Music Notes – April 2014

17 Apr

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Remembering Pete Seeger – Part 2

 

In 1955, when Pete Seeger took his stand against McCarthyism, refusing to “name names”, and pleading the First Amendment at congressional hearings, he was blacklisted from American concert halls and broadcast media. If he wanted to carry on as a professional musician, the member of the best-selling, but now blacklisted band, The Weavers, would have to find other ways to reach his audience. Ironically, his very persecutors were the ones who set him on the path to becoming the torchbearer of the popular front legacy to a younger generation seeking to move beyond Cold War repression and cultural conformism.

 

Pete had always been dedicated to a grassroots concept of culture, and so to the grassroots he returned, setting out on a series of treks across North America. He performed at summer camps, union halls (that were still open to him) and college campuses, where he found students and younger faculty receptive to his message. Backing him was a small but stalwart network of progressive folk music institutions, like Sing Out! magazine (which he had co-founded in 1950), and Folkways Records, founded in 1948 by friend and supporter Moses Asch.

 

During these years Seeger recorded many albums of American folk music and songs of struggle – sometimes as many as five per year. The heavy vinyl records in thick cardboard sleeves were produced in small quantities, but they became treasured items as interest in folk music picked up in the late fifties. Pete added teaching to his repertoire, and soon his instruction book “How to Play the 5-String Banjo” could be found wherever young folk musicians and aficionados gathered.

 

The blacklisting of progressive entertainers by the House Committee on Un-American Activities began in 1947, and it was to last well into the sixties. It was still going strong when Pete was subpoenaed, but in retrospect, the beginning of the turnaround might have been in December 1955, when The Weavers came out of their enforced retirement for a triumphal sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Their album “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall”, and subsequent recordings, exerted a powerful influence on the folk music explosion of the sixties. While the band was to carry on until 1964, Pete left the group in 1958 because of a disagreement – the others had decided to record a cigarette commercial!

 

As a solo artist, Seeger recorded frequently, toured, wrote a regular column for Sing Out!, helped out a new folk magazine called Broadside (which featured the work of young songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs), and composed memorable songs including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”. He played a key role in adapting and popularizing “We Shall Overcome”, the African-American spiritual that was embraced as the anthem of the civil rights movement. He also adapted a Cuban song called “Guantanamera”, based on a poem by José Martí, and sang it in solidarity with the Cuban revolution during the missile crisis of October 1962. Pete’s version was in turn adapted by The Sandpipers and it became a hit.

 

In 1959 Pete and Toshi helped to found the Newport Folk Festival. The New England festival soon became a national showcase for roots-oriented music, featuring young artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, African-American artists like Odetta, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi John Hurt, and activist musicians like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers. While Pete may be remembered by some veterans of the sixties as the older guy who pulled the plug on Bob Dylan when the singer went electric at Newport in 1965, in the end most of this cohort came to respect and even love him. It is testimony to his ultimate openness to musical styles and forms, that Seeger would later attract the company of progressive (and loud) rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.

 

As the political climate in the USA evolved in the sixties, more opportunities for challenging the blacklist presented themselves. In 1965-66 Seeger hosted “Rainbow Quest”, a local New York City TV show that featured him talking and jamming with guests like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Malvina Reynolds. In 1968 he made a national TV breakthrough when he appeared on the popular CBS show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and sang his powerful anti-war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”.

 

After the sixties, the main cause in Pete Seeger’s life undoubtedly became the environment. Influenced by Rachel Carson’s important 1962 book Silent Spring, he and Toshi decided to undertake a daunting task – cleaning up the PCB-polluted Hudson River (which ran by their home in upstate New York). In 1966 the two co-founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and its related musical offshoot The Great Hudson River Revival (a.k.a. The Clearwater Festival). In 1969 the foundation’s dream, The Clearwater, a replica of a 19th century sloop, began to sail up and down the river. Pete, Toshi, and other activists combined popular education with music, and invited community participation in cleanup campaigns. Their campaign played a key role in the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the eventual clampdown by the EPA on Hudson River polluters.

