Sunday, September 08, 2019

Joy Inside My Tears--Intocable's Vital Percepcion

Singer/accordionist Ricardo Munoz cries out in pain and also cries for joy, often at once, each syllable of his delivery as nuanced as that of a legendary soul or country singer. But, then, the whole of Intocable swings with an equally supple, hard-hitting and precise approach. Together, they turn conjunto “No Van A Entender,” a simple declaration of unconditional love (despite what others may think), into a sage stand for liberation “Beso Incompleto” becomes an epic rocker about not giving up on love, even after it’s clearly gone, “Nunca Volveras,” its signature Intocable ballad equivalent, an exquisite melody tenderly relished

All twenty-four cuts here are about love and loss, even if the loss hasn’t happened yet, and they are also about everything else in life, sometimes all at once. If you understand the personal as political as this great band has for a quarter of a century, then you hear the love song as all that’s ever really needed—to talk about fighting for community and commitment to that fight, maintaining necessary boundaries and declarations of independence, a celebration of honesty, acceptance and growth. 

Declaring such high aims, the band pushes stylistic envelopes again and again, delivering a menacing bite to “Que Voy Hacer,” a song about dying in a relationship, while beginning with an atonal accordion solo and turning towards simmering funk on “Dimelo De Frente,” a truth-seeking record braced for whatever the answer may be. For these explorations of what seems today’s universal pain, it’s the 2019 record I turn to most—for the strength, the joy and the will to fight.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Dream Baby Dream: The Promise of Blinded by the Light

 Review by Billy Chin

Staking out our spot in the pit before Bruce’s Nashville show in April 2014, I spotted a peculiar sight: A man of Asian or Middle Eastern descent with dark, curly hair was milling about, apparently by himself. He obviously stood out at a typical Springsteen concert. But he looked vaguely familiar to me, so I asked my teenage nephew Bridger to search on his phone for Greetings from Bury Park, a memoir written by a Pakistani who grew up in England as a Springsteen fan. A photo confirmed it was Sarfraz Manzoor, the book’s author. When I turned back to where he had been with the intention of telling him I loved his book, he was gone. 

I emailed Sarfraz shortly afterwards to relay the incident and pass on how his memoir resonated with me, a Japanese-American who discovered Springsteen during adolescence. In a gracious response, Sarfraz said he was now working on a screenplay based on the book. Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham, had agreed to make the movie.

Five years later, Blinded by the Light is hitting theaters across the country, and I took my family to see it an early “fan event” screening in Kansas City. The movie is a natural must-see for any Bruce fan, particularly the chance of getting to see it in a theater with the wall-to-wall Springsteen soundtrack. And my daughter Faith nailed it when she described the movie as “a Bruce Springsteen musical.” It could definitely translate to the stage. (Possibly the next Springsteen on Broadway production?)

But Chadha and Manzoor aren’t just trying to preach to the choir here. Like Springsteen’s music, Blinded by the Light has bigger ambitions with its universal themes of alienation and identity -- of trying to find individual freedom while still connecting to family, friends and a larger community. The main character Javed, in a great and brave performance from Viveik Kalra, discovers the music as a Pakistani teenager growing up in a culturally restrictive Muslim household. The scene when Javed sits alone in his bedroom and puts Springsteen on his Walkman visually captures the internal emotions most of us felt upon hearing the music for the first time. It made me think of both Dorothy’s life-changing moment in The Wizard of Oz, as well as the Big Man blowing down the doors of the Asbury Park club where he first played with Bruce.  

As a Muslim and a Sikh respectively, Javed and his fellow tramp Roops (played by the cool Aaron Phagura) spend much of the movie as outsiders trying to spread the Springsteen gospel in the working-class town of Luton, just outside London. It’s the late 1980s, the age of Thatcher and the National Front, so the parallels 30 years later cannot be ignored. But amid the racism, economic downturn, and cultural and religious roadblocks, Javed finds a way to stake a claim to his life. And instead of using Bruce’s songs as a cocoon to insulate himself from “this shitty world” (Roops's words), Javed ultimately discovers Springsteen’s music is the opening to a bigger and better life, doing his part to create a place where “nobody wins unless everybody wins.” With that universal and timeless message, Blinded by the Light is built for the long haul, making it a vital and joyful entry in the Springsteen canon.     

Author Sarfraz Manzoor, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen and Gurinder Chadha at Asbury Park Premiere

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Only Light We See: Craig Werner and Friends Making a Way Out of No Way

Group Picture: Last Day, Last Session of Calls and Responses
When I introduced Craig Werner at a Springsteen conference in 2005, my friend Charles Hughes tells me I said, “I could go on about all the accolades this man deserves, but I want to sum up the most important part: Craig Werner builds community.” I knew it because about half of my favorite music writers were either his former students or his associates. I didn’t know it near as well as I do now.

