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Anne Nivet

Journalist Anne Nivet (“NEE-VAH”) is Moscow correspondent for the French paper Liberation. Two years ago, after the Russians denied her press access to Chechnya, she disguised herself as a Chechen peasant woman and snuck across the boarder. For six months she followed the war, traveling with the underground rebels and staying with families. Her reports were published in Liberation. Her new memoir is “Chienne De Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War In Chechnya”


Other segments from the episode on April 9, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 9, 2001: Interview with Anne Nivat; Commentary on Sun Ra.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Anne Nivat discusses her experiences in Chechnya that
she includes in her memoir "Chienne de Guerre"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Anne Nivat, is a French journalist who has covered the war in
Chechnya by disguising herself as a Chechen woman. She risked being kidnapped
by Chechens and arrested by Russians or killed in cross fire or in bombings.
Her only connection to the outside world was the satellite phone she used to
file her stories. She says she lived through hell, but the will to do her job
and never stop writing kept her going. She's written a new memoir called
"Chienne de Guerre."

Nivat speaks Russian fluently, and has been based for several years in Moscow.
She first went to Chechnya in 1996 at the end of the first war in which the
Chechens fought for independence from Russia. She returned in '97 briefly
during the presidential elections. In 1999, at the beginning of the second
Russian-Chechen war, she applied in Russia for press credentials to return to
Chechnya. As she expected, she was denied. The Russians don't want
journalists covering the war on their own. I asked her about her decision to
try and cross the border by dressing as a Chechen woman.

Ms. ANNE NIVAT (Author, "Chienne de Guerre"): Not having this special
accreditation, I was--I had to be very discreet. I just noticed that being a
woman was of a great help because people don't pay attention to women down
there in this Muslim country. You are woman, you are nobody, which is awful.
But in that case, it played in my favor.

I just had to look around me and--so that every woman was dressed in a long
skirt and was wearing a scarf, which I did, understanding that that would help
me to be discreet. And that's exactly what happened. I would just be dressed
like any other Chechen woman, and I would never hide the fact that I'm a
journalist, that I'm a correspondent, but I would also not advertise it. For
example, when I was crossing military checkpoints--thousands of military
checkpoints. Chechnya is almost only made of military checkpoints on
destroyed roads--I would just stay silent in the car, and--I mean, basically
wait and see. Of course, there was risk every time. Every time there was a
risk that the Russian soldier would ask me for my ID. I've been very lucky.
No one asked ever.

GROSS: Is that how invisible you were as a woman, that they didn't even ask
you for ID?

Ms. NIVAT: They didn't ask for ID at all. They would always ask to the
driver of the car--like, every man sitting in the car. Or even better, I
would cross checkpoints by foot. If I was walking with a bag--like, plastic
bag with me, I would be completely invisible. Completely. If I did what I
did, that's just because, first of all, I was discreet, which is usually not
really common among journalists, I must say. And so the fact that I'm a woman
helped me. The fact that I'm a written print journalist was also of a great
help because that means I had no, sort of, external signs of being a
journalist. Like, no microphone, no camera. And also, of course, the fact
that I speak Russian. Although, Chechens do have their own language, Chechen
language, but they all speak Russian.

GROSS: You did, however, have a satellite phone. How did you hide that?
Because you used your satellite phone to file for your newspapers.

Ms. NIVAT: Yes, you're right. You are right. The satellite phone is the
only piece of technics I had with me. And I would--it was difficult,
actually, to keep the satellite phone with me. I didn't know where to put it.
Obviously not in this plastic bag because that would be, sort of, too obvious
that there was something strange in it. So I strapped it to my belly. That
was the only idea--my only solution.

And it was very uncomfortable, but this satellite phone was my only link to
the external world. And I remember the very first time I happened to be under
heavy bombardment. And I was just talking to my editor a few minutes before
the first plane appeared in the sky. And I had to stop the conversation and
sort of abandon the satellite phone and run away somewhere. And I didn't want
to abandon the satellite phone. I just--I ran back in order to take it back
because I was paralyze--the very idea to lose this phone was so awful for me.

GROSS: Russian officials have said that they're fighting this war in Chechnya
to prevent Islamic terrorism from spreading. What are the different types of
Islam you saw in Chechnya?