 

Despite his turn to the environment, Pete never strayed far from working class struggles, the women’s movement, the rights of migrant workers, and the fight against racism. He also continue to speak out against war and imperialism. Pete braved public condemnation by travelling to North Vietnam in 1972, while the American war on that country still raged. Shortly after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the Popular Unity government in Chile, he joined Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs at a New York benefit concert for Chilean refugees. In 1983 he attended the Nueva Cançion song festival in Nicaragua while the Reagan Administration was fomenting terrorist attacks against the country’s Sandinista revolution. The list could go on and on.

 

In his last years, as the tributes poured in, Pete Seeger was recognized by sectors of the American establishment. In January 2009 he was invited to sing with Bruce Springsteen at President Obama’s inauguration. At Pete’s suggestion they chose to sing Woody Guthrie’s anthem “This Land is Your Land”. They made sure to sing the two verses that are usually left out of the song – the ones that take a dig at private property and speak of lines of hard-hit people standing outside relief offices. In October 2011 Pete could be seen, hands gripping his walker, at the head of a procession that marched from his just-completed Symphony Hall concert, down thirty Manhattan blocks to Occupy New York’s Coumbus Circle encampment. There, accompanied by grandson Tao, and Arlo Guthrie, he led a new generation in a singalong of “We Shall Overcome”.

 

After his death on January 27th, much of the mainstream media was lavish in its praise of Pete Seeger. President Obama called him “America’s tuning fork” and hailed him for defending worker’s rights, civil rights, world peace and the environment. Although the obituaries often mentioned his early membership in the CPUSA, what was missing was any examination of the underlying philosophy that formed the basis of his remarkably consistent world-view. However, a few left-wing publications suggested that it might have something to do with his essential communism. Seeger himself, in several latter-day interviews declared that he was still a communist (as in “small-c” communist). A tribute on the CPUSA’s website declared that Pete Seeger “never wavered from his communist beliefs even after leaving the Communist Party, and in fact remained a friend of the party and reader and supporter of People’s World until his death” (“Pete Seeger and American Communism”, People’s World, Feb. 13, 2014). Similarly, in a January 29th tribute, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara wrote: “It’s not that Pete Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a communist.” Now that’s something to talk about.

 

For a good documentary on Seeger’s life check out Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (PBS, 2007)

 

Music Notes – March 2014

1 Mar

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Remembering Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, who died on January 27th, was a key figure in the development of folk music as a progressive force within popular culture. For a later generation, Pete personified the popular front – that broad alliance of progressive forces that led the fight against fascism and racism, and fought successfully for labour rights in the period from the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. Around the world this past month, people have been remembering a man who survived the persecution of the McCarthy era to see his band, the blacklisted Weavers, return to Carnegie Hall, who planted the seeds that led to the folk revival of the sixties, and who became an inspiring figure in the environmental movement. Pete Seeger’s achievements were the result of hard work, personal courage, an optimistic spirit, a strong understanding of history, and solid socialist principles.

It is easy to imagine that folk music was always the music of the left, but when Seeger was a teenager it was considered by many activists to be a cultural backwater. Before he was won over to his son’s enthusiasm, Pete’s father, composer and ethno-musicologist Charles Seeger, was suspicious of folk music. His view was shared by many left-wing composers of the time, including the young Aaron Copeland and the German communist Hanns Eisler. In his column for the CPUSA’s Daily Worker (circa 1934-35) Charles argued for a proletarian music that combined contemporary popular music (jazz) with elements of twentieth-century European avant-garde music. While the debate continues today (read hip-hop instead of jazz), folk music prevailed for more than a generation, and folk-inspired artists continue to play a significant role in today’s progressive movements.

Pete’s career trajectory was set when he got a job in Washington in 1939 assisting folklorist Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress. It was there that he met Woody Guthrie, the Oklahoma troubadour who was to become his mentor. Inspired by Guthrie and Lomax, his circle grew to include Woody’s sidekick Cisco Houston, African-American musicians like Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and Leadbelly, and labour singers Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham and Lee Hayes. The Almanac Singers, a short-lived but influential group which he co-founded, became the soundtrack of a heroic era of industrial union organizing.

