Music Notes – February 2014


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:



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