I wrote the draft of this blog after returning from an April conference at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, where a dozen or so of the people I feel closest to in the world (alongside a couple hundred more) were celebrating Craig’s career (alongside Nellie McKay, Tim Tyson, Danielle McGuire, Ed Pavlic and many others) building the school’s Department of Afro-American Studies. Because Craig didn’t want it to be about him, the conference was named “Calls and Responses: A Symposium on Teaching, Writing and Community.” It was a revelation. I didn’t know something like this could happen around academia.
I’ve been in—and of—and angry with academia for most of my life now, and it’s easy to see the limits—the more you know, the harder to see possibilities. I first realized this when I was just about 22 years old in my first year of graduate school. I stayed at the college where I was an undergraduate mainly because I had very little direction (sorta still wanted to be a musician despite nothing anyone would call talent), and my new wife needed to be there for her graduate degree. I had a wonderful undergraduate experience—the only really positive institutional, extended educational experience of my life. But when I went into graduate school, I saw the politics behind the curtain, and it robbed me of any illusions.
No need to break all that down. I liked my school, and loved a good number of my professors. Let’s just say I saw the caste system, and I saw the pettiness, and I saw that people loved rules more than ideas in school at about the same moment I began to understand all the dead ends in the larger political system. The way people are feeling right now, I relate to it from those days because of Iran Contra, Plantation Week at Oklahoma State University, and the fact that my thesis defense came down to a debate over my unconventional use of commas (in works of fiction). The institution I was in seemed obsessed with the trivial while overlooking the big picture.
Writing about music took me out of the confines of academia, and I must admit I’ve never been able to write to academics in any way I find as satisfying as writing to people far outside of schools. I have been most consistently inspired by people who never had “higher” education or were actually thrown out of their schools. So, on the third day of “Calls and Responses,” when travel problems kept several presenters from one session and Craig tapped me to maybe fill in, I knew I had something to say and began taking double the notes I normally take—and I take a lot of notes—just in case. Thankfully, there was no need for me to share it then.
I feel a need to share it now.
I think I can put this quite simply. Most of the people who have inspired me to think I could make a difference work in some antagonism with academic systems. We can start with musicians, who have often sent me driving miles past the turn off to my campus jobs before I turned back around. The writers and editors who taught me how to write included J-School grads and English teachers but were more often and impressively homemakers, homeless organizers, bricklayers, steelworkers, printmakers, and commercial music writers who dropped out to go into the work. These same people—and my students—taught me most of what I do right in the classroom. I teach veterans of many wars and refugees of crises around the world, and they each add something different and essential. When I went to this conference, I was "teaching" a nurse who was my age. She worked all night and attended my class at 11:00 a.m.
Bianca Martin, Riah Werner and Tim Tyson
I suppose I could do that if I had to, but I’m not sure. And she not only showed up every day, she was crucial to how my class worked. She could have run the thing. Maybe she did.
So I was watching this panel that had been somewhat reshaped to fill holes. Riah Werner, a teacher on the Ivory Coast, talked about how she improvises with next to nothing and how she learned to do that and how she learned to work around the system by growing up in and around this Afro-Am Studies Department. Bianca Martin, producer of NPR’s 1-A, talked about how Craig in particular actually listened to her unlike what she’d encountered before and pointed her toward the resources she needed. Sagashus Livingston, who founded the Infamous Mothers’ Project, “an education and media company that focuses on women who mother from the edge,” testified that the department helped her stay in college and then gave her the strength to go out on her own and start this business. Kevin Mullen, who moderated the panel, introduced us to the Odyssey Project that extends college education to those who normally would have no access. I have seen such work around the margins in my life, but it was almost never something supported by the places I work for a living.
I have this quote from Ms. Livingston, “even my professors were afraid,” as a step in the calculus that led her out of college and into her business. For me, that’s it. In the world we live in today, even your professors better be afraid. The fact that students and teachers communicated that honestly and openly in this department defies about 90% of my expectations in the ancient, gatekeeping systems of academia.
During the phenomenal veterans’ panel, the department’s Anthony Black told a story I told every class I had when I got back to my classroom because I remembered all too clearly when I first started teaching and the mantra from on high was “weed em out.” He told how, at the height of the Vietnam War, teaching assistants literally held the fate of their composition students in their hands. The school relied on Comp I as a gatekeeper, and if students didn’t pass, they would face the draft. “The TA’s stood up,” he recounted, touching on various kinds of rebellions led by English teachers in this time of crisis.
The “modern university” dates back to around 1079, and as with all such institutions, it is built to resist any challenge to its hierarchy. However, at a time when changing technologies challenge the very nature of work and never-ending war seems to be just another component of keeping the system in place, the university is facing a call to change unlike anything that’s happened in our lifetimes. (I believe in well over a thousand years.) Before this weekend conference, I assumed all such structures would ultimately crumble and fall. The Department of Afro-American Studies in Madison showed just what a revolutionary role such institutions can play.
Dave Marsh and Chris Buhalis help me make sense of it all
In general, I remain skeptical of existing institutions, but, in April, I saw what I saw and experienced what I experienced. Some of the finest writers, artists, teachers and musicians on the planet took me down a dark country road in Alabama, into the thickets of Vietnam and under the Iraqi desert sky and even the eastern Oklahoma hills of my former Cherokee home, and they played me, among other things, Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” As improbable as it was, I not only went there, but I didn’t feel alone. Beyond that, I left with a conviction that we will continue to carry the dialogue outward and bring what we learn back home, wherever that may be. 
Because the words are true, you know, however we find a way to live up their call—
Craig Werner, David Cantwell and CJ Janovy
“When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No, I won’t be afraid
No, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand

Stand by me”
--That there, the secret of the universe.