In 1943 Pete married Toshi Ohta (1922-2013), a Japanese-American women he’d met a few years before at a square dance. She came from a left-wing background (her grandfather had translated Marx’s writings into Japanese). Toshi effectively ran the Seeger family’s rustic household near Beacon, NY, raised their three children while Pete was often away on tour, managed his business affairs, endured the dark days of McCarthyism, and became a respected community activist. Later Toshi co-founded the Newport Folk Festival and co-produced films and TV shows about Pete. Toshi Seeger became a renowned figure in her own right, her character and her important contributions acknowledged by the folk-music world and beyond.

Like many communists and socialists, Pete served in the armed forces during the 1939-45 war against fascism. When he came home from his tour of duty in the South Pacific he plunged back into life as musical activist, co-founding People’s Songs with Lee Hayes and Alan Lomax, and later the booking agency People’s Artists. With the onset of the Cold War though, life for artists like Seeger became dangerous, as an ugly 1949 riot in Peekskill, NY demonstrated. Pete and Toshi had helped to organize a concert there, featuring the great African-American singer Paul Robeson. After the show, concert-goers and performers were violently assaulted by anti-communist and racist crowds while the police looked on.

While things were to get even worse, somehow the times were also right for Pete, Lee Hayes, and two other musicians (Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman) to achieve commercial success with the unabashedly progressive group the Weavers. For several years they enjoyed a series of hit records, (most notably Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”), but their chart success was soon cut short by McCarthyisn and the red scare.

In 1950, a group of screenwriters and directors, who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten, were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to testify about their links to the Communist Party. When they refused to name names, citing in their defence the First Amendment to the US Constitution (free speech), they were convicted of contempt of congress and sent to prison. Over the next five years the practice of HUAC’s victims was to plead the Fifth Amendment (protecting against self-incrimination). Pete Seeger pleaded the First Amendment. For that he was convicted of contempt of congress. He launched an appeal, was released on bail, and finally won his case in 1962. Pete’s inspiring testimony can be found at www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm).

It’s been said that this ordeal set Pete Seeger on the path to becoming the torch-bearer of people’s music. I’ll pick up on this story next month.

Cartoon by Mike Constable (Union Art Service)

Music Notes – February 2014

2 Feb

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Saxophonist enters T.O. mayoralty race

Jazz musician Richard Underhill entered Toronto’s mayoralty race last month, stepping out with the emphatic issues-oriented slogan “may the best PLAN win.” He’s rightly sidestepped the divisive and misleading personality politics surrounding controversial neo-con Mayor (and candidate) Rob Ford. Underhill is a Juno Award-winning saxophonist and co-founder of the Shuffle Demons, a popular jazz combo that combines funk. rap and avant-garde jazz with extravagant costumes. He brings a thoughtful and even innovative platform into the campaign, a partial list of which includes: ‘Yes’ to the Scarborough LRT; ‘No’ to island airport expansion; more affordable housing; expanded TTC service; increased arts funding; more nutritional and recreational programs for kids and seniors; solar farms above TTC parking lots; immediate implementation of proportional representation. While he’s a fringe candidate with little chance of winning, Richard Underhill could have a positive effect on the outcome of the October 27th vote. At the very least he’ll help mobilize the arts community. He’s promised to withdraw at some stage to support a “more viable progressive candidate.” For more info visit: www.underhillformayor.com.

Where is Pussy Riot going?

