Music Notes – March 2015

Celebrating Bob Marley

Feb 6th marked the 70th anniversary of the birth of Jamaican musician Bob Marley, who died of cancer on May 11, 1981. Marley’s anniversary was observed with concerts throughout the world, including a gala outdoor event in Kingston, Jamaica, headlined by his musical descendants. Bob Marley was a pioneer of reggae music and remains its most influential figure. Starting with The Wailers in 1963, he released many of the earliest reggae recordings before achieving world-wide fame as a solo act in the 1970’s. His albums “Catch a Fire”, “Burnin’”, “Rastaman Vibration”, “Uprising” and “Exodus” are landmarks in world music. Songs like “Get Up, Stand Up”, “Redemption Song”, and “War” are perennial anthems of resistance to racism, neocolonialism, war, and inequality. “Redemption song” is inspired by a 1937 speech given in Nova Scotia by the renowned Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey. “War” is based upon the famous “Appeal to the League of Nations” by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in June 1936, after his country had been invaded by fascist Italy. Bob Marley was a Rastafarian, a spiritual practice that holds such values at its very core. Like Che, Marley’s image has been widely marketed, but it’s easy to appreciate his true message. Just listen to the songs! 

B.C. musician boycotts Winter Games

Singer-songwriter Raghu Lokanathan is a member of two music groups that were scheduled to perform at the Canada Winter Games, a sporting event that was being staged in Prince George, B.C. as People’s Voice was going to press. The performances were to be part of an entertainment package organized by the Coldsnap Festival in association with the games. Instead, in a February 5th letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper, The Prince George Citizen, the long-time Prince George resident declared that he’d be boycotting the festival. His reason: Northern Gateway Pipeline (a.k.a. Enbridge) is one of the official sponsors of the Canada Winter Games. The $6.5 billion pipeline boondoggle would carry toxic Tar Sands bitumen through Bear Lake, 70 km north of this central BC city of 70,000. Judging by the mostly-favorable comments on the paper’s website, Raghu Lokanathan’s stance has been well-received. Incidentally, last December Lokanathan performed at a fundraiser in Prince George for local First Nations who have launched a legal challenge to the pipeline. Bear Lake is in the federal riding of Price George-Peace River. Its House of Commons seat is held by Conservative MP Bob Zimmer. For more info visit http://dogwoodinitiative.org/.

Holiday hounded to death by G-Men

U.K. author Johan Hari’s new book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the Drug War” documents the deliberate targeting of African-American jazz great Billie Holiday. Her story is a featured case study in this history of America’s century-long “war on drugs” and it provides evidence that drug addiction is related more to personal histories of abuse than to actual physical causes. Billie Holiday was stalked by the very man who launched the “war on drugs” after World War I – the jazz-hating and racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) chief Harry Anslinger. His vendetta against the singer began in 1939 after she’d recorded the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” and begun singing it in racially-mixed nightclubs. Hari recounts the story of Holiday’s ensnarement by FBN double agents in an operation that led to a debilitating prison term. Finally, in 1959, an FBN agent planted drugs on her and had her arrrested. Later that year, her health in decline, she was placed in a New York City hospital, handcuffed to her bed, and forbidden visitors. Billie Holiday died there on July 17, 1959. Learn more about the book at http://chasingthescream.com and look for out “The Hunting of Billie Holiday” at www.politico.com.

Top cellist tangles with YouTube

Zöe Keating, a Canadian-born avant-garde cellist, has built a successful career as an indy musician, combining electronically-inspired solo work with soundtrack composing, stints with groups like cello-rock band Rasputina, and collaborations with contemporary performance artist Amanda Palmer. Last month, Keating, a popular blogger with more than a million followers, shared her concerns about YouTube, the increasingly commercial video sharing service, now owned by Google. In January YouTube told her that she’d have to sign a five-year contract with them or lose her artist’s channel. Here’s a sample what Keating objects to: 1) Anything that a third party uploads to YouTube with her name on it will be loaded onto her page; 2) Ads will accompany all of her songs; 3) All new music must be given to YouTube (i.e. no more releasing new music to core fans on other services). Keating’s reflections on her dilemma (whether to sign) provide a fascinating glimpse of the contemporary music business as experienced by an articulate artist with principles. Check out the blog and sample her brilliant album “Into The Trees” at http://www.zoekeating.com.