Special thanks to everyone mentioned above, my friends C.J. Janovy and David Cantwell, who got me up there, and every other person I heard or with whom I talked and laughed and dabbed my eyes.

"Whenever you're in trouble..."

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Movie stars and American heroes, the ones that lie ahead and the last that appear at night: Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars

As a Hollywood cowboy (archetype, bit player, singer and stunt man), Bruce Springsteen—the rock and roll animal who happens to play syllables as well as he handles guitar, piano and voice*—has once again escaped the corrals of musical genre, this time seeming to leave behind the rhythm and blues so crucial to his vision. "Seeming" is an important word here since I don't think any of this music could exist without that context, stance and relationship to the greater culture. As a record that both celebrates its role in all sorts of traditions and experiments its way forward, "Western Stars" says as much about the jazz impulse at the heart of Springsteen's musical identity as anything he's ever done, pointing back at those earliest jazz-flavored records without sounding like them (or anything like jazz, for that matter). The fact that it works at all says something about possibility.

Sometimes it seems this music and these choices ask every question about art itself. The opener, “Hitch-hiker,” features a character straight out of a Woody Guthrie song, though the details could have taken place yesterday. The music’s sweeping-plains strings lace Aaron Copeland with Richard Rodgers.

Lyrically, it’s the tale of a free spirit utterly dependent on his environment. It’s the story of the songwriter who steals a story from a family, a truck driver and a street racer, all getting him a little further up the road. It’s the story of artist and audience dependent on each other to get from one moment of grace to another—the gentle wind in the strings rings out like the “telephone poles and trees” that “go whizzing by.”

“Western Stars” is not unique as a Springsteen album about the tension between individualism and community. It is not unique for being an album that deals with consequences. It is not unique for its focus on tragic limits, and it’s not unique for its transcendence of those limits with magical leaps in perspective (in that sense “My Beautiful Reward” anticipates “Stones” just as "Stones" pulls that reward further out of reach).

What is unique here is part of what Springsteen has always been about. At a time when tradition seems to have been folded into flavor profiles on the menu of complete corporate control, Springsteen has made a record that really doesn’t suggest a home on any known format….maybe Sirius’s 60s on 6, but without the nostalgic hooks those records inherently radiate.

That said, much of this record sounds like exactly where I live 41 years after “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Songs like “Sundown” and “Stones,” respectively, talk about being alone in a community far from the ones you love and, also, finding what community you have built has been cursed by your own failures, often weaknesses you can't quite separate from the strengths that gave you that community.

So, let’s not call this a review, maybe a testimonial.

By trading in a “rootsy,” even purist (though he's never been a good purist) approach to rock and soul for the sweetening sounds of California pop, Springsteen has suggested endless new pathways forward and perhaps never before sounded so close to the spirit and vision of his hero Roy Orbison. There's also some of Prince's fearlessness here (think about it with "Wayfarer" if nothing else). They’ve all carved careers out of the alienation that binds us together, especially in that sense we don’t quite fit and if we do it’s only for fleeting moments. Prince created new worlds, from Uptown to Paisley Park, where such inclusion might develop; as an everyday counterpoint, Springsteen reaches back to the Coasters for a GI Bill investment that seeded "Sleepy Joe's Cafe."

One thing that’s been fascinating this time around is hearing the immediate audience commentary on satellite radio and online, in part because it has been so often positively thoughtful and analytical. In this process, two songs that I felt harmonically stir my bones (“Sundown” and “There Goes My Miracle”), I’ve heard placed in completely different contexts—contemplating our elders and end-of-life issues and contemplating the pain of watching our children grow up to go their own way. 

I can hear those things in the lyrics and music (and it's sometimes devastating to do so), but I hear them overlaying my own sense of isolation in the midst of change, whatever the cause. When music’s doing its job, all these interpretations hit that sympathetic resonance wherein no answer is really wrong; they all speak to a larger perspective always unraveling with each new moment. 

When I was 30, I had something like a visionary experience listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” on the road dealing with an untimely death—I heard what it meant to me at 15 and 20 and 25 and then the whole as different stages in an elemental struggle. I remember wondering if it offered a way out or simply a description of my trap. I knew it offered a way to get through, but that’s different.