In February 2012, five members of feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot staged their anti-Putin “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and became instant global celebrities. The subsequent ‘hooliganism’ trial of members of the group exposed deep cultural fault lines in Russian society. The defendants attracted international support from prominent musicians, politicians, and human rights groups. The Pussy Riot story resumed  in December, when band members Maria Alyekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were released as part of a general amnesty. At a press conference, the two announced that they’d be abandoning performances and concentrating instead on founding “Rights Zone,” a human rights organization. It’s hard not to sympathize with these young women. They’ve exposed the cosy relationship between the governing United Russia Party and the Orthodox Church. Their “Punk Prayer”, if nothing else, dramatised the reactionary nature of this alliance. But another statement gives cause for concern. The two also declared their support for, and “close ideological and conceptual cooperation” with, the  recently-released oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The tycoon (and reputed presidential candidate) is the most prominent representative of a generation of corrupt Soviet-era bureaucrats who made vast fortunes, thanks to the wholesale privatization policies of the Yeltsin era. Are Alyekhina and Tolokonnikova naive or what?

Pete Seeger to receive Guthrie Prize

Legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) has proven a hard act for American elites to co-opt. Despite all the mainstream acclaim that came his way on the centenary of his birth, his progressive legacy endures. On February 22nd Pete Seeger, who died on January 27th at the age of 94, will be posthumously awarded the inaugural Woody Guthrie Prize at a ceremony in New York City. The annual award will honour an artist who “best exemplifies the spirit and life work of Woody Guthrie.” In an announcement (prior to Pete’s death), Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie described the award. “We hope that the Woody Guthrie Prize will shed an inspirational light on those who have decided to use their talents for the common good rather than for personal gain,” she said, adding, tongue-in-cheek, that her father loved to refer to himself and a “common-ist.” That Pete Seeger should be the first recipient of the Woody Guthrie Prize is a no-brainer. Woody’s old sidekick and friend inspired millions of people around the world, both with his music, and with his activism on behalf of world peace and countless social and environmental causes. The award ceremony was to include an interview with Pete, and a performance by him with Woody’s son Arlo. Next month’s Music Notes will include a report on the event.  For more info visit: www.woodyguthriecenter.org.

Amiri Baraka 1934-2014

American poet, playwright, cultural critic and  political activist Amiri Baraka died in Newark, NJ on January 8th. Typically, the New York Times headline announcing his death referred to him as a “polarizing” figure. Even before he founded the influential Black Arts Movement in 1965, Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) exerted a powerful influence on American culture. He played a leading role in the beat poetry movement in the 1950′s. In the 1960′s, he received acclaim for his play The Dutchman, and for his book Blues People, a groundbreaking study of African-American music. By the mid-seventies, influenced by his wife Amina, Baraka moved from cultural nationalism towards Marxism. He called himself a scientific socialist for the rest of his life. His influence on the younger generation can be heard on “Something of the Way Things Are (In Town)”, his 2002 collaboration with hip-hop band The Roots. The January 10th episode of Democracy Now (www.democracynow.org) was dedicated to Amiri Baraka, It features archival film clips (including one of the poet performing with jazz saxophonist David Murray), and insightful interviews with Puerto Rican and African-American activists he’d mentored, as well as with his Black Arts Movement collaborator, poet Sonia Sanchez. For more info visit: http://peoplesworld.org.

 

 

Music Notes – January 2014

18 Jan

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Young and Krall rally for ACFN

Many Canadian musicians have already helped to forge the growing alliance between First Nations and environmentalists. Now, two of the most renowned Canadian artists – rock legend Neil Young and jazz diva Diana Krall – are rallying to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Legal Defence Fund. “Honour the Treaties” is the slogan  adopted for the four concerts: in Toronto (January 12), Winnipeg (January 16), Regina (January 17), and Calgary (January 19). The ACFN territory is about a hundred miles north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The nation is party to Treaty 8, signed in 1899 with the Crown. The accord covers 840,000 square kilometres in Canada’s northwest. The AFCN’s 2007 court challenge against an oil sands lease given to Shell Canada was struck down in 2011, but it’s being appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Tickets for the Young-Krall shows are pricey, but sell-outs are expected. For more info visit the AFCN’s Facebook page.

