television special shortly thereafter performing "Walk On," that song is associated with uplifting the spirit of Americans in the wake of the deadly terrorist actions. But the lyrics written by Bono for "Walk On" are actually inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi. In a piece written for a website dedicated to the Burma leader's well-being and release, the Dublin bard writes:

Suu Kyi is a real hero in an age of phony phone-in celebrity, which hands out that title freely to the most spoiled and under qualified. Her quiet voice of reason makes the world look noisy, mad; it is a low mantra of grace in an age of terror, a reminder of everything we take for granted and just what it can take to get it. Thinking of her, you can’t help but use anachronistic language of duty and personal sacrifice.

U2 wrote the song “Walk On” to honor this amazing woman who put family second to country, who for her convictions made an unbearable choice—not to see her sons grow and not to be with her husband as he lost his life to a long and painful cancer. Suu Kyi, with an idea too big for any jail and a spirit too strong for any army, changes our view—as only real heroes can–of what we believe to be possible. The jury is still out on whether we deserve the faith she has put in us.

U2 has used "Walk On" as a centerpiece in many of its concerts, inviting Amnesty International and One volunteers to the stage who don Aung San Suu Kyi masks and hold lanterns in tribute to the peace prize winner.

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