Music on the margins
By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., March 7, 2008
On the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, about 50 miles north of Dar es Salaam, lies the town of Bagamoyo, population 30,000. Though it may be nothing to write home about now, in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Bagamoyo was the capital of German East Africa (which, while it lasted, encompassed Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda); it was both a major trading port for ivory and other goods and the starting point for many of the most heavily used caravan routes into the African interior. Most significantly, however, Bagamoyo was a major hub of the East African slave trade. For many captured Africans, its beaches were the departure point for the trip that would take them away from Africa and across the ocean to a life of servitude. The town's name comes from the Kiswahili phrase bwaga moyo, which translates to English as "throw down your heart."
Recently, American banjoist Béla Fleck found himself in Bagamoyo. On hiatus from leading his eclectic pop/jazz/bluegrass band, the Flecktones, Fleck had gone to Africa in the hopes of tracing the history of his instrument and finding a new source of inspiration through collaboration with local artists. Traveling from east to west, he started in the villages of Uganda, where he sat in with communities of musicians – men, women, and children – who create enormous waves of arpeggiated sound using shakers, vocal choirs, and giant wooden marimbas large enough for five men to play at once. He worked his way through the Gambia, where he discovered the three-string akonting (thought by many to be the precursor to the banjo) and a darker style of music not dissimilar to the bluegrass he had grown up playing. Eventually Fleck reached Mali, "the crown jewel of the music community in Africa," where he played with guitarists and vocalists whose music sounds like both an outgrowth of ancient North African dirges and the source of American blues.
But before the Gambia and Mali, before accompanying the chants of Masai tribesmen and receiving the royal treatment in metropolitan Bamako, Fleck stood on the beach at Bagamoyo, a white man alone at the eastern tip of Africa, looking to make sense of his place as an outsider, a guest, a musician, a student, a pilgrim, an artist, and, perhaps most significantly, a reminder.
Fleck's travels to Africa are documented by filmmaker Sascha Paladino in his new film, Throw Down Your Heart, which will screen as part of this year's South by Southwest Film 24 Beats per Second series. Like many of the musicians who appear in this year's documentaries, Fleck finds himself caught between his creative impulses and the weight of historical circumstance, between the desire for freedom and the acknowledgement of his ties to the past, between loyalty to the world he was born into and the world he's looking to create out of the air. Perhaps more than any other art form, music is saturated with history and demands from its practitioners an acknowledgement of this fact and a plan of action for dealing with it. Too much reverence for past forms and traditions, and the future dries up; too much self-assured indifference, on the other hand, and music collapses in dust, a house built on a cloud.
As he had hoped before he left the U.S., Fleck finds redemption in collaboration. Playing with a blind kalimba (finger piano) player in Tanzania, he discovers that despite boundless geographical, cultural, and historical barriers, the man is a perfect musical partner. After only a few minutes together, they are forming the vocabulary of a new musical relationship, and this despite the fact that the Tanzanian had never heard a banjo before. As a lifelong collaborator who's recorded with such artists as Chick Corea and bassist Edgar Meyer, Fleck immediately recognizes this relationship as the best of all possible partnerships: one that not only brings the artist closer to himself but pulls him further and further away as well, into uncharted and unimagined creative territory. In a situation like that, the past begins to lose its power (history can't be rewritten, but there's hope it can be recontextualized or, at least, ignored), and Béla Fleck can breathe free, once more an individual and no longer just a symbol.
Unfortunately in other places around the world, the past is not really the past at all and so can't be so easily shrugged off. In Baghdad, for example, the past is everyday and immediate and unrelenting. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Hussein, Bush, the West, the Middle East: It all ties back to the past inextricably and without apparent end. In a situation like that, what's a heavy metal band to do?