“You can get a little too fond of the blues,” Springsteen sings on “Hello Sunshine.” “You walk too far, you walk away,” he follows, and there’s a way this embrace of so many pieces left behind by the pop music tide feels like an attempt to walk back that journey and try to connect across entirely new musical lines. A few years ago, I remember a revolutionary hero of mine saying, “You know, when this revolution really kicks off, it’s not going to be one kind of music at the center of that struggle.” This album agrees, arguing there need be no boundaries, at least not in terms of artistic aim that’s true.

This music is so big and cinematic because it is both naturalistic (maintaining a vision of the characters against the backdrop of an indifferent universe) and (in dialectic) magically realistic. When the singer finds himself alone in his bed at the end of the record, the wind has kicked his covers off. The mantra “it is better to have loved” plays in his head. At the end of a musical journey that ties together “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” with “Jungleland,” “My Father’s House,” “Outlaw Pete” and “We Are Alive,” the singer pays tribute to a place where one could once get lost for a romantic eternity. Those days are gone, but the music never ceases to look for new ways to conjure such infinite seconds, finding inspiration even in the solemn contemplation of “dandelions growing up through the cracks in the concrete.” 

*The difference in syllables and voice? Beats versus colors?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

I Shout and I Fly and I Cry and I Run: Searching for Freedom through Ariana Gillis’s The Maze

On the title track of Gillis’s third album, she offers the ribbon from her hair as Ariadne’s thread, a lifeline to find one’s way out of the darkness. In a gently pulsing and shimmering recollection of childhood fears, she stands as the stalwart friend, the one who won’t let you stay lost forever, the one you should remember in your moments of panic. It’s as eloquent a statement of the role of the artist as I’ve ever heard, in part because it is so humble and true. She’s not claiming to be a hero that can vanquish real dragons, but she may just be able to help you handle the ones that crop up in the dark corners of your brain.

                She’s certainly done so for this listener over the course of all three of her albums. If this one, co-produced by Buddy Miller, is the breakthrough it’s getting called (I'm such a fan of all three, it's hard to make that distinction), it may just be this sharp focus. Though the arrangements are gorgeous, they tend to be minimal--a gentle interplay between guitars with the occasional glimmer of steel and keys. The virtue of the production is the way it stays out of Gillis’s way and primarily serves to complement and highlight what she does with just the right words and a voice that takes those words where no one else could go.  

                The blessing and perhaps curse of being Ariana Gillis is that she’s dazzling. Her vocals spring from clinched deep altos to wide-open ethereal heights. On the menacing “Slow Motion Killer,” when she sings “feel the chill shiver up right into your skeleton,” she is (perhaps somewhat unwittingly) describing her effect on listeners. She indeed seems to know this when she repeats the cry-of-a-refrain, “I’m in your brain.” Jim Hoke’s saxophone launches into an erratic, explosive response--those listener bones contorting past control.

                What makes her more than a fascinating talent is her unrelenting desire to get at the truth in the moment. The record bounces through a dialectic. She begins with the gritty “Dirt Gets Dirty,” digging holes to escape her own prison, and she immediately follows that by reaching back for a trapped friend on “The Maze.” She confronts isolation on “The Feeling of Empty” and finds there a zen-like acceptance before contrasting it with the terminally wounded character in “Jeremy Woodstock.” The record centers around womanhood, both contemplating a (her?) mother’s age and wisdom on “Rock It Like Fantastic” and her own wholeness at the point of severing a relationship, “Less of a Woman.” (Glimpses of each cut and downloads available here--

                The trilogy that comes next is defiant and, though hard fought, triumphant. “White Blush” is a seemingly delicate creation—at points just the drummer's sticks and stabs of guitar, eventually bolstered by banjo—about refusing the equation of vulnerability and weakness. “Slow Motion Killer” and “You Don’t Even Know My Name” take the concept of misleading appearances even further. In “Name,” she describes the impossible princess at the heart of this fairy tale as someone who “goes mad at night” and is “low in the afternoon,” but she points out this is exactly how she lures you in—“maybe you see the same things in you.” None of these dangers and flaws make these characters lesser women; they make them more fully human.

                The record ends with hauntings. “Lost with You” describes a ghost of a relationship she never wants to leave, and its gentle arpeggios and “silver tears” offer a grace to mourning that may never end. At the same time, the orphaned singer in “Dream Street,” contrasts the loss of her mother with her ongoing struggles. "I'm going to play it so hard," she sings of her "busted up guitar," and in doing so, she holds tight to that ribbon and pulls out of "The Maze's" darkness and into its light.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Beyond Human Expectation: Music, Teaching and "The Orphan of Asia"

 Luo DaYou
 When I teach writing, I feel like I'm passing on what I best know how to do. When I write or teach about music, I'm talking about my inspiration, things spiritual that continuously forge my identity and broaden my vision. While music has always done this, to some degree or another, there's a reason these particular qualities are associated with the rock and roll explosion that started in the 50s.

Even back then, the ingredients had been around for a long time. American culture has always been defined by its mix of traditions--20,000 year old indigenous cultures and the trade-off between Africans brought here against their will and the various immigrants who settled here--first from Spain then northern Europe, and then everywhere else. Everything cultural that is distinctly American reflects, in some way, both the promise and the original sin of this modern Democratic-Republic.