Ms. NIVAT: During the six months I was there without a break, I didn't see a
single sign of Islamic fanaticism. Chechens are very--when they practice
their religion, they are Sunni Muslims. So I was there during Ramadan, for
example. And people would not eat, of course, all day long, and pray--do a
lot of praying. But not a single time I felt sort of an aggressive--some sort
of aggressiveness in their behaving and in the way they practiced their
religion. That struck me. That really struck me.

And the fact that the Kremlim wants the outside world to believe that this is
a religious war is very disturbing to me because they're first claiming that
this is an anti-terrorist operation, but the reality is that there is no
anti-terrorist operation. There is a full-scale, nasty war. And who is
suffering? Not the rebels, not the so-called terrorists. The civilians are
suffering, unfortunately.

What's happening in Chechnya today is beyond the comprehension of normal
culture. It's just a shame that Chechnya is part of Russia, and that Russia
doesn't do anything to stop this war. It's just the opposite, by the way.

GROSS: What do you think the war really is about?

Ms. NIVAT: This war is a colonial war. That's a typical colonial war that
has been raging for ages. It's not new. This war started in October '99, but
there was--the first war during--between '94 and '96. And before that--I
mean, basically, Chechens and Russians have been fighting since the 18th
century; Russia, wanting to expand its territory to the south, and the Chechen
people, the highlanders from Chechnya, fighting back to preserve their
nationality, their culture.

So right now, Russia is a federation. It is made of 89 regions, Chechnya
being one of the 89. And they are fighting for their independence, and the
Kremlin doesn't want to set them free. They want to keep them within the
Russian Federation for many reasons. The main reason being that, first of
all, Chechnya is an oil-rich territory. And secondly, to allow independence
to Chechnya would create a precedent. And that mean that other regions of the
Russian Federation could just try the same, which is exactly what the new
president, Vladimir Putin, doesn't want. He wants to show to the entire world
that Russia is still a strong country, that Russia--and that's why he was
elected, because the Russians want to feel this strength of their own country.

You know, after--a decade ago, the Soviet Union was collapsing. And I think
what's happening in Chechnya is, of course, one of the consequences of this
collapse because it sort of--Russia is seeking for its identity. And in a
way, it needs enemies. And fighting against the Chechens helps them to know
who they are.

GROSS: My guest is French journalist Anne Nivat. She's written a memoir
about covering the war in Chechnya called "Chienne de Guerre." More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is French journalist is Anne
Nivat. Her new memoir about covering the war in Chechnya is called "Chienne
de Guerre."

You were just in Grozny about four weeks ago in your continued efforts to
cover the war there. What phase of the war would you say it's in now?

Ms. NIVAT: It is a very strange phase because, basically, not much seems to
be happening. But in fact, that's not true. What is happening is total
chaos. There is no rule in Chechnya at all. And when the Russians pretend
that they have the situation under control, that is not true, absolutely not
true. Everyone lives in fear of being arrested at any time. Being a man is,
of course, more danger than being a woman because, basically, every man is a
potential rebel, is a potential terrorist for the Kremlin, for Moscow.

So if you are a man, aged between, like, 13, 15 and 60 and you want to, for
example, go outside of your house walk down the street in Grozny--if you can
call it a street--and come back with some water that you take from the water
pump. And if there is a checkpoint in between your house and the pump, you
can just get stopped by them at the checkpoint and disappear.

Well, we've been talking about the filtration camps. And I didn't see any
filtration camps because they're not that easy to see. But what I'm sure of
is that the people do disappear at checkpoints, and then their relatives have
to try the best and, basically, to give money to the Russians in order to know
a little bit more about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

GROSS: Are most people searching for somebody who they know who has

Ms. NIVAT: I don't know a single person in Chechnya who is not looking for
someone else, for someone. Not a single one.