Music Notes – February 2015

Billie Holiday

Protest Tweets sink Strange Fruit PR

Billie Holiday’s 1939 version of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” remains one of the most influential protest recordings ever made. That’s why it was particularly insensitive when, in 2012, Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky of Austin, Texas named their fledgling public relations firm “Strange Fruit PR”. The two knew about the song, but they’d assumed that enough time has passed that people would not associate the civil rights classic with their company. On December 9th, after a barrage of critical Tweets, the two changed their company’s name to Perennial Public Relations. “We sincerely apologize to those offended by the former name of our firm,” they wrote in a publlic statement. “In no way did we ever intend for the name of our firm to offend or infer any implication of racism.” “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a member of the CPUSA. It was first published as a poem in New Masses magazine. Later Meeropol wrote a melody and offered it to Holiday. The song has been recorded countless times. In 1999 Time Magazine named it the “song of the century”. Incidentally, Meeropol and his partner Anne later adopted Robert and Michael, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed by the U..S. in 1953 in one of the most notorious episodes of the Cold War.

Sid Dolgay 1923-2014

Sid Dolgay, a founding member of the Canadian folk group The Travellers, died in Toronto on December 25th. He was born in Winnipeg, the son of Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia. He later moved to Toronto, where he joined the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO). It was in the left-wing UJPO, with its nearby summer retreat, Camp Naivelt, that Dolgay, and the other musicians who formed The Travellers, came under the spell of visiting American folk musicians like Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. Like them, The Travellers celebrated progressive politics and community singing. In an era when the Canadian music industry was in its infancy, The Travellers sang Canadian folksongs and original works by Canadian folk-oriented songwriters like Wade Hemsworth (“The Black Fly Song”). They also sang people’s music from around the world, with a repertoire that was uniquely “multicultural” long before the term was coined. Their biggest hit was their Canadianized version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. It made them unofficial ambassadors. They even toured the USSR in a 1962 cultural exchange. Dolgay, who sang bass and played the eight-stringed mandocello, left the group in the mid-sixties because the others wanted to make a beer commercial. Check out The Travellers on YouTube – including said beer commercial!

U.S.-Cuba thaw good for music lovers

If the Obama Administration eases the embargo against Cuba and drops the preposterous claim that the country sponsors terrorism, visa application procedures for visiting Cuban musicians should become much easier. Today, security clearance for Cuban visa applications can take up to four months. Visiting musicians like jazz pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdes have been faced with a Catch-22 situation: U.S. venues are reluctant to offer a contract without artists having a visa, while at the same time the U.S. government requires a signed contract before granting a visa. Furthermore, the embargo on currency exchange stipulates that visiting Cuban artists cannot be paid by the contracting party. Instead, they’re paid a per-diem of $50-$100 by the State Department. This for musicians who fill concert halls througout the world. The futile U.S. attempt to blockade Cuban music was dramatized in 2004, when The Buena Vista Social Club was not allowed to attend the Grammy Awards ceremony after they’d been nominated for Best Traditional Latin Album. (They won). While the complete dismantling of the embargo will require congressional approval, musicians and music lovers in both countries stand to benefit from the expected increase in cultural exchanges. For more info visit http://en.granma.cu/.

Monthly Review remembers Pete Seeger

The American socialist journal, Monthly Review, has devoted its January issue to long-time reader and supporter Pete Seeger (1919-2014). Contributors include Brooklyn-based cultural activist Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky (“Don’t Waste Any Time In Mourning”), veteran singer-activist Holly Near (“Who Was This Pete Fellow?”), Latin-American solidarity worker and scholar Emily Paradise Achtenberg (“Friends and Neighbors: Remembering Pete Seeger and Camp Woodland”), sociologist Brett Clark and journalist Scott Borchert (“Pete Seeger, Musical Revolutionary”), Amy Schrager Lang and John J. Simon,(“Pete Seeger, Socialist Songster”), plus a reprinted 2006 interview with Seeger by Linda C. Forbes (“Possibility and Hope: Getting From Here to There”). I highly recommend it. The tributes are affectionate and comradely. They explore Seeger’s life and work and argue for his enduring relevance. The New York-based socialist journal (which also operates Monthly Review Press) was founded in 1949 and continues to make significant contributions to contemporary socialist debates. To purchase the Seeger issue visit http://www.monthlyreview.org.