But something took hold of the culture in the 1950s, something that's never gone away. Perhaps because of the increasingly narrowed thinking of the Cold War, perhaps because of the openings provided by the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps because everyday people for the first time were forging a common musical culture, rock and roll started something new. Different from jazz but a bridge to what hip hop did later, rock and roll created new ways to be at the heart of American culture, prevalent throughout American youth, and distinct from what came before. The mix of music reshaped and repurposed by aesthetics of the African diaspora became a celebration of life beyond the boundaries of narrow expectations. It became a celebration of the outsider. It became a celebration of the "other." It opened American popular culture to the world, and it gave back some of this same liberating potential, worldwide.

My students have long brought me music from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Far East, music that reflects the way rock and roll and hip hop found their way around the globe. In the piece below, my student Rong Zou (already a geographical reporter in China, so I take no credit), shows how the devastating "Terror of War" photograph taken by Vietnamese-American Nick Ut in 1972 influenced Taiwanese musician Luo Dayou, then influencing generations since. As Zou shows, the first wave of rock and roll also plays a role here, in the way it ignited a couple of British Invasion kids, Paul McCartney and Roger Waters (twenty years and lots of expanding choices down their respective roads) to inspire the arrangement.

At one point early on, Zou calls "Orphan of Asia" an "exception" to the songs that serve death. I'm not sure what she means, or if I would agree if I did, but I hear her description of it as a song for all of us living, "deeply and vulnerably trapped in plight." In the video for the song, scenes from A Home Too Far, a story of Taiwan's separation from China, play in the background. It's 1949, a time of civil war, and Chinese who do not want to lose their homeland find themselves trapped between armed forces, sinking in blood-filled water. As she describes it, the song is a blues for carrying on in that world and a gospel or soul song dreaming of possibilities "beyond human expectation." Somewhere in that description is what I think the rock and roll big bang (just around that same time) was really all about...and why the universes created carry on. Just as she says of the song, I repeat to myself more generally, "It really is worth knowing again and again."

With her permission, Zou's essay follows. Settle in. It's worth it.