GROSS: And most of them have to try to bribe Russians in order to get some

Ms. NIVAT: Most of them are bribing the Russian officials. What's happening
now in Chechnya is only about money, human trafficking. So people
disappearing and the family having to pay them back--buy them back. I don't
know how to say that. But also, dead bodies are also for sale. Three weeks
ago--I saw in the middle of Grozny, I saw 47 dead bodies just lying on the
ground. Those were the bodies that had been found not far from the Russian
military base at Khankala. And, of course, immediately, the Russian
propaganda said, `Well, those are rebels. Look at them. They wear military
forms.' Untrue. I saw them. None of them was wearing military forms, and
there were at least three women among them. And not a single one had not been
tortured. I mean, every one, every body I saw bore signs of torturing.

GROSS: So if the Russians have tortured and killed a Chechen and you want to
find out what happened to that person, you could buy back their corpse from
the Russians?

Ms. NIVAT: That's exactly right. That's exactly what you do. Basically,
there is nothing else to do. There is no justice system at all. When the
Russians pretend that there are some legal ways of finding out, you know, like
official inquiries, that's not true. Absolutely untrue. Chechnya is a place
where everything is possible. It's complete loneliness. There is nothing
functioning in this tiny territory south of Russia; absolutely nothing,
including the Russian army.

GROSS: You've interviewed Russian military men.

Ms. NIVAT: Yes. Yes, I did because sometimes I would meet with--my way
would just cross their way. And if I would be sure that they would not, like,
denounce me and--I would talk to them. And mainly, again, I didn't meet with
a Russian soldier who would have told me, `Well, I'm happy to be here and to
fight against those rebels, and here I am.' Basically, what they say is, `We
don't understand this war. We're going to lose it the way we lost it in '96.
And nothing is going to change.'

GROSS: Since it's so difficult for men to walk the streets because they could
be picked up by Russian soldiers at any point and interrogated or tortured or
killed, are women becoming more assertive having to do some of the activities
that men can't do because they have to stay more hidden?

Ms. NIVAT: Oh, yes, you're right. Yes, that's one of the primary consequence
of this war. Yes, women are in charge. Women are really in charge.
Women--of course, women do educate the children, and there's still a lot of
children down there. How many--I never saw so many pregnant women during my
numerous stays in Chechnya. Almost every woman is pregnant. I remember
during the heavy shelling, I was always shocked by that. And I would ask them
why they would still have babies. Basically, first of all, of course, they
don't have any sort of comfortable ideas of--why is contraception is about.
And secondly, they would always answer me that each time their population is
gaining a million, the Russians attacked them for them not to be one million.
So they are making babies because their feeling is that they're being

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is French journalist Anne Nivat.
She's based in Moscow, but she's covered the Chechen war off and on now for
several years now, and she has a new book called "Chienne de Guerre." It's a
memoir about being a woman reporter behind the lines of the war in Chechnya.

You've interviewed doctors and psychiatrists about their work in Chechnya
during this war. One of the doctors you spoke to performed 60 amputations on
soldiers and civilians in one day...

Ms. NIVAT: Uh-huh.

GROSS: ...with an electric saw. Were you there for that?

Ms. NIVAT: Yes, unfortunately I was. I would have preferred not to have seen
that. And by the way, this doctor is now in the US because he was--it was
dangerous for him to stay there. But he...

GROSS: Is he a Russian doctor or a Chechen doctor?

Ms. NIVAT: A Chechen doctor.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NIVAT: A Chechen doctor. And he would be hated by the Russians because
he had amputated and sort of helped the rebels. But also, hated by the rebels
because he also had helped some Russians. A doctor is a doctor. A doctor
doesn't make differences between people.

The medical situation in Chechnya is also beyond comprehension. It's awful.
There is absolutely nothing. That's why the--mainly the only thing to do was
to amputate. And, you know, how do you amputate someone you just--when you
have no modern clinic, or whatever? You just do with whatever you have handy.

GROSS: Well, do they have anesthetics?

Ms. NIVAT: No, everything without anesthetics. No one knows that anesthetics
are about in Chechnya. People suffer. People suffer without even saying a
word. That's what is life in Chechnya today.

GROSS: So these 60 amputations were performed without anesthesia.

Ms. NIVAT: Absolutely right.

GROSS: And probably without antibiotics, also.

Ms. NIVAT: Oh, absolutely. And the top rebel--his name is Sheilem
Bechayev(ph), was amputated this very day you are referring to. And I
remember I saw him when the doctor was performing the amputation. And this
rebel is still in--this top rebel, terrorist number one, is still in Chechnya
today and free at this moment.