Esperanza Spalding’s Gitmo video

Jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding has emerged as a social justice activist with the November 18th release of We Are America, a music video that calls for freedom for scores of illegally-detained prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Last spring, while on tour with her band, Spalding read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. At the same time, she heard about the hunger strikes at Guantanamo and the force-feeding of uncharged detainees who had been cleared for release. Determined to act in a meaningful way, Spalding produced a punchy and articulate music video that calls on viewers to take action. The prodigiously talented young artist has already won three Grammy awards, including (in 2011) Best New Artist. Esperanza Spalding is the first jazz artist to win in this category, beating out mega-selling teen heartthrob Justin Bieber. To learn more visit her Facebook page.

András Schiff on Hungarian fascism

Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff told BBC Newsworld in December that he would no longer visit his homeland because of the growth of fascism in that country. The occasion was a gala 60th birthday concert in London where the pianist undertook the daunting task of performing both J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Despite the success of the concert, it was the revelation that he’s received threats from anonymous callers to cut off his hands if he returns to Hungary that attracted the biggest headlines. Even without the personal threat, says the pianist, he would not visit Hungary because “art and politics cannot be disentangled.” Schiff is a well-known critic of the right-wing government of Victor Orban, and of the anti-Semitic and anti-Roma fascist party Jobbik. He cites the erection in Budapest of a monument to the Nazi-collaborating strongman Admiral Horthy as a profoundly disturbing development. For more info visit www. ww.andrasschiff.com.

Palestinian “idol” tours North America

Mohammed Assaf, the 24-year-old singing “idol” from the Gaza Strip, gave concerts in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal last month as part of a North American tour. Last June Assaf won the second “Arab Idol” singing contest, broadcast from Cairo by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC). His victory, achieved after overcoming great difficulties just to get to Cairo and into the contest, set off massive celebrations in the occupied territories. Assaf’s mastery of Arabic vocal techniques is widely acknowledged, and his repertoire, in addition to traditional love songs, includes patriotic songs of the Palestinian struggle. Assaf is a descendent of Palestinians dispossessed by the 1948 Nakba. He condemns the Israeli occupation, supports the right of return, and frequently performs wearing the keffiyeh scarf associated with the liberation struggle. Let’s hope that Mohammed Assaf will continue to give expression to the longings of the Palestinian people. For more info visit his Facebook page.

Four great Mandela-inspired songs

In his 1995 autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom Nelson Mandela wrote: “It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.” Indeed, but he also knew that music and dance furthered the cause of the liberation struggle. Here are four great Mandela-related songs from the anti-apartheid era that can be easily found on YouTube. 1) Sun City (1984). American rocker Little Steven assembled a host of musical celebrities, called them Artists Against Apartheid, and produced this exciting cultural boycott song. 2) Free Nelson Mandela (1984). Special A.K.A. (an offshoot of The Specials) recorded this world-wide Top Ten dance hit. 3) Bring Him Home (1987). Exiled trumpet star Hugh Masekela kept the flame burning in the dance clubs with this song that was soon featured in the anti-apartheid Broadway musical Sarafina!. 4) Asimbonanga (Mandela) (1987). Singer Johnny Clegg was a pioneer of outspoken racially-integrated music in South Africa. This anthem from his album Third World Child called out for Mandela’s release. Enjoy!

Music Notes – December 2013

30 Nov

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UFCW releases ’100 Years of Solidarity’

A new generation of labour activist musicians can be heard in a free download album from UFCW Canada. The United Food and Commercial Workers is Canada’s largest private sector union, with more than 250,000 members, 40% of whom are under the age of 30. It is this generation that is reflected in the union’s new compilation album”100 Years of Solidarity”. It features progressive young hip-hop artists from a diversity of backgrounds, with an emphasis on rappers of Latin-American descent. Most of the tracks clearly reflect the social justice policies of the UFCW, including its policy of including temporary foreign workers as full members. A case in point is the brilliant “I’m Working on a Farm” by Spin El Poeta, an emcee who helped organize the 2005 World Youth Festival in Venezuela. Other stand-out performers for this listener are Ruben “Beny” Esguerra and Manuela Astudillo. Esguerra (“Solidarity Forever Remix”) is a poet, band leader and arts educator of Colombian descent. Astudillo (“My Accent”) is a broadcaster with “Voces Latinas” on Toronto’s unique community radio station AM 1610. Download this essential (and free) album at www.ufcw.ca.

