Songs We Sang Before the Future

In summer 1962, the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students took place in Helsinki, bringing together more than fifteen thousand people from all around the world engaged with the struggle for peace and in solidarity with global liberation movements. Openly aligning with the socialist bloc, the festival happened during the most antagonistic period of the Cold War; with the mass movements of African decolonisation, the height of military bullying between superpowers, and the Sino-Soviet split. The summer of 1962 in Helsinki was a boiling point and the condensation of the principal contradictions of the Cold War. This publication opposes conceptual simplifications when dealing with the global political forces unfolding into cultural and artistic manifestations. These artistic mani fes-tations were broadly present during the festival and they expressed the need for envisioning new languages and a new world. The festival happened during an international momentwhen politics, especially for the militant youth, meant some-thing else than the mere representation of the party or state interests. The best way to picture this specificity is to look at one particular event within the festival that spoils the usual Cold War narrative. Presumptions remain subscribed to the main stream consensus that jazz played an important role in defending freedom outside of Western liberal capitalism.

With this book, we are giving a voice to a different sixties unburdened by Cold War ideology based on aggressive administration and bullying politics. By making a case for the act of free jazz musicians performing in the socialist festival, we intend to distort the liberal picture of the sixties. The testimonies we are reproducing and the concepts we are developing are evidence of the collective spirit of true international solidarity. What happened massively on the global conjuncture was happening locally on a smaller scale in Helsinki: the festival dedicated to peace was opposed with the counter-festival, dubbed as Young America Presents, secretly financed by the CIA as well as local conservative and anti-communist political actors.


In Sound Alignments, a transnational group of scholars explores the myriad forms of popular music that circulated across Asia during the Cold War. From studies of how popular musical styles from the Americas and Europe were adapted to meet local exigencies to how socialist-bloc and nonaligned Cold War organizations facilitated the circulation of popular music throughout the region, the contributors outline how music forged and challenged alliances, revolutions, and countercultures.

It was the movie Most (The Bridge, 1969) by Yugoslavian director Hajrudin Krvavac that first served as the conduit for the crossover of “Bella ciao” to China. Along with Valter Brani Sarajevo (Walter Defends Sarajevo, 1972), also directed by Krvavac, The Bridge was one of the most popular films in late-1970s China. “A peng you zaijian,” which literally translates as “Goodbye, friend,” is the Chinese version of “Bella ciao,” widely considered the most famous song of the Italian resistance movement during World War II. It is a fascinating example of a song that traveled in different guises through many routes. It is often sung with clapping, for instance, but in the Chinese version, the clapping is verbalized with the syllable “ba” following “peng you zaijian” in the refrain. Tracing “Bella ciao” back in time, one does not find any definite point of origin. In the words of a historian who interviewed Italian partisans on their musical memories of World War II, “the history of ‘Bella ciao’ is like a novel without an ending, because there is no unique text but several variants that underwent many transformations and interweave with multiple individual and collective stories.” A hybrid vehicle of diverse sonic and textual materials ranging from rice field labor songs to children’s games, it has been translated into thirty languages and continues to be adapted by many protest movements to this day.

In fact, in spite of the widely held assumption that “Bella ciao” was sung by all partisans, during the war its diffusion was limited to central Italy in 1944–45. The brigades fighting in the north mostly sang “Fischia il vento” (The wind whistles), which was based on the melody of the Russian “Katyusha” and whose text included such lyrics as “the sun of tomorrow” and “red flag” that directly referred to socialism. In the early 1960s, “Bella ciao” was retrospectively chosen as the hymn of the resistance because it was a more inclusive song that “focused not on any particular army or brigade, but on a single man, a martyr of that continental tragedy that was Nazi fascism.” Moreover, its growing international fame and dissemination through the media also contributed to its canonization. When “Bella ciao” was performed by a choir of former partisans from Emilia Romagna at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague in 1947, in Budapest in 1949, and in Berlin in 1951, thousands of delegates from seventy countries joined in clapping hands and sang along. The Italian Young Pioneers Association, a leftist youth organization for children up to fifteen years old, sang it at their camps and at international youth gatherings. It was sung in both Italian and Russian by Muslim Magomaev, a famous Azerbaijani singer dubbed the “Soviet Sinatra,” starting in 1964. In the same year, two differently worded versions, the first originating among rice field workers in northwestern Italy and the second dating back to partisans, were included in the concert “Bella ciao” at the Seventh Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto (Italy), a controversial event that brought folk songs to the national stage and was broadcast on television. Yves Montand’s interpretation in 1963 greatly contributed to its fame, paving the way for more recent versions, including those by Manu Chao, Goran Bregovic, and Marc Ribot and Tom Waits.