AfGJ Reviews Year’s “Best” Albums For Activists
Above Photo: idugh/ Flickr
It’s that time of year when we look back on the old year while entering the new. On the music front, there were many releases in 2017 to pique the interest of the socially and politically conscious. With the plethora of best album lists coming out right now, the Alliance for Global Justice has given me the thumbs up to put out our own. I hope this little guide will give you some good material to explore. This is rather long, so no need to read it all as one big piece. Glance it over and if you see something that catches your eye,check out the review, and then give the album a listen and see if you agree! Enjoy – and Happy New Year!
You can support these artists best by buying your own copies of their music. If you want to preview something first, most the selections can be found on outlets like Spotify or Youtube. In a couple of the harder to find cases, I’ve included links.
Evelyn Cornejo, La Chusma Inconsciente – After six long years, Evelyn Cornejo has finally come up with an album of entirely new material. Cornejo’s first album, released in 2011, became an immediate classic and in many ways, was and is a soundtrack to the popular movements of Latin America. Her take on the “Alerta” chant heard at so many rallies and marches, became an almost required anthem.
Cornejo’s latest album, La Chusma Inconsciente (The Uniconscious Rabble), will not disappoint her fans. If one is expecting a repeat of the first album, this is not that. The first album was much more folklorico, its musical power residing in its simplicity and directness. This new album is a more complex fabric of sounds and rhythms. One can easily get lost in the nuanced arrangements and rich melodies, not to mention the elegant timbre of her voice.
The subjects covered are varied and intriguing. Chusma presents material that is more personal, more reflective than declarative, as much an expression of the person as the first album was an expression of the people. However, on stage and off, Evelyn Cornejo is a committed activist, and struggles for liberation, justice, and peace are as internal as they are external with her.
This album certainly has its political material and the title song is as anthemic as anything she’s written. The title song is almost chanted, although its rhythms make it perhaps inappropriate for marching – it requires dance. The lyrics, translated in part below, declare:
“We are the unconscious rabble, incapable of having an opinion.
We are the ones who speak badly, the badly dressed, the badly born,
those who want to free the cat that is fenced up.
We are the shit broke, the brown skinned, black haired.
We are the resented, we smoke joints and like wine….
I am a descendent of the masses, of a hot woman, and a promiscuous man,
because of this, now in the streets making disorder, walking around so much an orphan.
We are the ones that no one gives justice, living in a regime of impunity and greed.
We are the ones whose future is stolen, from my brothers and sisters, they spill all your blood.
I always hear how my race is bad, that we don’t deserve anything
and that we don’t claim anything.
We the ones who sustain wealth, power,
the ostentation of the psychopathic nobility.
I am the vulgar popular culture,
I sing songs pronounced very badly,
I am the rebellious propaganda song,
because the official music doesn’t accept social criticism.”
Whether we’re encountering her more private, internal side, or letting her music inspire us as we take to the streets in protest, one thing is sure about Evelyn Cornejo: she wants to change the world.
Joey Bada$$, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ – From the opening lines, this album throws down the gauntlet and calls people to struggle. The first song, Good Morning Amerikkka exhorts:
“Now, what’s freedom to you?
Let’s talk about it, take a minute, think it through
I’m all about it, but the concept seems loose
The cops will still shoot us down on Channel 5 news
Lock us up for anything we do to pay dues
Some of us woke while some stay snooze”
Then he closes that same song declaring,
“I came from
That the black man dream is long ago
I’m actually a therapist
Sent to you by your ancestors”
Really, this album just doesn’t let up. It may truly be the most political, resistance-oriented AND contemporary album of all the ones included here. Throughout, there’s a theme of history and references to those who have gone before. Joey Bada$$ talks in “Land of the Free” about how:
“Sometimes I speak and I feel like it ain’t my words….
I feel my ancestors unrested inside of me
It’s like they want me to shoot my chance in changing society.
“The first step into change is to take notice
Realize the real games that they tried to show us
300 plus years of them cold shoulders
Yet 300 million of us still got no focus
Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier”
In “Y U Don’t Love Me? (Miss Amerikkka)”, Bada$$ asks both defiantly, sincerely, and, yes, even, pleadingly, why this country doesn’t love him, why it doesn’t love his people?
