Take it from an Iron Curtain fugitive: freedom matters

Take it from an Iron Curtain fugitive: freedom matters
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The political conversations surrounding immigration and refugees are missing an important concept — the overall pursuit of unrestricted freedom. This is the most universal common value in a modern society. Whether the reasons are political or spiritual, refugees mostly seek out some form of personal freedom. 

But these free societies must under any circumstances protect this freedom as the most universal core value. In times of divide and discord, echo chambers and news bubbles, refugees such as myself and artistic free thinkers have the responsibility to be loud and disruptive. We have to focus on this longing for freedom, which grew stronger in my heart as a young teenager behind the Iron Curtain, inspired by the American spirit.

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For me as an artist in today’s society, here and now it means clear and loud: “Zero tolerance for intolerance!” We must not lose our social liberty of gender equality and equal rights for the LGBT community. We need to condemn racism, discrimination and anti-Semitism and we must keep an unshakable position on the protection of our core values. There is only one way forward, we cannot afford to move backwards.

 

As my dear friend Ian Anderson, the mastermind of Jethro Tull, says in the foreword of my upcoming book, “Longing for Freedom”: “Citizens of individual countries, Europe and Planet Earth itself have to feel the joint responsibility of upholding peaceful and productive ties while maintaining our own national social and cultural identities.”

My own story is deeply rooted in the pursuit of unrestricted artistic freedom through music and art. As an ambitious young jazz-rock musician in the “goulash communism” of the happiest barracks in the East — Hungary in the late 1960s and ’70s — my mantra was, “Music changes the world.” In Hungary, we felt that our concerts made the anti-dictatorial, oppositional, anti-communist movement more powerful through our lyrics and honest artistic self-expression. 

But every dictatorship restricts the development of artists through oppression, spying, censorship. The literal fear for your life, as my parents experienced, did not prevail in the somewhat toned-down form of dictatorship I grew up in, for which we must thank the student uprising of the Boys of Pest in 1956. The communist regime in my youth predominantly spread fear and implemented mistrust among our fellow citizens. You could trust no one, a very unpleasant, mortifying and omnipresent feeling. 

My family had learned from the bitterest of experiences before then by spending years in Siberian camps and political prisons, where they were abused and tortured. These experiences determined all my fundamental life-defining decisions. 

I experienced my first setback at age 16 when my father lost his fight against cancer and I was sitting on his deathbed. He said he was very sad that he would never get to know his grandchildren. He begged me to assure him they would never have to read censored newspapers. I felt that I had to promise him this, but asked, “Father, how will I get past the Iron Curtain?” Eventually, I realized he meant that I shouldn’t allow myself to be held back. His message to me was: “Don’t dream your life away — live your dreams!” I always tell this story on stage with the ManDoki Soulmates, right before we play “A dreamer is not a fool,” a song dedicated to my father’s last days.

It was precisely this longing for freedom, free thought and artistic fulfillment that eventually led to my escape to the West some years later when the repressions, censorship and restrictions we experienced as intellectual, progressive jazz-rock musicians in Hungary became unbearable. 

My friend Mikhail Gorbachev said, while he was visiting me, that progressive jazz-rock was most dangerous to the regime, because it was the soundtrack of the students uprising. This underlines how important it is today that free, open and tolerant societies actively promote and protect this freedom — and give artists and freethinkers a voice by representing a safe harbor where they can be heard.

In 1975, I escaped from Hungary to the West to avoid prosecution for being what the authorities called “the leading rock voice of the anti-communist student movement.” I landed in Germany, where freedom gave me the privilege to try to live my dreams as a musician, composer and producer, fortunate enough to have had the chance to work with countless influential, iconic artists from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany such as Phil Collins, Lionel Ritchie and Chaka Khan, to name a few.

I had the honor to form the band ManDoki Soulmates with rock legends Ian Anderson, Jack Bruce of the band Cream, and jazz-fusion legend Al di Meola. This really was a dream come true; I even stated on my application for asylum that playing music with those three legends is the reason I came to the West.

The ManDoki Soulmates remains a group of musical rebels and idealistic freethinkers who continue to endeavor to be authentic and honest, and to support common global values for free people in a tolerant world by playing sociopolitically relevant jazz-rock and prog-rock together as a community of shared values on one stage with one band. Notwithstanding the pervasive talk about, and seeming preoccupation with, what divides us as people, we have chosen to focus on what unites us by building bridges to protect the values of a free and tolerant society.

We were inspired by the spirit of the students’ revolt of our fathers in 1956. Their idealism taught us to stand up, be loud; you will be heard. We are not following but creating our own destiny. 

I deeply understand now what a privilege it is to communicate with our audiences through music. Music is a duty when we are creating and playing for a better world.

Leslie Mandoki fled from Hungary during the Cold War and is an international award-winning jazz/rock musician, bandleader and producer who has written songs and worked for and with such performers as Lionel Ritchie, Ian Anderson, Phil Collins and Chaka Khan. His band ManDoki Soulmates has united iconic legends of jazz and rock for almost 25 years, and his studios are a leading content house in Europe.