Monday, June 24, 2013

Wonderwall Martyrs

This is a disaster ballad of sorts, a simple verse/chorus song written at least partly in a centuries-old tradition of topical balladeering.

The disaster commemorated here is the May 13, 2013, Rana Plaza clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh in which perished more than 1,000 people, mostly women. It was a horrendous catastrophe--the deadliest structural failure in modern history.

After that awful event I found myself humming the beginning of former Beatle George Harrison's song "Bangladesh." The lyric for those notes is simply the name of country sung twice--six syllables, short/short/long, short/short/long--on the notes of a minor triad: "Bangladesh, Bangladesh." Harrison wrote his song back in 1971 as part of a relief effort to raise money for the then-new country, which was wracked by civil war atrocities and natural disasters. Something made me want to use the beginning of Harrison's song as the framework for a new song to honor the memory of the slain. I wanted the first syllables to rhyme with "Bangladesh." Under the circumstances, "Rana death" seemed appropriate.

Harrison also produced an off-album that I liked very much, called "Wonderwall." It was a motley collection of mostly instrumentals. While the referent of its name is to something from Hindu mythology, my thinking was being shaped by the fact that mega-retailer Walmart has been a prime beneficiary of low labor costs in Bangladesh. I saw the victims of Rana Plaza as the martyrs of a system that returns billions in profits to such corporations as Walmart even as it buries its workers beneath the rubble of the false promise of a corporate Wonderwall.

The present disaster in Bangladesh is not the result of war or storms. It is the result of greed. It is the result of a global fashion industry that looks for the highest possible profit margin by finding the cheapest labor and the least regulations. People like me reap the benefit--good clothes at low prices from Walmart--even as other people elsewhere in the world get killed making them.

Bangladesh is a poor country--154th out of 187 countries on the IMF ranking of GDP per capita (2012). Certainly its people need jobs. I do not have an answer to the gross maldistribution of global income. All I say is that, if this is the result of some Adam Smithian invisible hand, it is certainly not a benevolent one, and perhaps we can allow for an invisible handkerchief to weep into whenever these things happen.

Which they will do, as they have done whenever and wherever greed cuts corners--which it will always do. It wasn't difficult to find connections with garment-factory disasters in the past, most notably the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, when 146 people--again, mostly women, as garment workers overwhelmingly are--lost their lives in a Manhattan skyscraper because managers had locked the doors to stairwells and exits.

Because Bangladesh is a Muslim country, the song invokes Allah. But because the history of garment worker disasters shows it to be an international problem in an unjust world, the refrain includes "Dios" and "Elohim" as supplications of the poor and the powerless.

The azan (call to prayer) at the beginning of the song is an incipit transcribed by Dr. Alaeddin Yavasca and Yusuf Eroglu. It is in the public domain.

I tried to use pictures and graphic materials that were in the public domain; many were made available through Wikimedia Commons.

The traditional tune "Rights of Man" also makes an appearance (with modifications to fit the chords). Surely the title of the tune refers to the book by Thomas Paine, in which he says that governments that do not benefit all their citizens, men and women, are illegitimate.


Rana death
fight for breath
Wonderwall martyrs on the floor
gave it all
after the fall
Allahu akbar

Saw a crack
in the wall
8 floor high factory
if I go back there
I'm sure to die
Allahu akbar

Allah O Dios Elohim
yeah, away!
Praise the one who threw the stars
Allahu akbar

What a jerk
I still hurt
bossman come to me from his sports car
he said get to work
I STILL hurt
Allahu akbar


Made a bet
ain't cashed in yet
bossman he died in the fall
how can a desert
be so wet?
Allahu akbar

Chorus (twice)

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