“Tell me why you don’t love me
Why you always misjudge me?
Why you always put so many things above me?
Why you lead me to believe that I’m ugly….?
Why you never hearing my side to the story?
Never look me in my eyes, say sorry….?
Now I’m free, by the truth, I can’t be controlled, no more
Nothin’ like I used to be back before
Know it must hurt for you to see me evolve
Why you gotta kick me down on all fours?
Why you can’t stand to see me stand tall?
Tell me why we got a war?
Why we gotta fight? Why we always gotta spar for?
Why the cops always gotta get called….?
Amerikkka don’t love me
Whole country turned on me
It’s no love in the city for the homie….”
Really, there’s just so much gold here on each and every song. Of all the albums reviewed in this list, if there is one must-have collection, this is it. 2017’s album of the year!
Mere Women, Big Skies –Sydney, Australia’s Mere Women have released an album that is an exploration of the defiant angst that women take for granted as a part of their daily lives. Songwriter Amy Wilson explains the motivation for writing the very first track, Eternally: “Sometimes I get spooked and clutch my keys in a tight fist with my biggest, most jagged key poking out between the fingers – just in case. This fear hasn’t stopped me from walking alone at night and I hope it never does.”
Another theme is the inspiration the music draws from the Australian landscape. Talking about the album’s title track, Wilson describes, “the spectacular open sky sunsets and pitch black nights dotted with stars. When I moved away from the city I felt liberated and free but was immediately warned by locals that I better get a dog and be careful at night.”
Mere Women’s album Big Skies is exactly what you want to hear on a dark night in the desert, dancing manically underneath the Heavens while storming the gates of Hell.
Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway –Rhiannon Giddens, both as a soloist and with her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is part of a tradition that retraces some of the oft forgotten African roots of North American music. Beyond blues, jazz, and rock and roll, her work also reveals African roots of Appalachian and Piedmont folk styles, bluegrass, and country music. Herself a banjo player, she reminds us that the banjo didn’t just magically appear in the hands of masters like Erl Scruggs. You trace any banjo player’s pedigree far enough, and you’ll find yourself listening to the sounds of Africans and Africa.
Lyrically, where does one even start? This album is a beautiful, moaning, and shouting cry out against racism and abuse that covers themes of outrage and fight back. She weaves a cloth from threads of suffering and resistance throughout the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, right into today’s struggles against police brutality and racial profiling. The opening song, At the Purchasers Option, is about the anguish of being a woman kidnapped and enslaved. It finishes with a verse that too many can relate to today – the hardships of low-wage and sweatshop workers. She shows that the exploitation of slavery has not so much been defeated as forced to morph and adapt with the times. She ends the song telling us:
“Day by day I work the line
Every minute overtime
Fingers nimble, fingers quick
My fingers bleed to make you rich”
The song Julie is the album’s best known. Set during the United States Civil War, Giddens tells of a White plantation mistress begging Julie, a woman she has held captive as a slave, to stay with her and protect her against the coming Army of liberation.
The enslaver pleads,
“Julie, oh Julie
Can’t you see?
Them devils have come to take you far from me”
“Mistress, oh mistress
I do see
And I’ll stay right here ’til they come for me….”
The enslaver pleads yet more,
“Julie, oh Julie
Won’t you lie
If they find that trunk of gold by my side…
tell them men
That that trunk of gold is yours, my friend”
“Mistress, oh mistress
I won’t lie….
That trunk of gold
Is what you got when my children you sold.”
Most the songs on the album are originals, with three covers. Of those, my favorite is her treatment of Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. This song painfully recalls the four victims of the 16th Avenue Church bombing in 1963: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. The lyrics end with an exhortation to keep singing in the face of racist terror:
“On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground
And people all over the earth turned around
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound
And the choirs kept singing of freedom.
Now the Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone
And we can’t do much more than to sing you a song
Sing it so loudly, you better sing along
And the choirs keep singing of freedom.”
