Music Notes – July 2014

3 Jul


Historic solidarity concert in Toronto

Toronto’s Common Thread Community Chorus joined forces on May 31st with local Chilean musical ensemble Proyecto Altiplano for two performances of the Cantata Santa Maria de Iquique by the composer Luis Advis (1935-2004). The 1969 work, composed for the reknowned Chilean group Quilapayún, uses classical forms and indigenous folkloric traditions to tell the story of a nitrate miners’ strike in the northern Chilean province of Iquique in 1907. The dispute led to the massacre, by the Chilean army, of more than 2,000 workers. In preparing for the concerts the organizers worked closely with two Canadian mining justice organizations: Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and Mining Watch Canada. Approximately 75% of the global mining industry is based in Canada. It is therefore fitting that speakers from these groups were invited to address the audience. Congratulations to all of the participants for an inspiring use of culture to build awareness and solidarity with exploited communities throughout the world. For info on mining justice visit and

Musicians unite to save Alaska salmon

The campaign to protect Alaska’s salmon fisheries from the devastating effects of the proposed Pebble Mine has achieved real success in the past year. Notably, on February 28th, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will protect Bristol Bay, using its authority under the Clean Water Act. A significant role in achieving these positive results has been played by Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay (MUPBB), a resourceful solidarity group whose public face is the American folksinger and organizer, Si Kahn. This spring MUPBB released its annual report. It’s an inspiring catalogue of movement tactics, including: booking concerts and workshops by members at all Alaska folk festivals; organizing booths and workshops at national and regional folk festivals; soliciting and publishing songs on the struggle; recording and promoting Si Kahn’s best-selling Cd “Bristol Bay”; sponsoring a contestant in the 975-mile “Mushing for Bristol Bay” wilderness race; plus numerous TV and radio appearances and print media stories. More than 400 musicians have joined the campaign including two well-known artists from western Canada: Connie Kaldor and Maria Dunn. The fight to protect Bristol Bay is being won, but it’s not over. Unless it’s declared a federally protected area, the EPA decision can be undermined by a future federal administration. For more info visit

Anti-Flag on Justice for Cecily McMillan

Justin Sane, co-founder and lead singer of the popular punk rock band Anti-Flag, released a YouTube statement in defence of activist Cecily McMillan on May 19th. McMillan, 25, was arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park on March 17, 2012. She was accused of elbowing a police officer who, she claimed, had grabbled her breasts from behind while police were clearing the park of protesters. The farcical trial resulted in McMillan being sentenced to 90 days in prison and a five-year probation for giving the officer “a black eye.” She was also ordered to undergo mandatory mental health evaluation and treatment. Since the altercation McMillan, a socialist activist with a demonstrated commitment to non-violence, has lost not only her freedom, but school, work, friends, and family. Justin Sane, in his statement, noted that her case highlights the problem of police brutality and the injustice of a legal system that is set up “to protect the powers that be and trample on the rights of anyone that questions their authority.” It illustrates, he adds, “the way in which the police, and those who command them, use intimidation to create a chilling effect.” For more info on the Cecily McMillan case visit

Seeger’s FBI files to be released

The death of Pete Seeger on January 27th was followed by a flood of requests for his FBI files from journalists, researchers, and the the general public. Now, thanks to the sheer volume of Freedom of Information Act applications, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has announced that thousands of Seeger files will be released online. They’re thought to total 2500 pages. NARA spokesperson Miriam Kleinman said in a May 27th interview that the archive is waiting for a review to be completed, adding that it will publish the documents “as soon as possible.” As is usually the case with Freedom of Information requests, documents will be screened for information that is “exempt from disclosure” (i.e. redacted). NARA was initially going to release individual files on request, for a hefty and prohibitive “administration fee” of $2000. FBI and CIA files on Pete Seeger go back to the 1940s and never really stopped. Redacted or not, it should be interesting to find out what nefarious behaviour of Seeger’s the FBI snoops were monitoring. So far, my own search of the NARA website has not come up with any FBI documents on Pete Seeger. For the source of this story visit