Music Notes – January 2015

Rise Again

Rise Again: a Rise Up Singing sequel

Peter Blood and Annie Patterson created the popular group-singing songbook Rise Up Singing in 1988. The compact 1200-song anthology, originally published by Sing Out! Magazine, has sold more than a million copies, an impressive number considering that it’s chock full of songs that express several centuries of peoples’ struggles within the USA and around the world. Now, in response to popular demand, Blood and Patterson are releasing a second 1200-song anthology called, appropriately enough, Rise Again. The new book, scheduled for publication next summer, continues the original concept of providing just words and chords (with illustrations by Patterson). Pete Seeger, who died on January 27, 2014, was actively involved in the project. He encouraged the authors, helped select the songs and contributed a preface. Seeger believed that people need to sing together and that this new edition (with more blues, country, rock & roll, and recent popular and indie songs) would carry on the work of Rise Up Singing. Check out the website. It’s a valuable resource where you can listen to recordings of the songs. If you can help out, the authors are still accepting donations. For more info: http://www.riseupandsing.org.

Solidarity Notes on Burnaby Mountain

Not long ago I received a most inspiring musical video in the mail. It was the Solidarity Notes Labour Choir singing “We Won’t Go” at the November 8th rally on Burnaby Mountain, where activists had gathered to defend the Coast Salish Territories. The Texas-based energy infrastructure giant Kinder Morgan wants to expand its pipelines through this land, to carry oil from the tar sands to markets in the USA and Asia. If the plan goes ahead, every day an oil tanker will sail past Vancouver, Victoria and the Gulf Islands. The Solidarity Notes Labour Choir is a group of activist singers founded in 2000 with the support of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, which is seeking to bring community activists and unionists together. Today it has more than 80 members. Its criteria for membership is simply a willingness to sing and a commitment to the principles of the labour and social justice movements. While they have some pretty impressive gigs in their resume, what these folks mostly do is sing on picket lines, peace marches, demonstrations, memorials and social justice benefits. Look for “We Won’t Go – Solidarity Choir” on YouTube. Learn more at http://www.solidaritynotes.ca/.

Two new David Rovics releases

The outstanding radical singer-songwriter David Rovics is so prolific that he’s hard to keep up with. He’s recorded more than thirty albums over the last eighteen years. His latest release is a double album: When I’m Elected President and Wayfaring Stranger. The former consists of new compositions, while the latter is a collection of covers. It’s a fundraiser for what Rovics hopes will be an independent write-in “David Rovics For President” campaign in 2016. Like all of his work it’s both compassionate and militant. Highlights for me include Rovics’ response to the glorification of World War I (‘Neither King Nor Kaiser’), and his song for Michael Brown (‘His Hands Were in the Air’). Another new Rovics album, Falasteen Habibti (roughly “Beloved Palestine”), is actually a compilation of previously released material, but in spite of that it’s more a revelation than a repackaging. The many fine songs Rovics has recorded over the years in tribute to the Palestinian struggle are brought together and carefully ordered to make listening to Falasteen Habibti a deeply engrossing experience. As always, Rovics displays impressive narrative skill, incisive political analysis and a keen sense of history. For more info: http://davidrovics.bandcamp.com/.

Musicians campaign for streaming $$$

A special conference of the International Federation of Musicians (IMF), held November 20-21 in Budapest, has endorsed a worldwide declaration calling for a more equitable share for musicians of online music service revenues. The motion was presented to the IMF by American Federation of Musicians President Ray Hair and Alan Willaert, AFM Vice-President from Canada. The Budapest Declaration calls for a 50-50 sharing of streaming revenues with record producers. The shift away from physical recordings and digital downloads to on-demand service providers such as Sirius XM, Spotify and Pandora, has led to a drastic drop in royalty revenues for professional musicians. Last year U.S. superstar Taylor Swift withdrew her entire catalogue from streaming giant Spotify. In 2013 Radiohead’s Thom Yorke did the same. Former Talking Head singer and music industry critic David Byrne has declared that the company is “not a viable business model for musicians”. For more info: http://www.fim-musicians.org/budapest-declaration.