GROSS: Why were 60 amputations even necessary? What were injuries caused by?

Ms. NIVAT: The injuries were caused by a group of people having crossed a
minefield leaving the capital, leaving Grozny. And that happened the very
last day of January 2000 and the first two days of February. A group of 1,200
rebels, with civilians, left the capital, and they just walked through a
minefield. And basically, the other kind of problem is heavy shelling.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now you also talked to psychiatrists about the psychological
impact of the war.

Ms. NIVAT: Yeah.

GROSS: What were some of the things that you were told?

Ms. NIVAT: Yeah. I remember this woman who is a Chechen woman, but I didn't
talk to her in Chechnya. I talked to her in the neighboring republic of
Ingushetia, which is basically where most of the Chechens took refuge trying
to escape the shelling. Basically, what she said is that this war is
devastating for people's mind. And that they're--everyone is depressed. So
it made me sort of minimize all kind of, you know, people--of course, people
have different reason to be depressed here in the West. But in comparison to
what's happening in Chechnya, I understand that's very easy to be depressed.
If you live in Chechnya, you have no future. There is no work, no jobs, no
comfort at all and a permanent danger of being killed.

GROSS: Anne Nivat has written a memoir about covering the war in Chechnya.
It's called "Chienne de Guerre." She'll be back in the second half of the

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, we begin a six-part series on modern jazz mavericks, beginning with
pianist and band leader Sun Ra. Also, French journalist Anne Nivat tells us
what happened when the Russians discovered that she was a journalist.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with French journalist Anne
Nivat. She's written a memoir called "Chienne de Guerre" about covering the
war in Chechnya. The Russians had denied her application for press
credentials to cover the war. They don't want journalists to cover the war on
their own. So she disguised herself as a Chechen woman. For six months, she
traveled through Chechnya, staying mostly with Chechen families.

You were deported in February of 2000. Russian soldiers came to the house
that you were staying in. They searched everyone's belongings, including
yours. They found your satellite phone. I guess they found other things that
made it clear that you were a journalist and one...

Ms. NIVAT: Yes.

GROSS: ...who didn't have their proper, you know, Russian press credentials
to be in Chechnya. How did they tell you that you were going to be deported?

Ms. NIVAT: Basically, you know, that's a pathetic story, I would say.
Because when they found me this very day, when they searched this house and
took my satellite phone and my notebooks, etc., they were not really looking
for me, not at all, I must say. So I can't say that they were looking for me
and they found me. They were not. They were, you know, Russian--those were
Russian secret service officers and they were just executing orders. They
probably had received the order to search this house, and that was just by
complete chance that was the house I was staying in south of Grozny.

So when they took my satellite phone, I introduced myself to them. Again,
none of them would ask me for my ID, which made me actually understand that
they were not coming for me, because I would have expect one of them to ask me
for my ID. And I would have provide him with my French passport, but none of
them asked. But because they took away my satellite phone and I didn't want
them to believe that this satellite phone was the head of the house one, this
Chechen guy by whom I was staying, I was ashamed--I didn't want to...

GROSS: Endanger him.

Ms. NIVAT: Yeah, exactly. So that's why I introduced myself to the FSB
officer. I remember me saying to him in Russian, `Well, my name is Anne
Nivat. I'm a journalist here. This is my satellite phone.' And believe
what? He did not pay attention to me. That's something amazing. But
basically that shows a lot about the way they function down there. He did not
pay attention to what I told him because he was busy filling out some papers
regarding the search and because he had no orders to listen to a strange,
young woman telling him that she was a journalist.

But the thing is that they took my stuff away and then I could not work
anymore. Who I am if I don't have my satellite phone? You know, you can be
the best journalist on Earth, if you don't have technically the possibility of
filing your story, you don't exist. So I decided to wait for them to come
back, because I understood that after having understand that they had made
mistake in not paying attention to me, they would come back and ask me
questions, which is exactly what happened. But it took them time. They came
back after five days, I think. So, to me, five days I was missing from the
outside world and my editors sort of became scared, of course, in France.