La Sarita, Tributo al Peru – Who better to craft a tribute to Peru than La Sarita? La Sarita’s discography is characterized by its positive portrayal of Peru’s rural and working class peoples, soulful rendering of the people’s plaints, and energetic advocacy for land and water and the communities sustained by them. La Sarita is equally at home crooning a romantic ballad as they are breaking into a tune designed to activate the mosh pit. Through it all, they throw in tijera dancers in full regalia, a bit of huaynos, some Cajamarcan couplets from the mountains, and some Lima flavored salsa. With this album, the band has reworked a handful of well-known Peruvian songs in their own style, mixing the modern and the traditional.
This album is something anyone can appreciate. But if you want to read a review that really touches on the full depth and breadth of this work, you’ll have to go to someone other than this gringo solidarity activist. But even from my limited understanding, this totally works. And I swear, give a listen to Carnaval de Aymara and see if you don’t hear a touch of the Irish in there!
Oh, by the way, I’m cheating a little by including this album in the list. It was actually released to the public in November, 2016. But I love La Sarita, so it was close enough for me!
David Rovics, Ballad of a Wobbly – David Rovics wins the prize for this list’s most prolific artist in 2017. The movement troubadour put out three albums over the past 365 days, including Punk Baroque, and Live in Rostrevor. In November, Rovicks closed out the year with Ballad of a Wobbly.
Listening to Rovics is much more than a musical experience – it’s is an education. He takes the news of today and the contemporary state of popular resistance, mixes lessons on past legacies of struggle, and serves it all up in song. Ballad of a Wobbly is no exception. The opening and title song is a sweeping history of early 20th century labor that begins with the immigration of a Scottish worker uprooted from his homeland and headed for America. It ends with the notorious Palmer Raids and the worker’s deportation. We cannot help but be moved to think about the conditions of labor and immigrants today, in the early 21st century.
“Today in Charlottesville” lays down a pulsing beat that ticks, ticks, ticks like a clock and brings us back to the present and one of 2017’s most shocking events. He sets the background with 2016’s Charlottesville church massacre. He sings about the resultant movement to take down the statue of slavery defender Robert E. Lee that stood in Emancipation Park. The song was written shortly after Heather Heyer was killed protesting a demonstration by White supremacists. The repeated chorus “19 injured, one killed today in Charlottesville” punches you hard, taking what reads like a headline and turning it into a summons to mobilize.
For anyone who supports the global liberation struggle, his song “Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro” is a fitting and touching tribute to that people’s giant who died in November of 2016. Rovic’s words come from all our collective hearts:
“When we look at history and how it’s all unwound
There are few people on the planet that have been more tightly bound
With the liberation of our troubled human race
Than the man from Santiago with the beard upon his face….
If the world could vote for a leader, how many just might choose
Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruiz”
“Text Messages of the Apocalypse” is a stunning and poetic discourse on the harsh realities of climate change and climate injustice. One line sums up how the angst of the age has become the “new normal”: “How’s the apocalypse treating you? That’s how you greet your neighbors these days.” The theme of ecological struggle is repeated throughout the album.
But Rovics won’t leave his audience wallowing in despair. He remains, even now, a preacher of revolutionary hope. “Make the Planet Earth Great Again” speaks not of despair, but solutions:
“We could tackle the economy first – get rid of all the billionaires
Set the system up so that instead of hoarding, people share
Make housing, food, and health care basic human rights
Around the world, for everyone is how we’d set our sights
If we could get to that point I could say that then
We could make the planet Earth great again….
We can stop spending money on antiquated technology
Such as tanks and missiles and most other things military
We can use those vast resources to make us all safe and sound
Windmills in the air, coal and oil in the ground
We can be the envy of the rest of the galaxy when
We make the planet Earth great again.”
What better way to end the album, and to finish the year, than listening to these words and letting them guide us into the fights we must wage in 2018?
Billy Bragg, Bridges Not Walls – Billy Bragg had hoped to release an entire album in 2017, but instead, we got a mini-album, Bridges Not Walls. As he explains, “Life comes at you real fast these days. What’s a singer-songwriter to do when events keep challenging the way that we see the world…? I’ve been grubbing up songs for the past 12 months, but without the time to get an album together due to other projects, so…I decided to start dropping tracks as they became ready…culminating in a mini album.”