‘No Woman, No Drive’

On October 26th Saudi women activists attracted the attention of the world’s media as they defied their country’s ban against females driving and posted videos of themselves online behind the wheel. On the same day, in a well-timed act of culture jamming, comedian Hisham Fageeh released “No Woman, No Drive”, a video parody of reggae legend Bob Marley’s classic song “No Woman, No Cry”.  By mid-November Fageeh’s video had gone viral with more than ten million YouTube hits. The Saudi-born actor, stand-up comedian and human rights activist attended Columbia University and is now based in New York City. Fageeh achieved a breakthrough of his own in becoming the first Saudi to headline an Arabic stand-up comedy tour in the U.S. and England. Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving, but the campaign to change the law is picking up steam.

Tunisian rappers unionize

Rappers and DJs are among the most outspoken social critics in contemporary Tunisia, and, as Islamist influence grows in that country, they’re coming under increasing attack. In response they’ve founded the National Rap Union and affiliated with the General Confederation of Tunisian Workers, the country’s trade union central. According to Italian news agency Ansa, the National Rap Union will focus on defending its members’ right to criticise the authorities. In September rapper Klay BBJ was jailed for “insulting the police” at a concert (his co-performer that night is still in hiding). Klay BBJ had earlier been imprisoned for performing his song “The Police are Dogs”. Rappers Mustapha Fakhfakh and Ayem El-Fikih have been charged respectively with “affronting morals” and “insulting public officials”. For a look at the struggle of artists in today’s Tunisia visit journalist Monica Mark’s column at www.theguardian.com.

Symphony musicians protest austerity

European symphony orchestra musicians are mobilizing against austerity policies that threaten their livelihood and lay waste to the continent’s musical heritage. In Spain on September 23rd, more than 1000 musicians in 23 orchestras united to protest against arts budget cuts and a sharp rise in sales tax on concert tickets. A nation-wide concert was staged with musicians simultaneously playing the same program.  A week later in Germany musicians from 100 symphony orchestras took to the streets to protest a sustained drop in public funding that has led to the closing of 37 symphony orchestras over the past 20 years. The German event began with an open-air concert by the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic and was followed by dozens of concerts throughout the country. Attacks against symphony orchestras and their unions are escalating throughout Europe and North America. The International Federation of Musicians (FIM) will be meeting in Oslo in February to map out the next stage of its fightback strategy. For more info visit http://www.fim-musicians.org/.

Los Van Van honoured at WOMEX Awards

One of the most influential post-revolutionary Cuban bands was honoured at the International World Music Expo (WOMEX), held in Cardiff, Wales in October. Perennially popular dance band Los Van Van is the recipient of the 2013 WOMEX Artist Award. The prize was founded in 1999 to honour “musical excellence, social importance, commercial success, political impact and lifetime achievement.” Previous winners include South African vocal group The Mahotella Queens and the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Los Van Van was founded in 1969 by bassist-composer Juan Formell. Together with timbales player Changuito he created a new rhythm called “songo” which gave birth to a new genre of dance music. Los Van Van updated Afro-Cuban popular music by fusing it with contemporary rock and jazz. After more than 40 years Los Van Van is arguably still the most popular band in Cuba. Catch their WOMEX performance at www.womex.com/.

Music Notes – November 2013

30 Nov

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Harmer & Downie rock against Line 9

More than a thousand people turned out October 6th on a foggy afternoon in Toronto to hear activist singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer, the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, and the Sadies give a concert at Mel Lastman Square. ‘Rock the Line’ was initiated by Environmental Defence Canada and Harmer, who chose the north Toronto venue because of its proximity to the path of Line 9. The Enbridge corporation seeks to reverse the existing flow of oil along Line 9 between Sarnia and Montreal so it can pump tar sands oil through southern Ontario to world markets. The risk of toxic spills to humans and the environment is well-documented. Within 50 km of the pipeline there are 9.1 million people, including 99 towns and cities and 18 First Nations. The ‘Rock the Line’ concert was just part of what will be an epic struggle to Stop Line 9. To get involved visit http://environmentaldefence.ca.