But I could have escaped. I could have left the place when they left after
having not taken me away with them. I could have left. When they would have
come back, they would have not find me. But I stayed. I stayed because I
decided that this encounter with them would be unavoidable, and I wanted my
sat phone back. I really wanted my sat phone back.

So when they came back with the owner of the house after having questioned him
in the military headquarter and probably he repeated to them that this sat
phone was mine, they came back. The same FSB officer, quite a young guy, my
age, he came back, I remember, smiling and he asked me, `Well, are you Anne
Nivat?' And I said, `Yes, I am.' And he said, `Well, I would like to--would
you mind if we would talk?' And I said, `Of course I wouldn't mind. And may
I recall you that I introduced myself to you five days ago and you didn't pay
attention?' He stayed silent. And then I said, well--I was furious. Because
I told him, `Well, you made me wait five days. I was basically waiting for
you.' Then they questioned me for an entire day, which was not really
pleasant, but I must say they really behaved. They were not aggressive with
me. They were more perplexed.

GROSS: So the secret service, the former KGB, came back for you in five days.
The interrogated you for a day. After the secret service came back for you,
they decided to deport you. They took you to Mozdok...

Ms. NIVAT: Right.

GROSS: ...which is where the military headquarters are.

Ms. NIVAT: Yes.

GROSS: Were you relieved, in a way, that you were going to actually get this,
like, Russian secret service escort out of Chechnya into Mozdok and then they
were going to fly you back to Moscow? So, I mean, you were going to at least
be pretty sure you were going to be safe.

Ms. NIVAT: In a way, you're absolutely right. I was so relieved. It was so
fascinating for me, I must say, to cross the checkpoints with them in army
Jeep so easily, because, of course, they're their checkpoints. And when
during, you know, six months, each time I was crossing a checkpoint, it was
high risk and I was not feeling very well. Well, this very day I was just
with them and we were flying through Chechnya to go to Mozdok. But at the
same time, I was also disappointed. I was furious against myself because that
was the end of my trip. And I didn't want to talk to them. I didn't want to
have to explain to them everything. But, well, of course, I was forced to.
What can you do when you are questioned by FSB officer and they ask you?

Basically I remember, I was--the most difficult for me was to try to remember
what was already published about--what I had already published in my newspaper
about the whereabouts of the rebels--the rebels' whereabouts, because I didn't
want to provide them with any further information. So that was a constant
effort for me to remember what I had already written about. And I also
remember that they were so surprised to find me and to understand that I had
been filing so many articles without really them knowing about--at least those
to whom I was talking to, and I told them--well, because they wanted to know
what I had been writing about. I said, `Well, you know, go to the

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

Ms. NIVAT: `...and have a look at my articles.'

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. NIVAT: And you know what? They answered they had no Internet access. It
was so funny. And then they wanted me to translate to them what my notes,
because basically I wrote notes in French. They wanted me to translate
everything in Russian. How absurd. Of course, I would never do them this
favor. I think they have enough translators in the FSB headquarters.

GROSS: Did you pretend to? Did you pretend to?

Ms. NIVAT: You're right, yes, I did pretend to. I remember when this young
officer sat down in front of me and said, `Well, Anne, let's have a look at
your notes. So, for example, what did you write on this page? What is it all
about?' And I pretended that I was, like, this private--I pretended that I
was sort of describing a scene in a village, which was absolutely untrue. But
I thought he would not understand French. But after that, I remember he stood
up and instead of giving me my notes back, he went to the copy machine and he
photocopied every single page of my book notes. So then I realized that he
would probably give that to someone else and that they would understand that I
was lying to them.

GROSS: My guest is French journalist Anne Nivat. She's written a memoir
about covering the war in Chechnya called "Chienne de Guerre." More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Anne Nivat is my guest. She's a French journalist who's usually based
in Moscow. She's been covering the war in Chechnya. But she's usually not
accredited when she goes in, so she usually has to kind of sneak in. She has
a new memoir about covering the war called "Chienne de Guerre."

So you were deported by the Russian secret service. You were deported from
Chechnya to Moscow...

Ms. NIVAT: To Moscow.

GROSS: ...but you weren't deported out of Russia.

