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.


Jason Crane said...

Sigh. Most of this essay made me angry on your behalf. However, it also had a great upside, which is that I discovered a new poet! Thanks, David.


Unknown said...

Sounds like a thoroughly shit experience. I used to provide PA for various Political Events when I was based in London. I was always staggered that even at the largest events almost no thought was given to anything technical, however much I tried to meet with people and talk to them in advance, make suggestions etc it just felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. Every time I attend such an event I cringe. Amazing really, I was formerly paid full time by the Labour Party to do exactly that for them, but when I offered that for free to all kinds of groups & events I was pretty much ignored.

Respectable Citizen said...

Re. European political festivals, the most famous is the Fête de l'Humanité (Festival of Humanity) organised by the French communist party. Never been, but on wikipedia says,

'The first fête de l'Humanité took place in September 1930 it was started to raise funds for the newspaper L'Humanité and 1000 people attended it. The 2010 festival attracted 600,000 visitors

Hundreds of stalls are scattered around the venue offering food and drinks with the stall holders coming from all over the world to be part of the event. Political debates are also held in some of the tents''Humanit%C3%A9

Famous acts who have performerd their include, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, The Who, Deep Purple, Jacques Brel, Johnny Hallyday, Renaud, Chuck Berry, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Patti Smith and The Stooges.

French trotskyists run similar events which include tents with political meetings + food, drink, book stalls and so on.
A Portugese friend of mine mentioned a similar festival in Portugal organised by the communists which combines cultural, food, sport and music.

It's a good model to aspire to, but maybe they didn't pull it off this time, constructive criticism can maybe help.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I'm sorry you had this experience of the festival. I'm sure that one of the organisers will get back to you about this as well, but I wanted to throw in my personal comments as someone who was involved in planning and running big parts of the festival (although not the party).

This festival was run entirely by volunteers, save the comrades who prepared and served the food and drinks who were paid for their time. Of course we really appreciate you and all the other performers and speakers giving your time for free- just bear in mind that we all did, too. We also only had a short time to plan and execute the entire event - about a month and a half. (Tariq Ali, by the way, was involved in coming up with the idea for the festival - not just lending his name!).

This means that although we made every best effort to make sure everything went well, there are some things which didn't go entirely as we had hoped for. With 8 different venues across two days, it was a huge organisational task for people doing it for the cause to take on.

This has definitely influenced how we will plan and execute the festival party next year, and we will ensure that the cultural events are a central part of the festival (although, as with talks, we can't force people to attend the event or listen to the performers).

Anyway, like I said, I am genuinely sorry that you had this experience. I hope you bear in mind that this was not done through malice, ill-will or a disregard for culture, but as an honest mistake at a brand new festival.

All the best,


David Rovics said...

Hi Elly and friends,

Just to respond to the comments above... Elly, it wasn't a festival, it was a conference. Sorry, but that's my central point. Regardless of whether it's organized by volunteers and all the performers and speakers are volunteers, whether or not that's a good model, my point is that a festival is mostly about culture, and at this Marxist conference, culture was a background afterthought. If next year folks are going to organize an actual festival, it will be an entirely different thing than this misnamed conference.

In regards to the Fete de l'Humanite, good point -- when I saw the bit about "European summer festivals" I didn't think of the Communist Party festivals, since they are specifically Communist Party festivals and not just "political" in some vague sense, nor do they mainly happen in summer. I've played at the Fete de l'Humanite, and the Festa do Avante in Portugal, the Presse-Fest in Germany, the K-fest in Denmark, and the Festival of Alternative Economics in Italy. All run by their respective Communist Parties, all paid well (again, not my main point, but just a fact), and all festivals where music was mainly what was happening. All festivals also where lots of speakers spoke, and left politics in that sense were a big part of all of them, but mainly they were actual festivals, with a focus on music, where regular people, not just leftists, were in attendance. This is how they successfully reach beyond the choir.

As far as whether events will be well-attended or not, this is also something that can be engineered in various ways. For example, you could pair little-known musicians with well-known speakers, or pair little-known speakers with well-known musicians. And as far as whether or not people will be paying attention, how you bill an event and in what kind of venue you have the event is crucial. If people are sitting in a dark theater with stage lights pointing at the person on the stage, the audience will sit quietly. If they're at an event billed as a reception or a party, they will chat and drink alcohol and consider whatever music is going on as background music. Some of them might dance, perhaps, if it's dance music. It's not an environment for poetry, certainly, unless you're really trying hard to insult a great poet, and the whole idea of poetry, which has successfully been done last weekend.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, David. Like I said, the way the festival party went this year will influence the way that we do it next year. So there's no need to drive the point home relentlessly. It's quite patronising especially given that I have already apologised in a personal capacity.

We had an incredible amount of people attend the festival who had never been to a left-wing event before, and most of them were actually attracted by the discussion sessions - the reason people gave most for attending was either to see David Harvey, Tariq Ali, Owen Jones and Laurie Penny. So whilst I completely take your point that culture should be an integral part of a left-wing festival, I think your conviction that young people will only attend a political event because of culture is misplaced.

Either way, this has informed how we act next year - we're looking, perhaps, at having simply a festival reception/party and having musical performances in the open spaces during the day, like we did with the left-wing comedy event this year which was very well attended.