Springsteen’s homage to Latin America

Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to several revered Latin American musicians on his recent tour of the continent. On September 12th in Santiago he delivered a eulogy in Spanish for Victor Jara and performed a haunting rendition of the Chilean singer’s Manifesto. It was a fitting contribution to the observances of the 40th anniversary of the notorious military coup that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende. Later in Buenos Aires, at the end of a marathon concert, Springsteen spoke of a 1978 protest song by Argentinean composer Leon Gieco. He’d learned Solo le pido a Dios/I Only Ask of God  from the late singer Mercedes Sosa, and he’d intended to perform the anthem as an encore, but he was too tired to do it justice. Next day Springsteen delivered on a promise and posted an acoustic bilingual performance of the song on his website. Check it out at http://brucespringsteen.net/. For his Chilean performance visit http://peoplesworld.org/.

GSY!BE wins 2013 Polaris Prize

Montreal rock band God Speed You! Black Emperor (widely known as GSY!BE) was awarded the prestigious Polaris Prize at a gala in Toronto on September 24th. The prize was established in 2006 to honour the “best” Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales or record label. Sponsors include Toyota, Sirius XM Radio, the Government of Canada and several Canadian musical organizations. GSY!BE was not present at the gala but in a statement they questioned the inclusion of Toyota as a sponsor at a time when environmental catastrophe is fast approaching. They promised to spend the $30,000 prize money on musical instruments for inmates in Quebec prisons. GSY!BE is noted for its progressive stance on social and political issues. They’ve played a nurturing role in the Montreal indie music scene. In 2000 they founded the Casa del Popolo club, where many local bands, including Arcade Fire, got their start. For more info visit www.brainwashed.com/godspeed.

Emma’s Revolution: working for peace

Emma’s Revolution is respected in the folk music world for its close harmonies and its commitment to social justice. In the aftermath of 9/11 the duo (Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow) composed “Peace, Salaam, Shalom,” a song that invokes the longing for peace between all peoples and nations. The chant has since become a staple in the repertoire of progressive community choirs. Of late Emma’s Revolution has been reaching beyond its base in the left-leaning folk world to work with faith-based groups that are committed to working for peace and justice. Notably, they’ve collaborated with the Missouri-based Community of Christ. The church (which claims 250,000 members) is including “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” in its hymnal and has just released “Peace Through All People,” a video of the song performed by Emma’s Revolution with church members and musicians from around the world. On October 19th the duo performed in Independence, Missouri at a “Peace Colloquy” where the new hymnal was launched. For more info: www.emmasrevolution.com/.

Scottish ‘girl band’ protests tar sands

A timely reminder that the whole world is watching the tar sands was broadcast during a break in a September episode of the U.S. news show “Democracy Now!” Between news segments a video was shown of a youthful ‘girl band’ dressed as ‘oily’ bankers performing some brilliant street theatre in Edinburgh outside the Royal Bank of Scotland’s greenwashing (and taxpayer-sponsored) “Low Carbon Conference.” The five young women, all activists with Friends of the Earth Scotland, altered the lyrics of U.K. singer Jesse J’s 2011 hit single “Price Tag” to tell the story of RBS’s destructive oil and gas investments – including mining tar sands in Canada. Friends of the Earth Scotland calls the tar sands “the most destructive industrial project on earth.” The street theatre took place on September 24, 2011, but “Wanna Pump the Tar Sands” by the Girl Band of Environmental Activists remains relevant and uplifting. Check it out on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

Music Notes – October 2013

1 Oct

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Victor Jara family sues alleged killer

Last month, on the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende, Joan Jara, widow of folk singer Victor Jara, launched a civil suit in the U.S. against a former Chilean army officer who she claims tortured and murdered her husband. The lawsuit, which will be heard in a federal courtroom in Jacksonville, Florida, accuses former army lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Nunez of ordering soldiers to torture Jara, and then personally executing him will a bullet to the back of the head. Barrientos is one of a group of officers who face criminal charges in Chile for the singer’s murder. He left Chile in 1989 and now lives as a U.S. citizen in Deltona, Florida. Barrientos is charged with torture, extrajudicial killing, and crimes against humanity. For more information see U.S. journalist Amy Goodman’s interview with Joan Jara on the September 9th episode of the daily online news show Democracy Now! (www.democracy.org).  