Music Notes – December 2014

Singer- Songwriter Dave Gunning in Pictou

Musicians rally for clean air in N.S.

A host of prominent Maritime musicians including Dave Gunning (above) donated their time to a free “Clear the Air” concert on the waterfront of Pictou, Nova Scotia on September 9th. 2,000 people gathered to listen, and also to protest corporate and government indifference to the deleterious effects of air pollution on the local population. The Northern Pulp Company’s kraft paper mill provides 200 jobs in this town of 3500, but its smokestack spews out a toxic cloud of sodium sulphate over the community that irritates the eyes and throat. Musicians at last summer’s Lobster Festival actually stopped playing because of the chemicals in the air. The local residents’ group, Clean Pictou Air, is demanding that the mill be closed until the probem is fixed. Concert organizers Gunning, an acclaimed singer-songwriter and local resident, and Troy Greencord, artistic director of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in nearby Canso, recruited 17 performers, including East Coast luminaries Joel Plaskett, Catherine MacLellan, Matt Anderson, and J.P. Cormier. Dr. Dan Reid, former chief of staff at the Pictou hospital, blasted both the current Liberal Government of Stephen McNeil and the former NDP Government of Darrell Dexter for dithering on the issue.

International Orchestra Week

Last month the Paris-based International Federation of Musicians (FIM), an umbrella organization that represents musicians’ unions in more than 60 countries, designated November 17-23 International Orchestra Week, calling for actions to resist austerity policies that are decimating orchestras, choirs, and opera theatres. This fall, in the country where opera began four centuries ago, management of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma (Rome Opera) sacked 200 orchestra musicians and chorus members. The FIM called it “a scandalous act of cultural vandalism”. Throughout Europe and North America artists and workers employed by similarly venerable cultural institutions have been under management attack because of declining operating grants and subsidies. In some countries, entire orchestras have been shut down. The campaign calls for local affiliates and their members to distribute the FIM leaflet at concerts, to address audiences from the stage, to dedicate works in their program to orchestras that are under attack, to build alliances with other sectors of the population, and to deploy the FIM’s web banners, widgets, and electronic signatures in their social media campaigns. Read the statement and sign the petition at: http://www.stop-cultural-vandalism.org/.

Belafonte’s stirring Hollywood speech

Harry Belafone delivered an inspiring speech at the annual Governors Awards in Hollywood on November 8th. The singer, actor, and social justice activist, now 87, was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, one of three given prior to the Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Belafonte cited the pioneering, but deeply racist, 1915 D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation” as an example of the powerful role of cinema in shaping social attitudes. Despite its apologetic depiction of American slavery, the film was legitimized by a White House screening, with subsequent praise by then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Next, Belafonte recalled watching Tarzan movies in Harlem as a child, when a generation of black youth learned to cheer the white man and boo Africans. Lastly, he reminded his audience that Native Americans and Arabs have fared no better. Belafonte paid tribute to his mentors, including W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. A singer, actor, and activist like Belafonte, Robeson encouraged him at the beginning of his career with a vision of the artist as “civilization’s radical voice.” Before inviting his friend, African-American actor Sidney Poitier, to the stage, Belafonte called upon his peers to create films that challenge those who seek to “punish truthseekers”. View Belafonte’s acceptance speech at http://www.variety.com.

I Thought I Heard Sweet Victor

Paul Baker Hernández is a Scottish activist and musician who’s worked in solidarity with Latin American struggles since 1980. As a resident of Nicaragua since 1994, he’s worked with the Sandinista government’s Zero Hunger Project, as well as various international solidarity campaigns, all the while cultivating his musical vocation. In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the coup that overthrew the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, Baker Hernández was Chile, helping in the search for justice for victims of the coup. He visited the Victor Jara Foundation, established in 1994 to honour the great singer-songwriter and theatre director, who was tortured and murdered by the Pinochet regime days after the coup. Coaxed to pick up Victor’s guitar at the insistence of Jara’s widow, Joan, he was inspired to write “I Thought I Heard Sweet Victor”. The song has since become part of the campaign for justice for (in his words) “ all those whose names are known only to their beloveds.” Key in “Bringing Victor Home” at YouTube to view Paul and friends performing the song around the kitchen table at the Victor Jara Foundation. It has English-subtitles.