This is the question at the heart of Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi's remarkable Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which follows the Iraqi band Acrassicauda (Latin for "black scorpion") from the early days of the Iraq war through the darkest months of the insurgency and eventually into Syria, where the band's five members were forced to flee when the violence at home grew unbearable. On the one hand, Acrassicauda is like any other heavy metal band: They're loud, abrasive, rebellious, and unkempt; they appeal primarily to young men; and its members see the band as an escape and a catharsis, as a means of rebellion and a source of community. On the other hand, of course, they couldn't be more different. Few bands have to seek out the approval of coalition forces when they want to put on a show or arrange for emergency generators in case the power fails, which it will; few fear violent reprisals from religious insurgents who claim that the music they play is proof of sinister Western loyalties, that head-banging is too similar to the Orthodox Jewish practice of davening, and that all "music-filled parties and all kinds of singing" should be banned. Few lose their practice spaces to mortar fire.
Risking their own lives, Moretti and Alvi dive deep into those of five young men whose drive to create is constantly running up against a wall of intractable, unpredictable, and homicidal history. Acrassicauda played their first gig during Saddam Hussein's rule, and the band members remember being forced by authorities to sing a song in praise of the president or risk retribution. So when the war began, they had high hopes that the country that had brought them Metallica and Megadeth and rock & roll would also bring some of that freedom it was so famous for telling others it was famous for. But history is history, and war is war, and music is tiny by comparison, so with the rise of insurgent violence in 2006 and the instituting of curfews and the collapse of civil liberties in Baghdad, the members of Acrassicauda found themselves not just disappointed but despondent. Practice spaces are just brick and mortar and can be replaced, but liberty is far more elusive, and the persistence of violence resulting from age-old hatreds conspired to turn the bandmates cynical. "For two hours [during performances], we want to free ourselves from our chains," their bass player, Firas, says, looking out over his bombed-out city. "Where's the freedom?"
Everyone involved – the band, the filmmakers, the audience – would like to believe that freedom is found in the music itself, in the creating, in the conscious refusal to give up artistic ambitions. And it's true that the movie's final scenes in a Damascus studio, where the band is preparing its first CD, are inspiring, but even those scenes can't ensure hope in a world where a band has to sell its equipment to stay alive and music can't be heard over the din of a refugee crisis.
All of which may make the other films showing during the 24 Beats per Second series seem trivial by comparison. But struggle is still struggle, regardless of its magnitude, and the value of creativity in the lives of ignored, abused, and forgotten parties who embrace their outsider status should never be discounted. After all, it's always the outsiders who are driving art forward.
Take the heroes of Negin Farsad's Nerdcore Rising, who are pushing the borders of hip-hop to include the experiences of a group of people who, until now, have been woefully unrepresented in the rap world yet are as dedicated to its keep-it-real ethos as any old-school B-boy. Led by the MC Frontalot, a 6-foot-tall, balding white guy who wears glasses, button-down short-sleeve shirts, and some sort of flashlight headdress onstage, the rappers, musicians, and fans in Nerdcore Rising represent a new movement in the so-called "geek world," one based on greater visibility and a new sense of pride. It's a movement built out of the increased social galvanization made possible by the Internet and then given a voice by Frontalot and his peers.
We see that voice celebrated and vindicated time and again as Frontalot and his backing band travel the country on their first tour. What starts out as a joke (for viewers, not the band) becomes something different, as it becomes clear that Frontalot represents a seismic shift in self-regard for a community whose members have spent most of their lives hiding in corners, avoiding abuse, and generally retreating behind a wall of academic achievement and social resignation. After lifetimes spent at home in front of computers and video-game consoles, the kids at these shows seem as surprised as anyone to find themselves at a rock & roll club and to discover so many of their own kind there with them. So when Frontalot raps about Star Wars or Magic: The Gathering or uses the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" in one song and rhymes "farce" with "parse" in another, what seems like a gag becomes an act of social rebellion and community-building. Making rhymes out of his own pain growing up as a nerd in America, Frontalot spits in the face of expectation and turns his own experiences into the rallying cry of a movement.
Which is similar to what the members of British punk band Heavy Load do, but in their case, the upheaval and cry for equality is fortified by the weight of actual political will. When director Jerry Rothwell first began filming the band a few years ago, they were little more than a curiosity, a group out of Brighton that, like dozens of other bands in England, specialized in high-octane, barking punk rock songs but that, quite unlike those other bands, comprised mainly learning-disabled members.
