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  • David Bentley

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project - Artists from Around the World Meld Journalism into Music

Amongst the artist and corporately-generated PR we receive, occasionally we spot an approach from someone we weren‘t quite expecting - from way out of left field.

Ian Urbina is an investigative journalist with, inter alia, the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot.  For the past five years he’s been working on a project called The Outlaw Ocean, which is about lawlessness at sea, covering everything from piracy to slavery to environmental pollution. Reporting on events at sea across five oceans, 14 countries and all seven continents, it became a best-selling book based on the NYT series, published in 2019.

Out of that project arose a further one, a spin-off called The Outlaw Ocean Music Project and it involves musicians from around the world making music related to this specific journalism. Over 250 musicians from dozens of countries have already contributed music to the project.

He says, “While I’m a writer, not a musician, a competition I used to have with my 10-year old son and his friends became an experiment in reverse engineering and a form of creativity calisthenics, demonstrating that music is a deeply impactful way to communicate feelings and emotions.” The game is what got him first thinking about the power of music to tell stories.

In ‘The Imagination Game’ he’d play the first 20 seconds of a song that had no words, but was epic and dramatic. Then, turning off the music one by one each of the kids had to describe in rich, evocative, five-sense detail what was the scene in the movie in their head that would go with the music they just heard. Whichever kid offered up the liveliest and convincing scene that fitted with the music, won that round of the competition. Better than ‘I spy with my little eye’ for sure.

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project stemmed from those car rides with his son and his friends. Ian Urbina recounts, “When I write I usually listen to music without words. I also cast soundtracks to things I see. On one ship, I watched 40 trafficked Cambodian boys and men work brutally long days, and I remember late that evening, trying to polish my notes and sifting through a playlist that I had of instrumental songs. Was that one scene where the boys ate between shifts more The Leftovers or Ad Astra, I wondered? (I went with The Leftovers for its haunting and weighty sensibility). Capturing the scenes in music was for me a memory aid in that the music was an easier and more efficient moniker for the mood of a moment.”

The Outlaw Ocean Music Project is a first-of-its-kind collaboration of music creators. In combining their mediums, these narrators have, he says, “conveyed emotion and a sense of place in an enthralling new way. The result is a captivating body of music based on The Outlaw Ocean reporting. All of that time spent at sea allowed me to build an audio library of field recordings. It featured a variety of textured and rhythmic sounds like machine-gun fire off the coast of Somalia and chanting captive deckhands on the South China Sea. Using the sound archive and inspired by the reporting, over 300 artists from more than 60 countries are producing EPs in their own interpretive musical styles, be it electronic, ambient, classical or hip hop. Many artists also used the reported footage to make their own videos tied to their song, including Louis Futon, Roger Molls and De Osos.”

He adds, “These artists have taken a real leap of faith in lending their creative capabilities to help spread this message, try something new and support this journalism. Furthermore, they have produced some gorgeous music. Some artists within decided to choose a theme to inspire their EPs, telling a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Others focused on conveying an emotion or feeling without necessarily spelling it out in lyrics. All struck the perfect balance between a vast, open, and ‘free’ ocean, and a melancholy, dangerous, and limiting space.”

Across all of the artists participating there’s a global audience of more than 70 million, thanks in part to the geographic diversity of those artists. In recruiting artists from around the world, the project conscripted an army of cultural diplomats who are talking, in their own language of music, about the weighty concerns facing this offshore realm and the millions of people who work or depend on it.

A number of Nordic artists have already contributed to the project and you can read more on young Norwegian producer Miscél here, whilst Helsinki producer Muffler has also released music, which you can listen to here.

Nordic Music Review is trying to support Ian Urbina’s project in several ways.

Firstly, we are publishing this article so that readers and musicians can see it and decide if it is a project that might be of interest to them on which they might wish to collaborate. This is the project website:

Secondly, we‘ve drawn up a list of Nordic region artists and bands who we think might ‘fit the bill’ here, particularly mindful of those that we know or suspect have an interest in human rights and environmental issues as it is evident that ‘High Seas Lawlessness’, and passed them over to the project.

Finally, we will be writing about some of the music that results from the project, as we have done with Miscél.

The next wave of music drops on August 7th, 2020 and features new releases from many Nordic artists such as Eery from Norway, Kasper Lindmark from Sweden, and iamalex from Denmark.

Reda more here.


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