Music Notes – November 2014

Tanya Tagaq

Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq wins Polaris

Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq not only won the prestigious 2014 Polaris Prize on September 22nd for her album Animism, but she stole the show with a stunning performance. Inuit throat singing is usually performed by two women, but Tagaq, who grew up in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, has taken it to the world over the past decade, collaborating along the way with artists like the Kronos Quartet and Icelandic singer Bjork. In her performance at the Polaris Awards she was joined by a talented group of musicians, including electric violinist Jesse Zubot, drummer Jean Martin, DJ Michael Reed, and the all-woman 24-voice Element Choir. The names of the 1200 Aboriginal women, murdered or missing since 1980, scrolled on the screen behind the singer, projecting a powerful political message. Introducing her at the awards ceremony, Vancouver musician and novelist Geoff Berner declared “there is no artist working today more emphatically herself, more incomparable than Tagaq”. View Tagaq’s Polaris performance on YouTube and judge for yourself. For more about Tanya Tagaq, as well as the complete text of Berner’s introduction, visit www.tanyatagaq.com.

Halifax baristas sing a union song

An upbeat musical video has been released to promote the drive to organize coffeehouse servers in Halifax. “Hey Baristas!” features a catchy doo-wop tune set in a coffee shop. Although reinforced by a few actor/musicians, the performers are mostly servers. They sing about their precarious and low-paid working conditions, and call for baristas to unite and join the union. Last year Halifax baristas at the Just Us! Coffeehouse, members of SEIU Local 2, negotiated a first contract. The agreement increased the number of full-time positions and added benefits, job security, better scheduling, and a cost-of-living clause. Now, workers at another coffee shop, Coburg Coffee House, have applied for certification, and there have been organizing drives at several Second Cup outlets. Increasingly, baristas are seeing their jobs as more permanent than temporary, and they’re seeking the respect and security in the workplace that a only a union can provide. Kudos to all involved in the video, including co-producer Margaret Anne McHugh, co-producer/composer/musician Mike Chandler, camera operator/photography director/editor Deedee Slye, director/writer Kevin Russell, and a cast of performers too numerous to list here. Look for Hey Baristas! on YouTube.

A Tribe Called Red cancels Rights Fest gig

Acclaimed First Nations electronic band A Tribe Called Red drew attention to the unacknowledged genocide of Aboriginal peoples when it withdrew from a scheduled September 20th performance at Rights Fest, the weekend long program of music, dance, and art, accompanying the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. In its statement the Juno Award winning band said that it was canceling because of “the museum’s misrepresentation and downplay of the genocide that was experienced by Indigenous people in Canada by refusing to name it genocide”. The museum issued a statement in response that called on the band to tour the museum so that they could see “the full breadth of exhibit content dedicated to Indigenous perspectives and issues”. Several other Aboriginal artists performed at Rights Fest but declared their full support of the band’s position. Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, in an interview prior to her concert, said that the museum’s directors still do not understand what the United Nations recognized in 1948: the forcible transfer of native children to residential schools is genocide. For more info: http://atribecalledred.com/.

Emily Yates: Iraq war vet songwriter

Since her return to civilian life, Iraq war veteran Emily Yates, who served a six-year stint in the U.S. Army as a military journalist, has taken up songwriting. The 32-year-old native of Syracuse, New York, is also an activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.com), and she’s emerging as an important voice in the anti-war movement, as well as a sardonic critic of American life. Her sharp wit and political satire can be experienced on two albums: I’ve Got Your Folksongs Right Here (2012) and Folk in Your Face (2014). Her songs can also be sampled online at YouTube. Look for such evocative titles as “Try Not to Be a Dick”, “I Don’t Want to Have a Baby”, and “Foreign Policy Folksong”. Best of all, check out the brilliant “Yellow Ribbon”, with its chorus “take that yellow ribbon off your car”. Here, accompanying herself on the banjo, Emily performs in front of a U.S. Armed Forces recruiting station. While her chops on the ukulele and banjo are so far pretty rudimentary, she gamely asserts that she’s on a quest for “eventual world domination” (including ukulele “superstardom”). One of her dreams is to form a band of U.S. Iraq war vet musicians and go back to Iraq to collaborate with local artists on a musical project. Emily Yates is a bold new voice who deserves a wider audience. For more info: http://emilyyatesdoeseverything.com/.