Music Notes – June 2014

6 Jun

David Rovics

David Rovics planning fall Canada tour

Negotiations are underway to bring renowned singer-songwriter and activist David Rovics back to Ottawa next October for a fund-raising concert to send an Ernesto Che Guevara Work Brigade volunteer to Cuba. Now, in a recent announcement to supporters, Rovics has outlined a “crowd sourced plan” for a fall tour of the USA and Canada. He’s hoping to hear from at least 30 individuals or groups who live in the USA, or anywhere in Canada within 200 miles of the US border, and who are willing to commit to organizing a concert. By late June he’ll begin mapping out a continent-wide tour. Other artists use similar methods to organize tours, but what’s striking about Rovics is his enduring and seemingly tireless commitment to the life of a radical grassroots troubadour, and his ability to bring first-hand reports of local struggles from around the world to each community that he visits. For access to his music and information on how to organize a David Rovics show scroll down to the bottom of his website (www.

Folk Alliance abandoning principles?

Folk Alliance International (FAI), the umbrella group for the North American folk music community, has come under scathing criticism from two prominent members who accuse it of abandoning its principles. Music critic Dave Marsh, a life member and former director, lashed out in a special issue of his newsletter Rock Rap Confidential, taking aim at the group’s recent embrace of Al Gore, who was invited to give his presentation “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change” at the annual FAI conference in Kansas City in February. Marsh observes that Gore’s approach to solving the environmental crisis privileges venture capital firms like AOL, Amazon and Google, as well as companies he himself owns. “It’s just the liberal version of the conservative lie that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Marsh writes. “It never asks whether everybody has a boat, or whether the boats we do have will carry all the people now living, let alone coming generations”. Shortly after the conference, FAI co-founder and board member Art Menius resigned, lamenting the board’s endorsement of Gore’s “faux-progressive platform”. He criticized the board for drifting toward a business and entertainment model and forsaking its mandate to educate the public about the core values of the folk music movement and its identity as part of the left.

‘Seeger Fest’ to be held July 17-21

Since Pete Seeger’s death on January 27th, people across this continent have organized scores of song circles, concerts, and film screenings in his honour. Now, the Seeger family and friends have got in on the act with a series of commemorative events. “Seeger Fest” is a free five-day festival from July 17-21, celebrating Pete and his partner of 70 years, Toshi Ohta Seeger. It begins Thursday evening with a screening of the 2007 documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song at Pier 46 on the Hudson River. Next day, there’s a memorial gathering at Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, NY. On Saturday, there’s a square dance at the Ashokan Center (in the Catskills Mountains), a song circle/potluck in the couple’s hometown of Beacon, NY, and an exhibit of their film-work and photography at El Taller Latino Americano in Manhattan. On Sunday, there’s a concert in Damrosch Park (next to Lincoln Center) with Tom Chapin, Guy Davis, Holly Near, Peter Yarrow, & Emma’s Revolution. Finally, there’s “New Songs of Justice”, a concert in Central Park on Monday evening, featuring Amanda Palmer, Anti-Flag, Steve Earle and Rebel Diaz. It’s all free! Check the website for details (

Fred Ho 1957-2014

Saxophonist, composer, bandleader, writer and activist Fred Ho died on April 12 after a long battle with cancer. Of Chinese descent, Ho was born Fred Wei-han Houn in Palo Alto, California. He changed his name in 1988, after establishing himself as an outstanding baritone saxophonist and revolutionary cultural worker. Ho is often linked with the avant-garde jazz world and the Asian American jazz movement, but though his work resonated with those influences, he rejected the use of the term ‘jazz’, because he believed it was a pejorative term used by white Americans to denigrate African American music. Nevertheless, much of his work fused the legacies of traditional Asian and African music with what many people would call jazz. Ho’s music was vibrant, uncompromising, and uplifting. He recorded 15 acclaimed albums as a leader and wrote or co-edited several books on music including Legacy to Liberation (2000), in which he described his personal aesthetic vision, calling for an art based upon “imaginative critical realism”. Fred Ho wrote several books about his struggle with colorectal cancer, including Diary of a Radical Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level. Watch the trailer of the documentary “Fred Ho’s Last Year” at