Relying on an abundance of heart and enthusiasm, "the U.K.'s Only Disabled Punk Band" was making a small name for itself as a live group in Brighton when Rothwell first heard about them. But the director, who had recently descended into depression after the failure of an earlier film project, saw the band as something more: a group that existed outside the mainstream commercial music world and that, in the true punk spirit, was making music "for fun, not fame" and happily destroying expectations in the process. He saw them as a pure good in an impure world. So, as much for his own mental health as anything else, Rothwell took a chance and decided to document the band's world.
His bet paid off. The story he captures in Heavy Load is a minor miracle, really, at once a classic rockumentary about a band and its creative and personal differences, an eye-opening look at the artistic and (more fascinating still) psychological/emotional lives of the mentally challenged, and a story about a group of people who go from part-time musicians to full-fledged social activists in the name of punk rock. Taking as inspiration one of their own songs, "Stay Up Late," the band starts a movement to free state-supported disabled adults from the confines of their curfew system so that they can choose the kinds of lives they want to be living. Like true punks, the members of Heavy Load challenge the status quo loudly on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves (a scene in which the boys terrorize businesswomen at a music-publishing house with their amped-up version of Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You out of My Head" is easily one of the joys of my movie-watching year thus far) and in the process turn their hobby into a national movement of discontent, disaffection, and possibility.
Halfway through Heavy Load, Rothwell talks about the act of artistic creation as a "land of possibility," the place where we imagine the people we might become. I'd go one step further and argue that art is, at its best, the creation of new worlds through the manipulation of the world that's been granted to us; it's the belief that reality is merely a collection of raw material waiting to be reassembled. Take, for example, the musicians in Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet, who take apart old Nintendo Game Boy systems and turn them into musical instruments. By hijacking and reshaping corporate technology and using it in ways its inventors never thought of, these "blip" musicians are able to take control of their own experiences, in this case taking relics of their past – instruments of nostalgia – and converting them into a means to creating the future.
In its way, that kind of active realignment, this refusal to accept "expert" authority, is an act of revolution as old as art itself (and definitely as old as rock & roll). It's also the most effective and the most subversive way for artists to create the vocabulary that will allow them to reconfigure a world that's trying, at every turn, to crush them under the rubble of history, be it social, political, or personal.
In the 21st century, first you seize the means of production; then you rewire them.
24 BEATS PER SECOND
Blip Festival: Reformat the PlanetWorld Premiere
Saturday, March 8, 10pm, Dobie
Monday, March 10, 12mid, Dobie
Thursday, March 13, 4pm, Dobie
Heavy LoadWorld Premiere
Monday, March 10, 6:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 15, 11am, Convention Center
Heavy Metal in BaghdadU.S. Premiere
Wednesday, March 12, 9:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Saturday, March 15, 8pm, Alamo Ritz
Nerdcore RisingWorld Premiere
Sunday, March 9, 10:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 11, 10:30pm, Alamo S. Lamar
Friday, March 14, 1pm, Convention Center
Of All the ThingsWorld Premiere
Saturday, March 8, 11am, Alamo Ritz
Monday, March 10, 5pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 13, 7:30pm, Alamo S. Lamar
Rainbow Around The SunWorld Premiere
Saturday, March 8, 10:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 11, 8pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 15, 5pm, Alamo South Lamar
Throw Down Your HeartWorld Premiere
Sunday, March 9, 9pm, Alamo Ritz
Wednesday, March 12, 11am, Alamo Ritz
Friday, March 14, 11am, Alamo Ritz
The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee Scratch PerryWorld Premiere
Friday, March 7, 9pm, Alamo Ritz
Tuesday, March 11, 6:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Thursday, March 13, 6:45pm, Paramount
Wesley Willis's JoyridesRegional Premiere
Saturday, March 8, 1:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Wednesday, March 12, 4pm, Austin Conv. Ctr.
Saturday, March 15, 11am, Dobie
The Wrecking CrewWorld Premiere
Tuesday, March 11, 1:45pm, Dobie
Thursday, March 13, 11am, Convention Center
Saturday, March 15, 9:30pm, Convention Center