Music Notes – October 2014

Talib Kweli

U.S. musicians respond to racist shooting

American musicians joined in the condemnation of the August 9th slaying of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by white police officer Darren Wilson. In a Huffington Post interview, prominent Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli (pictured above), on the front lines in Ferguson after the killing, responded sharply to efforts by authorities to diffuse the justified anger of the town’s black community. “We’re getting killed out here in the streets,” he said. “We cannot afford to put peace above justice. We work towards peace, that’s the end goal, but it’s about organization, it’s about strategy, it’s about tactics. It’s not about calming down.” Outspoken R&B singer Lauryn Hill responded to the killing with a new song, “Black Rage”. The song takes the melody of the Rogers and Hammerstein standard “My Favorite Things” but replaces the sugar-coated lyric with a bitter satire that evokes Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Radical singer-songwriter David Rovics also responded. “His Hands Were in the Air” is a typically hard-hitting Rovics broadside. These are only a few of the many interventions by musicians in the Michael Brown case.

Standing on the edge of a revolution?

Nickleback is one of the most successful rock bands in the world. The slick quartet from Alberta has sold more than 50 million records and raked in a slew of music industry awards, all despite receiving mostly hostile reviews from rock critics. They’ve been derided for their overuse of that most time-honored of rock themes: sex, drugs and rock & roll. While occasionally the band engages social issues (e.g. spousal abuse), they’ve steered clear of political commentary. However, in a surprising turn this summer, Nickleback released Standing on the Edge of a Revolution – a single from their upcoming new album No Fixed Address. In the video, we find the band in a dimly-lit classroom, performing before adolescent students, with a succession of protest images and slogans projected on a screen behind them. They incite the kids with references to the privileges of Wall Street banksters, domestic spying by the NSA & CIA, and images of the occupy protests. As the kids grow increasingly angry and start overturning desks and throwing paper in the air, the band leads them in a call-and-response chant for revolution. Sadly, it’s a little deflating to see the students, fists in the air, defiantly repeating that pathetically unspecific advertising slogan: “We want change!”

British musicians support BDS

While supporters of the cultural boycott of Israel failed to persuade North American rocker Neil Young to sign on this summer (he canceled his Tel Aviv concert for ‘security’ reasons), the BDS campaign continues to attract prominent musicians in Europe. On July 25th, during the IDF assault on Gaza, the U.K. Palestinian Solidarity Campaign delivered an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron calling for an end to Britain’s arms trade with Israel. Visiting Canadian rock star Bryan Adams was among the signatories, who also included Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack. Speaking of Massive Attack, the popular English band headlined Ireland’s Longtitude 2014 music festival earlier that month. Their spectacular evening concert displayed pro-Palestinian LED solidarity messages. On July 27th more than 50,000 people attended a Gaza solidarity march in London. Speakers included composer Brian Eno and guitarist-producer Dave Randall (of Faithless and Slovo fame). Irish singer Sinead O’Connor sent greetings and added her name to the ever-growing list of musicians who have pledged not to perform in Israel until justice for Palestine has been realized. For more info: http://refrainplayingisrael.blogspot.co.uk/.

Native rapper takes on sports mascots

Sports fans are often attached to the symbols associated with their favorite team, but too often they are oblivious to the racist implications of those symbols. In recent years, Native Americans have stepped up their fight to compel offending teams (e.g. Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Black Hawks) to acknowledge the pain that abuse of their identity as sports mascots has caused. At the centre of the controversy is the team with what may be the most egregious name: the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. The campaign picked up steam in August when CBS and NBC sports broadcasters Phil Simms and Tony Dungee declared that they will no longer use the word “Redskins” on the air. On September 2nd the sports network ESPN dedicated an episode of its show “Outside the Lines” to the controversy. It opened with a performance by the popular 25-year-old Native American rap star Frank Waln (from the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota) and his band Nake Nukla Waun (“I am always ready, at all times, for anything”). A podcast can be accessed at the ESPN website. For info about Frank Waln check out an interview with him at www.peoplesworld.org and look for his outstanding video “Hear My Cry” on YouTube.