                                         An Analysis of   “Orphan of Asia”
                                                    by Rong Zou
               After being away from my long geographical report career, I still keep two habits in life. One of those habits is listening to music on a road trip. Another habit, more personally, is that I liked visiting briefly some cemeteries we passed by accidently.  I don’t know what made the connection of the two habits, or if the two things just happened at the same time. When stopping by a cemetery, whatever song happened to be playing faintly drifted into such a quiet place. I read some names of some tombstones, then, sat nearby smoking a cigarette sometimes. As we departed, music in the automobile would continue playing, and at most moments I felt calm and soft in heart. Basically, I think all songs might be for death; however, there is one exception.
             In the spring of 2010, my two fellows of geographic studio, a photographer and a professional driver, and I made an interview along 900 miles of national boundaries between Vietnam and China, where the Chinese government built twenty-one national army cemeteries for fallen Chinese soldiers during the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979.  We went into each cemetery to look for the soldiers who were born in our hometown, Hunan province, then put a red rose before each of their gravestones. Finally, we figured out that more than 1,200 gravestones of my hometown soldiers were among the twenty-one cemeteries. I copied those fallen soldiers’ names and their birth and death years. Most were between 19 and 23 years old and killed within 28 days. If they were alive, I was aware that they were equivalently the age of our elder brothers. Sometimes, the cemetery keeper would tell us about some of the soldiers, saying, “He’s from the urban family, so his family came here one time many years ago; he’s from the rural family, his family never came to see him, too poor, too far away to come. You are the first ones see him.”
            By the last days of the interview, I seemed to become more and more anxious. “Turn music down, please.” I said many times in the car.  “Are you okay? Are you sick?”  “Probably. I don’t know.” I just didn’t want any sounds, any music.  No songs for those in my country.
             Around two years later, I was alone watching a sad movie at home. It was titled A Home Too Far, which was based on the true story of the Chinese civil war 30 years before The Sino-Vietnam war and was produced in Taiwan. In the ending, a song, “Orphan of Asia,” was played, and it was like a flood engulfing my mind. Although I heard it before, at that moment, following the special historical background study and seeing the history of tragic characters dying or becoming homeless in another country, the song seemed to be telling me and crying out the pain I didn’t realize and understand before. Immediately, it reminded me of my suffering when I visited the twenty-one cemeteries.
              Today I can interpret so many implications, metaphors, and multidimensional meanings hidden in  “Orphan of Asia,” which was written and recorded by a Taiwanese singer-songwriter, Luo DaYou, in 1983. I also know what, why, and how this song touched me.  The complicated political and social setting of the song, its unique music structure and poignant lyric, can echo the isolation, fear, and danger of an individual or race, not just Asians, in a society that is too dominant, too privileged, and too arrogant.
Terror of War, Nick Ut, 1972
              According to Taiwan Public Television music TV show, “Yesterday Once More,” in 2016, Luo recalled that the theme setting of “ Orphan of Asia” was directly aroused by a photo of a  “Napalm Girl” running away from a bombing, which was published in The New York Times during the Vietnam War. A Taiwanese music critic, whose name is Ma, ShiFang, in his music radio program, “Listen to,” in 2015, also pointed out that some backgrounds--for example, first, Taiwan reluctantly retreated from the UN in 1971; secondly, America established diplomatic relations with China instead of Taiwan in 1979; thirdly, Taiwanese have hated to bear their identity confusion since 1895 of Japanese colonial period,  --impacted and contributed on this music piece.
               In fact, the title word, “Orphan,” is just a typical metaphor, and it refers to a vulnerable situation, not only in reality but also in spirit, as a race, community, group and, of course, individual.
            There are three verses in “Orphan of Asia.”  In the first verse, Luo kept writing on four colors as allusion: “The orphan of Asia was crying in the wind/The yellow face had a red sludge/The black eyes had a white phobia/A western wind in the east was singing sad songs” (Infiity13.)  For people living in particular times and circumstances, it is easy to feel and understand the lyric imageries because of their exact suffering such as facing racial, political, or cultural experiences of prejudice and discrimination.
          The second verse stepped to a deeper level and continued telling a painful and graphic instance: “The orphan of Asia was crying in the wind/No one wanted to play a fair game with you/Everyone wanted your beloved toys/Dear child, why are you crying?” (Infiity13) So simple were the words but named the truth. Looking back at the human history, whatever race and place, there were countless scenes like this full of inequality, insult, and damage and, actually, such things similar are still happening every day now if you read or watch some world news reports or think about those vulnerable people, or gender, or  Islamophobia, and so on.
            Both above verses expressed experiences and feelings of frustration and isolation. The third verse became more poetic and strongly questionary: “How many people were pursuing the unsolved question/How many people were helplessly sighing in the late night/How many people's tears were wiped away in silence/Dear mother, what is the reason?”  (Infiity13) This verse changed the thought from history to current, from speaking only to Asian people but to all people. Meanwhile, the song offered no answer. Probably, it had no ability to know how to deal with the pain and discomfort when it could only ask “dear mother” like the most helpless people. Obviously, it made it easier for the listener reach the sympathetic response, and pushed people to thinking.
            In addition to the lyric, what “Orphan of Asia” truly impressed on the listener at first should be its unique music structure and processing.
            First, a point to mention is that in 1980s Luo was a Taiwanese icon as Bob Dylan’s followers, also he admitted he was a heavy fan of the western rock-roll music. According to his interview of Taiwan Public Television in 2016, Luo asserted that the music structure of  “ Orphan of Asia” was inspired by  “Mull of Kintyre,” which was performed by the Beatles singer Paul McCartney. Both songs included marching style with waltz beat. For the theme of “Orphan of Asia,” such a music arrangement made the rhythm melodic but the mood dignified simultaneously, just like a small piece of epic. 
            Secondly, the employing of instruments in “Orphan of Asia” was so unique that it easily impressed the listener. While recording “Orphan of Asia,” Luo decided to replace the Drum set with military bass drum and snare drum increasing the marching feeling of the song; and then, from the 2’33 to the 3’08 of this song, his band member played a 35’’ length of suona solo. The horn-like suona is similar to bagpipe in “Mull of Kintyre,” and both are ethic instruments. However, usually, as a kind of funeral instrument in most of Chinese countrysides, suona’s high pitch and sharp timber might make the mood and ambience extremely desolate. Therefore, for a dignified theme of “Orphan of Asia,” the instrument was especially effective and unforgettable. It’s worth mentioning that releasing  “Orphan of Asia” three years later, in 1986, another Chinese rock-star, Cui Jian, also used same way of suona solo in his most famous song, “Nothing to My Name,” at his first rock show. There was the same shock to audiences on the spot.
               Finally, as a special part of the music structure, the chorus appeared in all versions of  “Orphan of Asia.”  In particular, in the original version, the chorus was sung by kids. Ma, ShiFang guessed that the children’s chorus idea probably came from “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” which was performed and recorded by British band Pink Floyd. When the children’s bright, pure, and impeccable voices suddenly joined with the desolate suona, heavy military bass drum beat, and the singer Luo’s hoarse singing, they created such a huge contrast of feelings, almost blowing the heart apart. 
                Regardless most eastern countries traditionally emphasize country over individuality. When this emphasis reflects in Chinese modern music and, especially, if the theme of song related to country or something similar, the music usually showed more symbolized single ideology and less individual feelings. So, for a long time, it was rare to hear a Chinese pop song like anti-war or some other social issues songs in America. Perhaps that’s why when I visited twenty-one national army cemeteries I felt so much sadness. I have to say The Sino-Vietnam war then was just a senseless political war of relentless costing innocent lives, but none of the Chinese songs I knew corresponded to individual pain about that, or, even just a bit confusion, except to praise sacrifice. In a way, “Orphan of Asia” indeed challenged a cold, rigid ideology and political censorship, suggested more complicated and confusing human condition, whether in war or in normal, and this breakthrough not only simply echoed western pop music culture but also reflected its own, both in music and thinking, ethic way.
                Also, I remember one of my studio parties at a music house before I left my newspaper years ago. At that time, so many topics we planned to report and articles we have written were more frequently canceled by censorship, and everyone was very dispirited. In that music house, my newspaper’s editor in chief  talked about his frustration to me, and suddenly said, “I have to sing a song. I have to. Do you know what song I want?  ‘Orphan of Asia.’ We’re just orphans, aren’t we?” “We are.”  Yes, even today, I still think we are orphans, as well as I think all those, who are deeply and vulnerably trapped in plight, whether racial, political, or cultural, religious, or economical, are a kind of orphan. Perhaps just one thing is still comforting: sometimes, what music itself illustrates and educates is far beyond human expectation. So, thirty-six years have passed since “Orphan of Asia” released primarily, however, I sense it is really worth knowing again and again.
                                            Works Cited
A Home Too Far, director by Chu, Kevin,1990. (song version: Wang, Dave)
Infiity13. “The Orphan Of Asia,” 2008-2019
Luo,DaYou. “Orphan of Asia,” Future Master, 1983. (original song version: Luo,DaYou)
Ma, Shifang. “Listen to,” PlayerFM, 2015.
“Yesterday Once More,” Taiwan Public Television,2016. (45:59-55:21)

