Saturday, June 1, 2013

Festival of Harmless Notions

Almost every time I get asked to play at an event for free, unless it's for a protest, I end up regretting it. Around a month ago, a few days into the tour of Europe I'm on now, I got an email from someone whose name I don't need to mention,who was organizing an event being billed as a “festival of dangerous ideas.”

Now, there is something dangerous about asking a musician to play at a festival for free, and not in a good way. Professional musicians are some of the poorest members of any society, financially speaking, and we are constantly being asked to play “for the cause.” (When an organizer once asked Woody Guthrie to play for free, saying, “it's for a good cause,” Woody famously replied, “lady, I don't play for bad causes.”)

But it just so happened that I was already planning on being in London this weekend, and it just so happened that I didn't have a gig booked for the Friday night they were asking me to play. I figured it was unlikely I'd land a paying gig for that night by the time the request came, so I said yes, I'd do it. Honestly, the main attraction for saying yes was the fact that Tariq Ali's name was all over their website and email signatures, and I'm a big fan of his writing and thinking, for the most part. In retrospect, I have no idea if he was involved at all in planning the thing, or if he was just nice enough to lend his good name to the event so that people like me would want to participate in it. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, but who knows.

The initial mass email announcing the event included this sentence: "We hope to recreate the best aspects of European summer political festivals with their dynamic mix of politics, film, art, music and the spoken word." I have no idea what “summer political festivals” they're referring to, but in any case, they failed to do this. What they succeeded in doing was organizing a series of talks led mostly by Marxist intellectuals. I have nothing against Marxist intellectuals. They are some of my very favorite people on the planet. And some of the intellectuals were women and even women of color, which is refreshing. It was billed as an “international” event, and to be sure, at least a few of the speakers were not British citizens. But a series of talks by Marxist intellectuals is not a “festival.”

A festival is a mainly cultural thing. By definition, last I checked, a festival is an event where the main emphasis is music, theater, art, film. (And to be fair, they were also showing some films at this Marxist conference.) However, the music and poetry component of this event consisted of one event, after a day of speeches, culminating with the “big names” -- Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, and company. This single component was not billed as a concert, it did not happen in a theater or on a stage, it did not involve a seated audience to speak of. It was billed, depending on which official description you were reading, as a “party” or as a “reception.”

When people go to a party or a reception, especially if it's after a long day of speeches, they usually expect to talk, unwind, drink alcohol,etc. Which is exactly what they did at this event. If there is live music, they expect it to be in the background. Which is what it was.

I have never met a musician anywhere on Earth who actually wants to play background music. The only reason musicians play background music is because it pays the bills. A professional musician will usually politely, or perhaps even effusively, thank their employer for hiring them to play background music, because professional musicians like to eat and pay the rent, and they appreciate anyone who allows them to do this. But when their friends ask them how the gig was, they will say things like, “it paid,” which means, “it sucked, of course, but it allowed me to eat, so it was OK.”

But dangerous ideas are my specialty, so when I was asked to play at a festival of dangerous ideas, I thought, how appropriate! Someone wants to include me in this festival because what I do for a living is sing about dangerous ideas, so naturally they want to have me at an event where people will be listening to my musical expressions of dangerous ideas, just as they will be listening to some of my favorite Marxist intellectuals speak. And then, when I saw that Rafeef Ziadah would also be performing, I was thrilled. And I was even more thrilled when I learned that Rafeef and I would be performing at the same event!

Here it must be said that Rafeef Ziadah is one of the greatest poets alive today. She has recently gotten a lot attention for her poetry, since she finally got around to making a CD of it, and someone put up some great videos of her performing on YouTube, which have now been viewed over a million times. She's also a Palestinian, and a brilliant intellectual as well. And she was billed to perform her poetry at this party/reception.

This event, from my experience, actually represents a new low for the Left, or for anyone else, for that matter. If anyone, on the Left or not, hires musicians (or asks them to play “for the cause”) to play at a party, they do so with the understanding that this will be background music. (I only found out when got there that I was playing at a party.) Therefore, no one in their right mind would even think of hiring a poet or a storyteller to perform at a party, because everyone knows that poetry is not background stuff. You wouldn't ask a speaker to do some “background speaking,” and to my knowledge, no one ever has. But at this “festival,” a new phenomenon has been pioneered: background poetry.