Art and Energy: How Culture Changes

Art and Energy

Art and Energy: How Culture Changes

by Barry Lord, AAM Press 265 pp.

People’s Voice – Sept 15-30, 2014

Barry Lord’s new book Art and Energy: How Culture Changes is about the influence of changing sources of energy on aesthetic culture, as well as the influence of aesthetic culture on the pace of adapting new energy sources. While sources of energy from earlier eras are still necessarily with us (firewood, coal, wind, etc.), there is always, he says, a cutting edge source of new energy that transforms the social-economic environment and the resulting cultural values.

Hearth & Forge

Commenting on the Greek poet Hesiod’s description of Zeus’ rage after learning that Prometheus had given fire to human beings, Lord writes, “such a god’s-eye view of the fires of many communities gives us a glimpse of the prehistoric and ancient world’s primary cultural centre, the hearth”. Fire allowed humans to gather together in the evening to tell stories, invent songs and dances, and reinforce their values. The use of tallow lamps enabled the astonishing cave paintings found in Africa, Spain and Southern France, painted by artists some 30 millenia ago.

The kiln was a further application of fire, fostering the craft of pottery. Later came the forge, which introduced bronze and iron, transforming the weapons of war and the tools of agriculture, and harnessing animals for domestic use. In a vivid passage, Lord contrasts the tamed animals depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs with the energetic animals of prehistoric cave artists.

Co-operation & Slavery

Lord asserts that co-operation in the workforce is also a source of energy, with the earliest co-operation being the division of labour between women and men. Once the advantage of co-operation was understood, collective identity followed, and the acknowledgment of individual leaders. Large-scale collective labour made it necessary to store and distribute surpluses over a wide area, making armed guards necessary, as well as taxes, marketplaces, and writing.

Slavery became a vital source of energy in the ancient world. Total control of agricultural labour gave economic and military advantages to slave society elites. This mode of production made standing armies possible, as well as a leisure class that engaged in philosophy and literature, and invested its surplus in ambitious works of architecture, and monuments that served to proclaim and maintain its dominance. Slave artisans were disciplined to provide exquisite pieces of jewelry, furniture, bronze, ceramics and glass.

Wind Power

In the period of European civilization known as the “Renaissance” cultural change was powered by technological developments in sailing. New methods of rigging made it possible to harness wind energy to explore the globe and exploit other peoples and resources. Human energy was organized for the exchange of surplus, an activity that required the invention of an abstraction: the international exchange rate.

Lengthy trading expeditions were risky and expensive affairs (as Shakespeare dramatized in The Merchant of Venice). To spread the risk, joint stock companies were formed, followed soon after by stock exchanges. The age of sail coincided with the growth of competition between merchant empires. Artists began to celebrate heroic individuals and wealthy patrons, rather than religious themes. A new individualism emerged in the arts with the rise of genres like portraiture (Rembrandt), and the novel (Cervantes, Defoe).

Coal: The Culture of Production

The decline of the age of sail was precipitated by an energy crisis in Europe. By the 18th century, many countries were experiencing deforestation. The solution to the crisis was found in the “underground forest”. Coal emerged as the cutting edge energy. It reorganized workplaces and concentrated a growing population into cities. Coal stoked the industrial revolution, fueling steam engines, cotton mills, and railroads. It made overnight postal service and daily newspapers possible, and global mass markets for cultural works, like the phenomenally popular novels of Dickens and Hugo.

Some artists, like the poet Baudelaire, responded to the new mass culture by embracing alienation. Others, like the painter Van Gogh, gave a new dignity to industrial and agricultural labourers. More radical new ways of seeing were pioneered by Turner and the impressionist painters, with their interpretations of the steam and smoke of the industrial environment.