Billy Bragg’s music uplifts and prepares the listener to engage in life with both tenderness and fire. His faith in the people is unshakeable, as he exhorts us to keep up the good work of building a more beautiful world. But he doesn’t pull any punches at all on the possibility that we may lose everything. In the opening song, “The Sleep of Reason”, Bragg tells us,
“It’s over now, you lost my friend
Move on, just let it go
Says a man who flies a confederate flag
On his profile just for show
And when he hears someone point out that things
Are much too male and white
He eases off the safety catch
On his second amendment rights
And so it goes…
And the kids are alt-right….
And the sleep of reason produces monsters
And in the end, the greatest threat faced by democracy
Isn’t fascism or fanaticism
But our own complacency
And so it goes…
Best pay attention
For there’s simply no guarantee
Of a happy ending to history….”
Bragg’s album takes on fossil fuel dependency, the inanity of border walls, racist hate groups, and the Brexit. All that in just five songs!
My favorite of the collection is Saffiyah Smiles, a homage to Saffiyah Kahn, who held a bunch of White supremacists at bay with nothing less than a smile. Brag explains the motivation behind the song,
“Following the shocking scenes of white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville this past summer, my mind went back to an image of a young woman facing down a ranting fascist with nothing but a serene smile. Saffiyah Khan had been taking part in a counter demonstration against the neo-fascist English Defence League in Birmingham, England, in April this year when she saw a woman being surrounded by taunting EDL supporters. Saira Zafar had been verbally opposing the racists and a number of them had left the demo to turn on her. When the police struggled to protect her, Saffiyah stepped up and got in the face of the loudest aggressor, holding him at bay with nothing more than a smile until police intervened. A press photographer captured the moment and the picture went viral. Local Labour MP Jess Phillips memorably tweeted the image with the caption ‘Who looks like they have the power here?’”
Here’s hoping Mr. Bragg can keep up with the times and deliver a full album in 2018!
Princess Nokia, 1992 Deluxe – This album grabs you in the gut and doesn’t let go. Princess Nokia celebrates all that is female, African, and Puerto Rican and more with an unapologetic fire. Give this album a listen and you’ll be celebrating with her, whatever your gender, race, or background.
The song Brujas really sets the tone
“I’m that Black a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba
And my people come from the Africa diaspora, Cuba
And you mix that Arawak, that original people
I’m that Black Native American, I vanquish all evil”
Her celebration of hair culture and diversity in the song “Mine” must be seen as a form of joyful resistance to the bourgeois and White orientation of Big Fashion. She reminds us that real fashion is to be found in the lives of communities, not in the pages of a magazine or high end stores:
“I like the Dominicans who rock they weaves innocent
Shout out the Boricua girls who rock yaki ponytails
Big up to my Africans who braid, many hours spent
They own they own businesses and work while they care for kids
You know I love aunti girls with Sunday best bonnet curls
And love to my Asian chicks who make hair go straight as shit
I love how West Indies do, it’s gossip with hair and food”
Give this album a listen and you’ll be celebrating, too!
Adia Victoria, Baby Blues, and How It Feels – I’ve been a fan of Adia Victoria’s music since before the release of her first full album, 2016’s Beyond the Bloodhounds. Victoria was born in South Carolina and currently resides in Nashville. She speaks from experience about all the contradictions of growing up in the South. The mood of Adia Victoria’s music calls on muses that have thrived in the murky, muddy, and rich Southern soil – a nourishing earth that is stronger and more durable than any plantation mentality.
Victoria is an outspoken social and political critic who sings about the struggles of Black people in the face of systemic brutality, about poverty, about gender, about gentrification, about community, about liberation.
Celine Teo-Blockey, in an interview for Riff Magazine earlier this year, asked Victoria:
“You have said there is a huge swath of the country that is not happy with the progressive strides the U.S. has made for African Americans, LGBT and women. Do you ever think about repercussions of that statement?”
“No. I made a deal with myself, professionally, that I am here to tell my story and nothing else. If it proves that this is not a viable career for me, I will step away. … There’s been whole industries dedicated to just keeping those in these positions of privilege happy. I think they can give me some space to sing with my guitar. It’s OK. It’s not going to hurt them.”