Portuguese soprano protests austerity

Opera singer Ana Maria Pinto has become a prominent figure in Portugal’s anti-austerity movement, lending her soaring voice to numerous protests. It began last year, when the singer was visiting Lisbon. She’d decided to attend President Anibal Cavaco Silva’s Republic Day address to the nation. At the 18th-century courtyard where the ceremony was held, Pinto found herself among a crowd of locked-out protesters. The President had broken with protocol, allowing only invited dignitaries inside the courtyard. However, towards the end of his speech the gates were opened and the protesters (Pinto included) rushed in. As the singer describes it, she immediately filled her lungs and burst into song, drowning out the President and confusing dignitaries who thought that an opera singer must be a part of the ceremony. Since her political debut, Pinto has become a regular at anti-austerity protests, singing solo and leading sing-along’s of songs of struggle, including two classic anti-fascist songs by the Portuguese communist composer Fernando Lopes-Graça: “Acordai (Wake Up)” and “Firmeza (Firm)”. For more info: www.npr.org.

Yellow Ribbons for the Cuban 5

Several prominent Cuban musicians, including singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, have recorded a music video of the 1973 Tony Orlando hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree”. It’s part of a world-wide solidarity campaign to mobilize support for the release of Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González, the remaining imprisoned members of the Cuban Five. September 12th was the 15th anniversary of their arrest in Florida on trumped-up espionage charges. The fifth member,   René González, who was released earlier this year, launched the yellow ribbon campaign in Havana on September 3rd with a televised appeal to the nation. González urged Cubans to fill the country with yellow ribbons, describing the action as “a message from the Cuban people to the American people, via a symbol which, in the U.S. environment, is a symbol of love”. The campaign continues until October 6th. To watch the video (sung in English with Spanish sub-titles) visit http://www.thecuban5.org.

Rovics returns to Toronto and Ottawa

The outstanding progressive singer-songwriter David Rovics returns to Ontario this month for two concerts. On October 11th he’ll be in Toronto for a show at the United Jewish People’s Order’s Winchevsky Centre. Next day he’ll be in Ottawa, headlining  a benefit for the Marvin Glass Memorial Solidarity Fund at the Melkite Catholic Church. The globetrotting activist has most recently been in Hawaii, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. His keen observations on local culture and politics can be found in his “Songwriter’s Notebook” blog. Check out his August 25th entry “Travels in the Occupied North Pacific” at http://www.songwritersnotebook.blogspot.ca/. As with most of his recordings, David Rovics’ two new albums, Into a Prism and Everything Can Change can be downloaded from his website on a pay-what-you-can basis (http://davidrovics.com). For concert details see the “What’s Left” listings in this paper.

Sweet Honey celebrates 40 years 

Sweet Honey in the Rock, the internationally-acclaimed African-American women’s acapella group, is celebrating 40 years of music making. The group was founded in 1973 by noted civil rights activist and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon (who retired in 2004). While experiencing various personnel changes over the years, Sweet Honey in the Rock has maintained its high artistic standards and its commitment to women’s rights, racial equality, peace and social justice. Despite its many awards it has remained an “indy” group, so it’s no surprise that it has launched a crowd funding campaign to raise $35,000 to help offset production costs for the upcoming anniversary “Forty and Fierce” tour. A career retrospective double Cd is also in the works. After 40 years, Sweet Honey in the Rock remains artistically vital and relevant. Visit YouTube for a brilliant 2008 performance of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Ella’s Song” (a tribute to Africa-American activist Ella Baker). For more info: http://sweethoneyintherock.org/

 

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