Electric Transformations

In Lord’s scheme of energy transitions, electricity is an anomaly. It is an application, rather than a source of energy. Electricity brought about qualitative change. The culture of production was transformed by power grids and circuits. Electrical appliances changed the nature of housework and the role of women, and the phonograph, cinema, and radio transformed social and cultural awareness.

During the age of coal the industrial proletariat became aware of itself as a class and launched its epic struggle for workers rights. However, it is arguably the coming of electricity in the late 19th century that inspired mass socialist and communist parties and the world’s first socialist revolution. Lenin famously said that “communism will be the Soviets plus electricity.” But while working class organizations grew rapidly in this era, artists too, felt that they could change the world.

Electricity inspired international modernism, a movement for the transformation of art and society that included the architecture and design of the Russian constructivists, the Bahaus school, the cubism of Picasso, the epic theatre of Brecht, the abstract music of Schoenberg, surrealism and the anti-art of Dada, the revolutionary muralists of Mexico, and the cinema of Chaplin. It was an age that favored innovation over imitation.

Oil & Gas: The Culture of Consumption

Since 1900, the internal combustion engine has driven an era of oil and gas, transforming landscapes into highways and parking lots, and leaving behind an ever-increasing carbon footprint for subsequent generations. Ford’s offer of a Model T on easy credit to his workers dramatically enabled consumer culture. In the mid-20th century, working-class solidarity countered consumerism, but neo-liberalism, symbolized by Thatcherism in the 80’s, partly succeeded in replacing the social identity of unions with that of the individual consumer. Contemporary governments continue to promise high consumption levels, whatever the cost.

Post-modern philosophy corresponds to consumer culture, as opposed to class identity, in that it offers a “marketplace of ideas,” and eschews “grand narratives”. Artistic disciplines are characterized by a smorgasbord of alternative styles and meanings. Artists themselves are encouraged to develop their art as a brand. Ubiquitous corporate sponsorship imposes brands on cultural institutions and festivals. Large-scale international art fairs like the Venice Biennale confirm the culture of consumption and the growing wealth and power of the top-tenth of art dealers and auction houses.

Nuclear Energy: The Culture of Anxiety

Nuclear power was the first energy source to arrive as a weapon. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as well as the application of industrial methods by Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews, Roma and other peoples) caused many artists and intellectuals to re-evaluate their ideas about the nature of humanity. Borrowing from a popular 1947 poem by W.H. Auden, Lord characterizes this phenomenon as “the culture of anxiety.” The mood was expressed after the war by absurdest writers like Camus, Ionesco and Beckett, and filmmakers like Resnais and Antonioni.

In recent decades, new causes of anxiety have emerged with fear of nuclear meltdowns and global warming. Fears actively fomented by governments in the metropolitan centres of capitalism include growing anxiety about “security” and “austerity”. Lord provides examples of the efforts of several contemporary multi-media artists to warn of the corrosive effects of this culture of anxiety.

Renewable Energy: The Culture of Stewardship

Some contemporary artists, reacting to the wasteful and environmentally destructive culture of consumption, are reflecting a “culture of scarcity.” They advocate impoverished art, made from discarded or low-cost materials. But, says Lord, this “frightens the haves and discourages the have-nots.” He names his vision of the emerging sustainable world “the culture of stewardship”. Its key values are storage, access, and sustainability.
Lord rightly celebrates electronic archives (libraries and museums) as creative cultural and media centres, but his description of digital data as “congealed energy” calls out for fuller explanation. When he writes approvingly of new museums designed by architects with sustainability in mind (living green roofs, geothermal wells), and art galleries that offer immersive experiences, one might well ask, who is this for? Where are the visions of sustainability for the 99%?

While he argues that digitization has weakened the collective identities that formerly supported transformative causes, he nevertheless concludes on an optimistic note, predicting that the time will come when the culture of consumption will be a distant memory. But we can’t build a sustainable future on hope alone. Where is the human agency to bring about these changes?

These criticisms aside, Art and Energy is thought-provoking and highly readable book.

Barry Lord and his partner Gail Dexter Lord are international museum consultants. Together they’ve published a series of widely-used manuals for museums, as well as an important contribution to cultural theory: Artists, Patrons, and the Public: Why Culture Changes (2010).