Rather than release a new full album in 2017, Victoria released two very different EPs. One is Baby Blues, a collection of three covers of blues songs by Robert Johnson, Victoria Spivey, and Lee Hazelwood – whom one doesn’t normally associate with the blues. But by the time Victoria’s done with him, blues it is! Her other offering is How It Feels, which contains one original and three covers. All the songs on this EP are in French, and the tone and atmosphere is pure Adia Victoria.
These albums are not pointedly political like Bloodhounds. But she’s a rising star coming straight out of the people’s movement and its cultures. Give her discography a listen and when she comes to your town, be forewarned, her show is not to be missed.
Manuel Garcia and Sebastian Vergara, Los Habitantes – For fans of Manuel Garcia this album is something new and refreshing. Garcia is a bit like Paul Simon in that his songs are rooted in folk and singer-songwriter traditions, in his case, the Nueva Canción movement of his native Chile. But, like Simon, he is known to reach out and explore all kinds of styles while still maintaining contact with his roots. With Los Habitantes, he works with classical composer Sebastian Vergara in a collaboration that oozes with a full tonal pallet that repeatedly takes off from and returns to the grounding of Garcia’s songs and soft singing style.
Garcia is deeply connected with the Chilean Left. But he is not to be pigeon-holed by Leftist subject matter. He is a poet and musician who explores the full depth and breadth of human experience, and always in a manner designed to uplift the listener.
Thematically, Los Habitantes explores imagery of a humanity that is deeply connected to nature. These themes are woven together in a way that delves deep into the whole spectrum of humanity and Earth’s creatures. The album is an ecology of the psyche. The arrangements and treatments by Vergara underscore this to great effect.
Both Garcia and Vergara are gentle souls whose love of life, people, and the world we live in constantly affirms an indestructible beauty. Surely that’s an attitude that will bring solace to political activists in our battles against the uglier realities of life.
Brian Eno, Reflection and Tom Rogerson and Brian Eno, Finding Shore – Brian Eno put out two albums in 2017, beginning with his album, Reflection, released the very first day of 2017. He closed out the year as a featured collaborator on Tom Rogerson’s album Finding Shore. Rogerson provided the raw material of his improvisations. In turn, Eno used an invention by the Don Buchla and the great Robert Moog to shine infrared beams on each key on Rogerson’s keyboard. This triggered electronic sounds mixed with the piano’s natural tones. These were further subjected to Eno’s manipulations as the performance proceeded.
There are no words on these albums, so it’s a bit of a stretch to call the offerings political. But there’s a deeper way that these albums are meaningful for anyone with a vision to change the world and fight oppression. Che Guevara said it best in his famous quotation, “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.” To know revolutionary love is to be bedazzled by the beauty of nature, by the warmth of humanity, to be immersed in all the sight and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings that make life a wonderful thing. For the true revolutionary, political struggle is always an outgrowth of living. In that sense, both these albums are sensuous landscapes that ground us in beauty and arm us as we face our adversaries.
But, be assured, whether the music is overtly political or not, Brian Eno is. I’m not familiar with Rogerson’s other work, I’m quite familiar with Eno’s, both as artist and activist. Eno opposed and wrote against the Bush/Blair march to war with Iraq. He is a prominent cultural supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in solidarity with the people of Palestine. Eno is keenly aware of how his sonic-scapes can be used and abused to political ends, hence his refusal in 2016 to allow an Israeli dance troupe to use his music for their performances. On the other hand, in 2011, we saw Eno providing the soundtrack for a short video about the cost of the war in Afghanistan that ended by encouraging people to turn out for an anti-war protest.
Finally, a quotation from Mr. Eno regarding politics and artists.
“Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague…. Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.
But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.
What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.”
The Isley Brothers and Carlos Santana, Power of Peace – The Isley Brothers and Carlos Santana are testaments to the longevity, evolution, and renewability of creative expression. The Isley Brothers first started performing together back in 1954 and put out their first album in 1959. Carlos Santana’s band put out their first album a decade later, in 1969.