Ms. NIVAT: You are right and I am very thankful to them that they didn't
deport me out of Russia, because I love Russia and I want to stay in Russia
and I want to continue my job there.

GROSS: Well, in fact, you were able to actually go back to Chechnya once with
official press credentials, which meant that you traveled with the Russian
military and they kind of selectively show you what they want you to see.

Ms. NIVAT: Absolutely right. I did them this favor. Because when I was
deported to Moscow and there was such a fuss around me and everyone--so, of
course, the commission in charge of providing the journalist with this ad hoc
accreditation would immediately give it to me as if, you know, it was like a
great honor now to give this accreditation to Anne Nivat. But basically, I
didn't need it. I didn't want it. I had always said I would never travel
with those interestlike groups of journalists, which means basically that the
Russian authorities would just organize for Moscow accredited foreign
journalists to travel with them under their control to Chechnya in order to
cover the war, which is basically what most of the journalists did. I didn't,
until those three days in August, when I did it just to please them and just
to prove them that it was not interesting to travel this way.

GROSS: What did the Russians show you when you went with your press
credentials on the little Russian press tour?

Ms. NIVAT: They just show you that they are running an anti-terrorist
operation, that everything is under control and that that's fine. There is
nothing special going on in Chechnya. That's what they wanted me to write
about. And...

GROSS: And did you write that?

Ms. NIVAT: No. No. No, of course not, because that would have contradict
all my other stories. No. What I wrote is, you know, I described the way
they showed journalists around.

GROSS: Right. You were writing for a French audience.

Ms. NIVAT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were filing for French newspapers. What stories had the most
impact and what was the impact?

Ms. NIVAT: I think the impact which actually I did not realize being there,
because I was a free-lancer when I was filing those stories. I was not
writing only for this French daily, Liberation. I was really a free-lancer.
I was by myself, completely by myself. I had not been sent by any reduction.
And I must say, I think if I would have been sent by my editors to Chechnya, I
would have never been able to do what I did, because I took too many risks.
But I'm glad I took them because the result is some sort of a (French spoken)
in this coverage of the war, and I think that was the impact. The impact in
France, which I've been told about afterwards, was that people would wait for
my articles to come out every day. They would, like, talk about them between
themselves and they would expect a new article about this war. That was
during the peak of the war, which is the winter '99, 2000. The peak being the
turning point of the war this very day when the rebels left Grozny, the
capital, by walking through this minefield and I witnessed it.

GROSS: Now that I've read that your stories in French newspapers led to
French demonstrations at the Russian Embassy, demonstrations against the war.
Is that right and did you know about it while you were in Chechnya?

Ms. NIVAT: No, of course, I didn't know. While in Chechnya, I knew
absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing. When I was dictating my article
written by hand on the satellite phone, I would not, you know, waste some time
in asking, you know, what was going on in Paris, because I was so anxious
about the battery of my satellite phone.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Ms. NIVAT: So I was obsessed by that. So I didn't know about that. And I
was functioning like a camera. You know, there was no camera TV crew covering
this war, unfortunately, except Russian crews, but they were siding with the
Russian army. So I was functioning like a camera myself just describing with
words what I was seeing, and that was, I think, very powerful for the readers,
and that's why they would demonstrate one or two times in Paris, and also
that's why Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, did not come to France
during this time. He refused an invitation from Paris.

GROSS: I have one last question for you. How have you dealt with the stress
of being in Chechnya where there's very little food, where there's constant

Ms. NIVAT: Difficult, yes. But there is little food, but what I was eating
was basically Snickers, chocolate bars that I could find anywhere in Chechnya.
Don't ask my why. But I would like eat eight or nine of them during a day and
drink a lot of hot tea. Of course, I was scared. I was scared the way I had
never been scared in my life, but it was too late, you know? Once you are
there, that's too late to go back. So I was there under the shelling and I
was thinking about death, of course. But at the same time, I was hoping to
survive and I did. But unfortunately, I saw many people around me dying,
civilians, and that was very difficult to witness.

GROSS: Anne Nivat, thank you so much for talking with us, and I wish you the
best of luck in your continued coverage.

Ms. NIVAT: Thank you.