Music Notes – May 2014

1 May


Breakthrough JUNO for A Tribe Called Red


Mainstream media coverage of the JUNO Awards usually dwells upon best-selling icons of pop culture like Drake, Arcade Fire, and Teagan and Sara. There’s plenty of celebrity gossip too. Will fans boo Justin Beiber? Will Robin Thicke show up? For this writer, however, it’s the less hyped recipients who really deserve the attention. These would include 2014 Contemporary Jazz Album winner Christine Jensen (Habitat), World Music Album winner David Buchbinder (Walk to the Sea), and (most notably), Ottawa-based electronic DJ crew A Tribe Called Red. The latter took home the award for Breakthrough Group of the Year at the gala ceremony, broadcast from Winnipeg on March 30th. Although they didn’t get to perform, it was gratifying that their win was shown on the national telecast. A Tribe Called Red is a powerful supporter of the Idle No More movement. In 2013 they were voted best group by the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, and their second release, Nation II Nation, was voted best album. Their hard-driving ‘pow-wow step’ music and brilliant video productions challenge and subvert the ideology of the Canadian settler state. You can download their eponymous first album (it’s free) and view their videos at


Calls for Neil Young to Honour BDS


Petition campaigns have been launched to persuade rock superstar Neil Young to withdraw from a concert scheduled for July in Tel Aviv. Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East and Independent Jewish Voices Canada are asking Young to respect the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions until Israel ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, recognizes the right of its Arab-Palestinian citizens for equality, and allows Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. In honouring the boycott, Young would join company with musicians like Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox, Carlos Santana and Elvis Costello. Throughout his long career Neil Young has demonstrated sympathy for native struggles on the North American continent. Earlier this year he gave a series of high-profile “Honour the Treaties” concerts to raise funds for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in aid of its legal battle to halt tar sands expansion on its territory. Given this level of awareness, one might expect that he’d be able to see the similarities between the oppression of native peoples in North America and that of Palestinians. To sign a petition visit or


Remembering Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’


In 1948 the great American troubadour Woody Guthrie composed Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), a protest lyric about the racist mistreatment of migrant workers. After hearing on the radio that 28 migrants who were being deported from California back to Mexico had died in a plane crash at nearby Los Gatos Canyon, Guthrie was struck by the fact that only the names of the flight crew and the security guard were given. The anonymous workers’ bodies were buried in a mass grave in Fresno, California. A decade later Guthrie’s lyric was set to music by schoolteacher Martin Hoffman. The song soon became an American folk standard, after being popularized by Pete Seeger and recorded by a host of musical luminaries. Flash forward to 2014. Folksinger-activist John McCutcheon and a group of like-minded activists had a brainstorm: they guessed that Immigration and Naturalization Service archives in Washington would have a record of the victims’ names in the 1948 deportation order. Well, they found the names, and they raised the necessary funds to erect a monument at the mass grave site. You can view the moving dedication ceremony and hear the names of the victims read out at a special concert. Visit YouTube and search for “Deportees John McCutcheon”.


Funding Flap at Beaches Jazz


Toronto’s annual free Beaches Jazz Fest attracts an estimated 500,000 visitors a year. It’s the biggest festival of its kind in Canada, yet it has to fight for the pittance of funding it receives from Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. After a public outcry when the 25-year-old festival’s funding application was rejected outright, the government announced that $75,000 had been ‘found’. What had really happened was that the Wynne government had been embarrassed by the revelation that, while it was depriving a popular free festival of support, it was giving huge grants to superstar rapper Drake ($300,000 for a 2-day concert that hopes to draw 60,000 people) and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment ($500,000 to attract the 2016 NBA all-star game). According to online ticket agencies, a pass to Drake’s upcoming OVA Fest at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre starts at $291. Of course funding priorities that privilege corporate spectacles over grassroots culture are not unique to the current Ontario government. They are unfortunately typical of most contemporary capitalist regimes. The Beaches Jazz Fest runs from July 18-23. For more info visit


Music Notes – April 2014

17 Apr


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


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

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


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:

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:

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 ( 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:



Music Notes – January 2014

18 Jan



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.

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!


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