I’m especially a fan of the Isley Brothers, who have played an often pivotal role in musical development. Their album Givin’ It Back addressed both the civil rights and anti-war struggles with a piece of vinyl that unified cultures with its infective grooves. Their 1975 album Fight the Power was rebellious and trendsetting and an important seed for the next decade’s innovators. Its beat and exhortation to “fight the powers that be” would provide an anchor on Public Enemy’s milestone album Fear of a Black Planet.
Carlos Santana has also been a cultural bridge across many backgrounds. Himself a son of Jalisco, Mexico who later immigrated to San Francisco, his music calls upon the multiple roots of jazz, chicano rock, Mexican music styles, and psychedelic jam rock. And while long guitar jams may be what Santana is best known for, on Power of Peace, his soloes are often surgical and swift in their delivery, leaving you hungry for more. While listening to him wail on Love, Peace, Happiness, it seemed like the song came to a halt just as I was ready to take that ride several miles further down the road.
Power of Peace is an album of covers that range through a variety of themes relating to peace, from personal to spiritual to social. Each of these covers bring fresh and inviting interpretations on some old and familiar tunes. It’s great to see that in 2017, these artists are still kicking it out.
Protomartyr, Relatives in Descent – The first thing you hear on this album is that deceptively captivating drum line. Man, everything is, you know, subdued and copacetic and nothing is too fast, nothing too loud, the sound is all clean, when, bam! – you’re someplace heavy and dangerous and at any moment you could fall, fall, fall, and there’s no getting out of this one.
I mean, there’s no one thing that particularly stands out about Protomartyr. It’s the whole thing. The tone. The color. The insinuating sounds that permeate each cell like the irrepressible smell of sparks deep in a pit fire that just won’t die. That’s Protomartyr. They smolder.
Protomartyr smolders, indeed, with a generalized angst produced by a modern world that is ever more quickly consuming itself within and without. The band is based in Detroit, so they pretty much have a front row seat to see class struggle in action and how a place crumbles into poverty and disarray while the powerful few continue their vapidity and hypocrisy-fueled quest for more profits, more privilege, more power.
The song Anacita is exemplary, a warning to avoid getting oneself entangled in the destructive and antiseptic and painfully boring world of the well-off and clueless. The lyrics tell us that,
“Against the sea, a hidden incorporated town
that glows like a zircon in a fire,
its straight white streets,
they crawl with consumers and their dogs.
Migrant workers tend the transplant poplars.
The liberal-minded here,
they close their eyes and dream
of technology and kombucha.
The anti-vagrant system sounds like
20 dollar bills being sorted in a counter.
Don’t go to Anacita.
They got their goon squads on patrol.
Don’t go to Anacita,
they’re gonna throw you in a hole.
Behind their walls and gates, the people fear a thief
that would steal money god put in their pockets.
Their god is such a strange, vindictive beast.
He only blesses those who prosper.”
Propagandhi, Victory Lap – I liked Canada’s Propagandhi the first time I saw their name, even before I’d heard one note. Any band that comes up with a name like that has got to be good! As soon as I heard that first note, I was hooked. They are a great punk band and they are committed activists. Anarchist, Vegan, and outspoken, their albums and live shows are inspiring. The band doesn’t just preach, they talk the talk and walk the walk.
One might expect such an activist band to provide a few more words of hope in their latest album. But if anyone’s taking a victory lap, it’s not Propagandhi. Punk rock is defined by its brutal honesty, and this album doesn’t pull any punches. It is a deep-from-the-gut-cry-of-angst-and-anger.
The very first and title song of the album aims squarely at their neighbors to the South, the United States, a country whose president was selected on a campaign of climate change denial and promises to build a border wall to keep Mexicans and Central Americans out. The song starts off imagining a future USA, burning in flames and its own citizens racing for the border:
“When the flames engulfed
the home of the brave,
the stampede toward the border was in vain.
Faces palmed, faces pales
as the wall they said would make them great could not be scaled.”
In When All Your Fears Collide, the lyrics confront the existential despair and emptiness that each agent of repression, and each member of society who willingly supports it, will inevitable feel. The words tellingly reveal that at the heart of all that so-called power lies a nucleus of self-consuming fear.