I arrived at the venue for the sound check and I immediately wanted to leave, but professionalism got the best of me, and the desire to see Rafeef, so I stayed. The venue was a sort of cafe within a church. A lovely building with the kind of reverberating acoustics you would expect of a church. The kind of room where if two people are talking at a normal volume, you can hear every word, anywhere in the room, bouncing off of the walls. At one end of the room was an espresso machine and a bar, and at the other end was the area where we were to perform. (I call gigs like that, “duet with milk steamer.”)

The organizer of the event found out that evening that drinks are not allowed in the “sanctuary,” where the performance was to happen. There was a permanent sign explaining this, which the organizers had not apparently seen when they booked the place. This is a problem, on the one hand, because when you sing or read poetry or give a speech, you need to drink something while you're doing it, for your throat. The organizers didn't think of that, but what they did think of, once the event was under way, was that it was unfortunate that the people who might want to come hear the music and poetry wouldn't do so because they wouldn't be able to bring their drinks into the sanctuary.

But the idea that they would have come in with or without their drinks was basically nonsense, because they were there for a party, not a concert or a poetry reading. So, while Rafeef performed some of the most emotionally-charged, politically-driven, powerful poetry about her personal experiences with racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, the Marxist intellectuals chatted with their wine glasses twenty feet away, their banter and laughter bouncing off of the sanctuary's walls, filling the room with noise. To be sure, some few dozen people tried to listen to Rafeef, which was virtually impossible todo with all the noise.

Adding insult to injury, the sound system which was built into the walls was, for reasons unexplained, unavailable for our use. So, at the last minute, the nice man doing the sound brought in his own little amp kind of thing, wholly inadequate for the task. It was, appropriately, an amp he had found in a dumpster. It really needed to stay in the dumpster, but instead it was being used for us to attempt to sing and speak through. If you turned the volume up to the appropriate level, it distorted everything horribly, and that, combined with the cafe conversation nearby, made the idea of doing any kind of quiet music something of a joke.

After Rafeef performed, before I even plugged in my guitar, most of the people who had come to hear her left our section of the room and went back to drinking and chatting. The distorted little amp succeeded in driving away most of the rest of the “audience” mid-way through my first song.

After the gig, after Rafeef and I had left the venue and gone to a park to hang out and talk with a couple other friends, she told me about her experiences during the recent uprising in Tunisia, and how central music and poetry was to the uprising, how much amazing art was created by the participants in Tahrir Square, how this kept the whole thing going. People involved in other real mass movements throughout history will tell you the same kind of stories. Ask anyone who participated in the Civil Rights movement or the anti-war movement in the 1960's about the role of music and culture within the movement. (Even the most sectarian leftists back then formed rock bands to promote their parties!)

Leftist intellectuals often opine about how lame the Left is these days in the western world. I share their feelings. But what most of them overlook is staring them right in the face. If they would look around to the rest of the world – say, the Middle East or Latin America – they would see that music, poetry, and culture is at the very center of social movements there, and always has been. They would see that most people in the western world who become politically engaged became so because they were turned on to activism not by leftist intellectuals, but my some combination of punk rock, hip hop, folk music, and/or being on the wrong end of a police truncheon. After discovering Rage Against the Machine, the Clash, Public Enemy, or Phil Ochs, then they found people like Tariq Ali and Tony Benn – not the other way around.

I don't know if the Left in England or elsewhere in the western world will be able to drag itself out of the hole it's been in for several decades, but if it is ever to do so, it will not happen by continuing to ignore the relevance of culture. Because ignoring culture, or attempting to pioneer the shocking new phenomenon of “background poetry,” is to ignore the fact that human beings are not just brains attached to laptops. Human beings are creatures with hearts. If you just talk at them, they will go to sleep. If you sing to them, at least under the right circumstances, they might wake up.