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Sudden Sympathy: Stars at Night and Le Butcherettes

I haven’t claimed to be a punk in a long time, though that fire was the thing that first lit the rock and roll path at my feet. Seeing LA’s Stars at Night and Le Butcherettes at KC's RecordBar shook me with a visceral reminder why and how that fire first lit. Though I missed most of their set, Stars at Night immediately caught me up in all the possibilities of guitars, bass, drum and a singer determined to cry for life. These four women rocked hard and fast and big, setting what felt like all the hearts and minds in the house throbbing. You can get a pretty good sense of it from the new record’s opening cut, "Searching"-

Then came Le Butcherettes, like Stars at Night a fundamentally Mexican-American punk band, but with a guitar-strapped and red-keyboard-dancing indigenous warrior as its frontwoman. Teri Gender Bender (Teresa Suarez Cosio) is, despite the name, a righteously feminine presence on stage. Her femininity manages to unlock the power of a rock star while, at the same time, embodying the fan who’s making the most of her time on stage. Cosio’s duality took me back to my punk self. For kids like me, who lived and breathed music but didn't understand the world of the Hollywood-Rock-Star culture, the punks were a human-size revolution, as their brothers and sisters in hip hop would parallel and inform. I think of this video for "This is Radio Clash"— 

With all that was happening with funk, hip hop and soul in the 80s, I soon felt outside the punk world, and I've not kept a close watch there for ages. That said, over three decades down the line, the gap between fan and star that created 70s punk is wider than ever. It's exacerbated by the irony that there is a new immediacy to the media, but YouTube sensations and TV talent show contestants arrive without a sense of a movement or fan base behind them.  

Le Butcherettes have paid their dues, and, over the course of its four albums, Le Butcherettes has taken several forms. What hit Kansas City mid-February was a band's band--drummer Alejandra Robles Luna holding down the beat and kicking up a furor to make Keith Moon smile, while bassist Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez and guitarist/second keyboardist Rico Rodriguez-Lopez played near-stoic foils to Cosio's expressive, explosive, dynamic and achingly vulnerable antics. Watching this multi-dimensional, intimate and hard-fought show reminded me that nearly the whole world of what is most raw and real in this rock and roll history is once again underground. The radio has never felt more like the tip of an iceberg. And the revolution is being fought on levels I never dreamed of before, night after night after night.

I didn’t know Jerry Harrison produced their new album until well after I fell for it, but it makes sense. His first band, the Modern Lovers, were important to me for all the reasons suggested above, but that other band of his, The Talking Heads….They redefined what was possible. A slinky, poppin’ rhythm section holding together knife-play lyricism and Harrison filling the whole thing with the appropriate, impossible colors.

It’s enough to say this record has those colors, but what matters is the way the sound serves Cosio’s vision. This is a record that pushes and pulls at the contradictions and complexities of relationships like a saw taken to the bone. Cosio is playful and deadly serious at the same time. It’s vivid in “spider/WAVES” when she telegraphs the opening chant, “Injuries are slashed deep open/Messiahs hold them still.” It’s terrifying….and inviting.