“When all your fears collide, you’ll watch the sun rise,
but it will rise over ruin
unveiling your crimes, observing the depth of your failure,
the violation of humanity still burning in your mind.
Your final offering is a tragedy that haunts you deep in the night,
their shadows circle endlessly.
All along they made you think that you would be the wolf this time.
When all your fears collide, you’re stumbling on this waste of life.
No reverse. No rewind.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I’m overwhelmed with the crap of this world, the last thing I need is for someone to try and make me feel better. I just want someone to confirm that, no, I’m not crazy, things really are as bad as they are, and the pain we are feeling is real.
If you want to hear the honest truth delivered with energy and power, Propagandhi’s gonna do it for you. And know that despite the truth they sing, this band is still out there in the streets trying to turn the whole thing around.
Los Espiritus, Agua Ardiente – Los Espíritus are a very cool and prolific band from Argentina, formed in 2010. Their music is heavily influenced by a combination of reggae, jam bands, and a little prog rock thrown in. They are great groove music – good to listen to while you’re working or taking a long, cross-country drive. Los Espíritus have put out seven albums in eight years. Agua Ardiente keeps up their multi-textured sound, and fans will want to add it to their collection.
Los Espiritus often broach environmental themes. As one might expect, motifs of water and fire, wetness and dryness, thirst and quenching, run throughout this collection. A couple of moments are especially relevant to the world of today and the threats the planet is facing. The lyrics are clear who we need to listen to, to set things right: Mother Earth.
La Rueda (The Wheel) tells us, as translated below,
Poor little, Mother Earth….
We spoiled the seas, we spoiled the rivers,
We spoiled the waters that the children drink,
The children who are going to grow up in order to buy and spend…
to use and throw and throw away and make the wheel run and turn.”
The song El Viento (The Wind), speaks to us about the ephemeral quality of our lives, part of the ongoing process of nature:
“Much water will run, much blood will run,
much wind will blow, much wind,
and each one of our voices will be put out
one by one under the silence of the moon.
We are going to dance, we are going to hear
that the Earth is whispering the great truth.
There are miracles in each instant, and each instant is eternity.”
Metalariachi Kingston, Fusiones de las Delicias – Wow. Amazing. I mean, how many words and phrases and ways to express purely delighted astonishment exist in the English language, or Spanish, or all the languages in the world?! Simply put, if you aren’t immediately blown away by this collection, then I hope someone is nearby to do some CPR on you, because your heart must have stopped beating.
I’m not sure how this album came about. I know it has the participation of members of one of my all-time favorite bands, Aztral Folk. By itself, Aztral Folk is an amazing combo of guitar, cello, drums, and bass, fronted by the unbelievable Kiri Escalante. Kiri is a master guitarist, composer, and arranger. But so what – the world is full of masterful musicians! But, look, folks, this guy…he fuses Mexican and North American musical styles and genres in psychedelic explorations that don’t hearken back to the 60s but thrust one into a completely uncharted sonic future. I mean, the whole band does that. Their live shows can leave an entire audience dumbfounded and slack-jawed in awe. And then Kiri goes and tops it all off with throat singing!
But be not deceived. This project is not just Aztral Folk. Recorded at Dubworks Studio in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, the album brings together more than 30 musicians, and all of them are excellent at what they do. But as good as these musicians are, one might just fear that such a large aggrupation would turn into a big muddy mess. Well, there’s definitely some mud there. You know – like the mud that pulled the first amphibi-fish out of the sea to give birth to the whole of terrestrial evolution!
The songs on this album (mostly in Spanish) broach subjects of interest to the popular movement activist. But I would suggest not trying to parse and delve into the words too very much. The best way to listen to this album is to just sit back and let it wash over you, wave by awe-inspiring wave.
Bruce Cockburn, Bone on Bone – Listening to Bruce Cockburn is kind of Dionysian. It’s like a bottle of wine that’s ageing a complex and multifaceted boquet of thoughts and feelings, and Cockburn’s music is like a corkscrew. The music starts to turn, something pops, and all of sudden – it breathes with a multitude of beauty, sadness, and depth released into the heady cosmos. Sounds kind of over the top, right? Give it a listen, and you’ll see what I mean.
