Piano and the Clash of Cultures

This one will be political. We live in strange times, when almost anything could become a contentious political topic. Even such a seemingly innocuous thing as a piano placed in a public space for anyone to play it freely. 

I had been browsing YouTube the last week, when the algorithm offered me a video related to music. At least that’s what I was thinking. And as I had been watching the video, an outrage started swelling inside me. Also a nagging question raised in my mind – What kind of world are we living in? 

Here is my reaction to this incident, but for those who don’t have time to watch the video, a brief summary is appropriate.

The main character of the incident is a British piano player Brendan Kavanagh, also called Dr. K. He likes to play a music style called boogie-woogie on pianos freely accessible in public spaces, and also interacts with people who sometimes stop for a moment to listen to his music. He has about 2 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. 

This seems to be pretty unsuspicious activity, right? 

Maybe, until there is a video-recording device involved. Then, a potential problem could arise. And that is what actually happened.

Dr. K had been live-streaming his playing from the London’s St Pancras railway station, where there is a piano donated by Sir Elton John. There was a bunch of onlookers enjoying his music. When suddenly a young woman representing a small group came complaining, that they don’t agree with being recorded and demanded the video to be erased. She had some kind of a printed release form she asked him to sign, and also the Chinese national flag. 

When Dr. K refused to accept her demands, a discussion started. He insisted, that they were in a public space in a free country, where there is no illegal to make video recordings of people around. A male member of the group, apparently protecting the Chinese communist party flag, started yelling at the musician and threatened with some legal action. 

“Do not touch her!” the Chinese guy yelled repeatedly.

And then they called the police and things got ugly. Ugly, because the police woman tried to silence the musician, obviously not understanding the law she was supposed to protect. 

In normal times this would be the end. The police would make sure that the situation wouldn’t escalate, and everyone would go their own way. Peacefully.

The problem was, that this was a live stream and immediately thousands of YouTube viewers could see what happened. From there it has been just growing and growing. The video has been seen almost 10 million times, based on the last count. Dr. K has become a kind of internet celebrity, when many media outlets invited him to talk about his experience, or commented about it. 

The next day the piano was cordoned off, highly probably because if this incident. 

Then the Chinese participants of the incident went on a face-saving effort, describing their view of the situation, mostly for the Chinese media, as YouTube is not available in China.

This whole incident has evoked a popular fairytale movie from my childhood, called The Arrogant Princess. Especially a part of the movie that I didn’t understand and found quite awkward at that time. In it, a little shoemaker has to jump across the border from the Midnight Kingdom, where singing is prohibited. In the neighbouring kingdom, there is no such law, so once in a while he runs there, sings a few songs, and then goes back with a sense of relief. 

The movie was made in 1952, what was the time in my native Czechoslovakia, when communism was just getting stronghold in the country, and communists did everything possible to uproot the previous system and culture. Including prohibiting some songs and music. 

There is another memory that this incident has reminded me about. Some fifteen years later, in 1967/1968, and before the Russian and other “friendly socialist countries” armies invaded Czechoslovakia to quell a brewing freedom movement, a popular dissident singer Karel Kryl recorded an album, where in the song His Majesty the Executioner are the following words:

Horrible was this country

when you had to watch

how they forbade to write

and forbade to sing

Many years later, as high school students, we enjoyed, secretly, to sing songs like this, feeling that at least that way we could “stick it” to the oppressive communist system we had been living in.

And what about the St Pancras Station incident, you are asking? Some ten days later, a lot has happened and a lot has been revealed. There are songs appearing on YouTube using various fragments from the incident, like The Ballad of Shouty Man . The Chinese group involved, had been apparently filming a video for the Chinese Spring Festival – the largest television event in the country. A huge part of Chinese diaspora came to support Dr. K in his “fight for artistic freedom.” Efforts of some Chinese media to disparage Dr. K hasn’t been very successful and big part of Chinese commenters have criticized an overreaction of the male member of the group. And as a cherry on the cake, this particular man, who was frenetically yelling at the piano player, cynically started a new business endeavour, selling t-shirts with large printed words DO NOT TOUCH HER!

This whole story is for me a nice confirmation of the power of music. Although music hasn’t played the main role here, but a strong willing musician did! I like what one commenter wrote online, and will paraphrase his words – The whole of the ‘Western World’ is spineless; when a dude stands up for himself it’s national news …

Photo: YT screengrab

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