There’s so much to this hard-focused tightrope between grief and liberation. The folky “in/THE END” complements an irresistible, tender melody with a gut-tugging lyric. “give/UP” begins with a battle cry and a charging verse before reaching a bridge built by compassion. That’s in the lyric, but it’s also in the sound, a meandering stream of colored keyboard. Caught up by those sparkling waters, Cosio sings, “Sudden sympathy invades the very fiber of my vicious being.” Such precious connections have everything to do with why I came to punk in the first place. What's more, they lie at the heart of rock and soul itself.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Flemington Meets KC: Nalani & Sarina Prove It All Night in 45

On the EP and album (2015's Scattered World and 2018's The Circle) I’ve been listening to over the past two years, New Jersey twin rockers Nalani & Sarina have come to represent what I find missing in most contemporary music—a big vision and a firm belief in that vision. When I heard they were opening for Tech N9ne January 26th, I had to be there though three other favorite bands were playing shows the same night. I took my older brother (my first music teacher) and my nephew (the musician in the family) to their set opening for Tech N9ne, the biggest act in town playing a sold out show at the 2000-person room Voodoo Lounge.

Now Tech N9ne fans, and fans of his label Strange Music, are a wonderfully frenzied, devoted bunch. I can’t think of another Kansas City artist who has anything like his following. I was a little nervous for these Jersey artists I cared so much about because I would not personally want to be taking the stage before Tech and his two Strange-label openers. At the same time, it was a moment of great possibility. I plunged to the middle of the floor hoping, almost against hope, that this crowd would have open ears for the rock show that was going to happen before the Strange Music review.

They had only 45 minutes to make an impression, to gain some new fans.

Some musicians seize possibilities in a way that makes it look thrillingly effortless. Nalani & Sarina are just such artists. These two women hit the stage with guitars—mirror twins, guitar necks pointing in opposite directions—another guitarist to their right, a bassist to their left, drums in the back. They said, “Hello, Kansas City, are you ready to see Tech N9ne?” The crowd roared. “We’re here to warm you up!”

And then—I wish I knew how to say this with the appropriate weight—they tore into it all, their whole set, the whole room. They shouted in unison this clarion call—“Wa, wa, wa, wake up now! Wa, wa, wa, wake!”—and they were laying out the house with this slamming pledge to “stay here forever” and promising “the break of day.” More than a few hands in the house immediately went up.  

On the second song, "The Circle," Sarina took to the keys for a stinging funk riff, and Nalani answered with chunky rhythm guitar, their twin vocals full-throated and pledging that we could become a part of a revolutionary circle of change alongside them. Bold stuff for an audience that's never seen or heard the band before, but inviting, the message of freedom so universal and the energy infectious.

(This video from a smaller show in Chicago gives a hint of what it was like--

Nalani & Sarina have some wonderful ballads and songs that defy genre description, but they stuck to one hard rocking moment after another. “Wanna Be with You” featured an impossibly fast and facile bass run by Mike Klemash, feeling as much like a pledge to the audience as a love song (which of course it is).  

Things slowed a bit for the reggae-flavored “Deep End,” featuring a primal lead by Ryan Swing. This momentary change of pace allowed a glimpse of the depth of soul that typifies these women. Catchy as hell, you couldn’t miss the poignant hello-goodbye fragility of the desperate relationship at the heart of the song.

 At that point, they traded hard hitting raps and blended those twin vocals for the verses of their flipped bird to the music industry, “Get Away.” The steady beats provided by drummer Sunny Dee held the core of the hip hop/rock mix. The high energy funk of  “Hung Up” raised the room temperature a few more degrees. Though they introduced one of their finest songs, “Pretty Lies” as an experience at a bad frat party, it is tellingly and clearly a song that describes the state of today’s dominant culture and politics.

That’s when the show really got mind-blowing. Their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” might best be defined as sweat-drenched, on stage and throughout the crowd. Then, they launched into the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times (Come Again No More)” as an intro to one of their most powerful, inclusive anthems, “We’ll Be Free.”

(Here's a clip of "Hard Times/"We'll Be Free" from Chicago.

The show ended with their bluesy “Break of Dawn” as the framework for a medley of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” Taylor Swift’s “Never Getting Back Together,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” Prince’s “Kiss” and, well, what everyone has to play when they come to our town, Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City.” Sarina hit just the right note by almost apologizing before she did it by saying, “Since we’ve only been to Kansas City one time!” 

It was terrific.

After some wonderful fighting over the keyboards, both sisters playing over and against each other, Nalani stepped centerstage with guitar and began to testify. She shouted, “Just like James Brown said,” and Sarina answered, “What’d he say?” Nalani dropped to her knees calling, “Please, please, please.” The magic of rock and roll is when you are doing it right a moment like that works, and that worked that night as I imagine it does every night. That moment summed up not only the bravery and abandon of Nalani & Sarina’s 45 minute opening set but something close to the heart of the rock and roll universe.  

P.S. On my way out, I picked up their first album, released in 2014. Though they’ve only gotten better, most of what I’m looking for in music was all there even then.  

Set list:

Wake Up
The Circle
Wanna be with You
Deep End
Get Away
Hung Up
Pretty Lies
Hold on, I'm Coming
Hard Times/We'll Be Free
Break of Dawn with Hit the Road Jack, Never Getting Back Together, Think, Kiss and Kansas City.