Anyway, I have apologised and said that your criticisms will inform how we act next year. I think that if we're going to engage in serious and useful criticisms of each other as lefties, and learn from our mistakes, then we should learn to accept a genuine apology too.

David Rovics said...


With the utmost respect, "I'm sorry you feel that way" isn't really an apology, and in any case I wasn't looking for one. I'm looking for understanding, for one thing, like real comprehension of what I'm talking about, and I'm not getting it so far.

I was critiquing an event, one of so many events that discount the relevance of culture, but in this case, an event that called itself a festival (so actually not including culture in a significant way in something calling itself a festival is actually an insult to culture, very patronizing indeed). Having outdoor music during the day isn't going to solve the problem in the least, but if the organizers are looking to really include culture they should consult people who do culture in the planning of the event. Otherwise it's a little bit like men running a women's conference or something like that, if you know what I mean. What I do is culture, and also I write stuff here and for Counterpunch, etc., critiquing the Left and it's "shoot myself in the foot again" orientation towards culture, which this recent festival is a prime example of. I've written many other pieces on this subject which you can find in this blog if you want.

I mean no one any disrespect, but I admittedly have a massive chip on my shoulder which isn't, unfortunately, going away any time soon.


Unknown said...

I think the problem here is that culture is seen as an afterthought when organising political events. I remember a few years ago how thew King Blues used to be treated on Stop the War events. Being told by stewards to turn down their sound system because it was 'interupting the chanting' on one small part of a demo. Also on one occasion when they put on at the very end of a national demo when everyone had gone home. They stood around for two hours as the SAME old speakers made the SAME old speeches. Talk about curing insomnia...

For card carrying lefties, sitting in a room listening to a marxist writer giving a great speech maybe the best way imaginable to spend the weekend. To everyone else it is history repeating itself. I'm not for one minute underestimating the importance of meetings that can educate and empower peoples feeling of anger. But the problem is that is largely ALL the left does along with it formulaic protests and paper sales.

Why can't the left do something REAL instead of just talking about it? In Spain the left are organising against evictions on a grand scale. In Greece neighbourhood committees are collecting food for austerity hit families. Why not occupy one of the empty tower blocks in the East End and offer the flats to evicted families living in b council run bedsits? Surely that would make the point a million times more effectively that asking other lefties on protests to sign petitions they already agree with? Of it would involve the left stepping out of its comfort zone and engaging with real people in the realms of reality. But you never know it might just work...

One thing I do know it that the present strategies of the left have done little but fail since 1992 when I went on my first demo. Since then we seen 3 unpopular wars, 3 recessions and capitalism completely exposed for even the most unpolitical people. The bankers have done more show ordinary people how the wold really works than we could have ever imagined. Yet the left remains in constant terminal decline.

Time for rethink....


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David Rovics said...

I just have to chime in to say that I agree with everything Guy just wrote. Which won't surprise Guy or anyone else who knows me or Guy, but just for the record... :-)

TheBadcock said...


I didn't mean for my apology to come across as 'I'm sorry you felt that way'. What I meant was, I'm sorry that the section of the festival you played in didn't meet the high standards of the rest of it. That's now the third time and counting that I've apologised and you can either take it or leave it.

Funnily enough, I do agree with Guy and yourself that the left needs to break out and do new things, attract new layers of people, present itself in different ways and engage with new people. That's why it's so frustrating that, if we try and don't get it quite right, we get publicly attacked in this way.

Either way, we will be back next year and, as I've said, will try and weave in some of this critique and produce a more culture-filled festival out of it.


David Rovics said...


I know this probably feels all very personal, but I just want to say that for me it really isn't. I know that naturally people take criticism very personally, but for me this is all part of the process, and I didn't name names in my piece on purpose. When the Left does typical Left kind of things like I described above, I have to call it out, in the hopes of making a difference. I'll continue to do that. And I hope you will continue to be an organizer, whether artists like me say critical things of your efforts or not. I'd just say that my critique is a critique, not an attack, and I wasn't (and am not) looking for an apology. Just trying to play my part in making the Left a better Left, for humanity's sake, because it's necessary, even if it's difficult. :-)


ScarabusRedivivus said...

The key to understanding the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze was something that wasn't there: the barking of a dog. The key to understanding this conference might also be what wasn't there: an integral and significant cultural dimension.

(Betcha the usual activity in that "sanctuary" integrates music and/or chant and/or recitation and/or "smells & bells" with the formal talk.)

radagast said...

Background poets! Background speakers! those are great ideas.

Next time i organise a party, instead of booking a musician who's going to feel a little bit bad about being ignored when they want to be listened to, i'm going to book a poet so there's no doubt.

Unknown said...

Good essay. I was documenting the anti-war marches in San Francisco for most of the Bush years (taking pictures), and couldn't believe how often the rallies were boring. As if the organizers couldn't find a few musicians - whether folksingers or rock bands - in San Francisco with leftwing sympathies who would love to play for a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people. And yet what we often got was an endless stream of speakers, some ok, some hurting my ears, and very little in the way of culture as you put it.

I saw you at the First Unitarian Church in SF in early 2012 (spaghetti dinner for the 99 pct) and I thought that was handled well.