For people of faith who actually give a rat’s ass about liberation and the fight against Empire, who maintain that there is no separation between spirit and matter, soul and body, personal and political, who believe the gospel is a call to peace, justice, and freedom from any and all Empires, then Bruce Cockburn is the guy for you. In a world where the Anti-Christ is, if anything, a Bible-thumping White man urging his flock to vote for the likes of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, it’s a powerful antidote to listen to an album like this and realize that not all those who “believe” have put their faith in something so vulgar and hideous. It’s clear that the faith that Cockburn has is one that has been passed down by such “saints” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Sojourner Truth, Jonathan Woolman, and that early gospel community who exhorted its followers to clothe the naked, heal the sick, feed the hungry, make peace, make love, and cast out all the vipers and snakes and money lenders who are still, to this day, keeping us down.
For those who are not people of faith, there’s plenty of room here, too. The non-believer is neither judged nor threatened with punishment nor exhorted to give themselves to gods or God.
Cockburn’s lyrics belie a sense of ecological justice, and more, wonder. While the pleasantness of those musings may be palliative for us in these times of planetary threat, the words to False Rain pull no punches in confronting listeners with the horrifying reality we are currently facing:
“on the coastline
where the trees shine
in the unexpected rain
there’s the carcass
of a tanker
in the centre of a stain
and the waves of
dead sea things
slide slick on to the stones
and the flux
thicker than water
from the planet’s pierced bone….
and the drift of gas clouds
size of horseflies
scrutinizing the crowds
and the horsemen
on a high ridge
they wheel and they ride
their work all
done for them
by the turgid black tide
false river, dark flow
how far do we have to go?
torrent tumbles to the sea
this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be….
on our own heads be our doom”
Canadian Bruce Cockburn is yet another activist musician. Many of us in the Latin Solidarity movement remember how he supported the struggle against US proxy wars in Central America and, later, spoke out against US interference in Venezuela. On this latest album, there is no song that is explicitly about Latin America, and while the album is suffused with thoughts and emotions inspired by the absurdity of the modern “age of Trump”, the songs here are rooted in Cockburn’s personal musings, not any kind of explicit polemics.
But don’t be deceived. Political struggle is very much on Cockburn’s mind. In February of 2017, Cockburn was given the Folk Alliance’s People’s Voice award. His acceptance speech is a challenge to all of us as we finish this year and get ready for a new one. They are a fitting end, then, to this collective review of the year’s albums:
“In the mid-’80s, the Reagan administration’s official truth was that there was no war in Central America, therefore there were no refugees… all those Latinos and Latinas coming north across the border were just dying to be cooks and chambermaids and gardeners. People were dying in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, slain by weapons and training provided by the U.S…..
I acquired the reputation of being a “political” singer. Before that the music business pigeon-holers were prone to calling me a “Christian” singer, or things like “the Canadian John Denver”, on account of my round glasses.
The fact is though, the writing I did started from the premise that I’m supposed to distill what I encounter of the human experience into something that can be communicated, shared. I’ve never been interested in protest for its own sake, or in ideological polemicizing. Just f***ing tell it like you see it and feel it….
That isolation and silencing of dissent as practiced in the Reagan era has, with the growth of social media, kind of swung 180 degrees, to where the cacophony of mostly anonymous personal voices, each attached to its own conspiracy theory, tends to shatter truth into kaleidoscopic fragments, reality buried in the resulting avalanche. My truth. Your truth. Alternate facts…what a fertile medium in which to grow a public tolerance for totalitarianism!
This is not lost on those whose narcissism and maybe testosterone level give them the notion that it’s their right and duty to tell the rest of us how to live….It’s always tempting to think that what’s good for me is good for you too. That’s why we need to have dialogue, debate, respect for each others’ opinions and feelings. Especially if you want to run a democracy, you must value the expression of these things…. but somewhere in the steaming ocean of bullshit they’re creating is a place for, a definite need for, truth.
They are trying to stifle opposition across the board by a range of means. Looks to me like they’re just getting started. Who will end up being the last line in the defense of truth? Maybe you and me…”