GROSS: Anne Nivat has written a new memoir about covering the war in
Chechnya. It's called "Chienne de Guerre."

Coming up, Avant Garde Made Easy, a new series that we begin with the music of
Sun Ra. This is FRESH AIR.

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Profile: Pianist, composer and band leader Sun Ra

So-called avant-garde jazz is often regarded as difficult to understand and a
rejection of the jazz tradition. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's
usually deeply rooted in established practices, and not so hard to appreciate
once you know where it's coming from. We invited Kevin to tell us about half
a dozen modern jazz mavericks he thinks are important, and to point out things
to listen for.

We begin our series with pianist, composer and band leader Sun Ra. He was
born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. Although later in life,
he claimed to have come here via the planet Saturn. In the 1950s, he put
together his orchestra, which later became famous for its carnivallike stage
shows with musicians in colorful costumes, playing quasi-African percussion,
dancing in a conga line, chanting pro-space, anti-Earth slogans. Sun Ra
recorded well over 100 albums in a bewildering array of styles.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Travel the spacemen from planet to planet.


Because the guy's name was Sun Ra and his orchestra wore tinfoil hats and
chanted about space travel and almost every sentence he uttered was an enigma
wrapped in a pun, it was hard for some folks to really listen to his music,
including some who went to his gigs because of the wacky stuff, but there was
always a keen musical intelligence behind it. Sometimes, trying to make sense
of a puzzling artist's work, it helps to go back to their sources. Listen to
the intro to a 1949 tune by that great be-bop composer Tadd Dameron.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: Like Tadd Dameron, Sun Ra had a weakness for almost disembodied
horn chords made up of oddly spaced notes with a heavy bottom end. Such
writing made medium-sized groups like theirs sound bigger. You can really
hear the Dameron connection in my favorite Sun Ra period, the mid-50s to early
'60s. This is from his version of David Raskin's "The Bad and the Beautiful."

(Soundbite of "The Bad and the Beautiful")

WHITEHEAD: The New England Conservatory's Alan Chase has documented how Sun
Ra wrote melodies and chord voicings to exploit the resonant overtones of
various-sized saxophones. He could get a sound like nobody else as on "El is
the Sound of Joy" from 1956 using a saxophone trio.

(Soundbite of "El is the Sound of Joy")

WHITEHEAD: You can't really separate Sun Ra's music from his cosmic
mythosophy(ph). Those eerily disembodied voicings reflect his desire to be on
some better planet than this one. He wrote or covered a number of tunes about
dreaming--"I Dream Too Much," "Daydream," "Dreams Come True"--as if he sought
to escape life on Earth or dismissed it as an illusion.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: Sun Ra's music acquired a greater urgency in the mid-1960s. Free
jazz was in the air, but the prospect of humans visiting other celestial
bodies may have quickened his blood, too. He used to warn earthlings to stay
off his moon.

Ra also got into the futuristic qualities of electronic keyboards, often
placing them in an otherworldly context. The music had changed, but he still
had a great sense of atmosphere.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: Despite the echoes of free jazz, Sun Ra was a strict
disciplinarian who believed in rehearsing a lot, sweating out the details of
his sometimes intricate rhythms. Even so, as his reputation grew, more
musicians gravitated to him and his group eventually swelled to big-band size.
None of his disciples was more widely respected or stayed longer than tenor
saxophonist John Gilmore. His fans included John Coltrane. Gilmore stuck
around for four decades with time-outs to play with Miles Davis, Freddie
Hubbard, Art Blakey or Paul Bley. But for Gilmore, Sun Ra had more on the
ball than any of them.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

WHITEHEAD: From the mid-1970s till Sun Ra died in '93, his big band would
offset the hard-core space numbers and conducted improvisations with revivals
of charts by swing band leaders, like his early idol, Fletcher Henderson.
It's hard to imagine any modern jazz fan who can't find something to like in
Sun Ra's music. Few jazz composers had a greater scope and no quick survey
can touch on all of it. It was as if one planet couldn't contain everything
he could dream of.

(Soundbite of instrumental)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz critic based in Chicago. He series Avant
Garde Made Easy continues next week with the music of Lester Bowie.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of instrumental)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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