THE ART OF REVOLUTION:
A Report on the Dissident Arts Festival 2011 from Inside
by John Pietaro, August 14, 2011
The Sunday morning rain still taps away at my window as I sit contemplating the radical sounds and visions still ringing within. Gray skies today are no match for the leftover vibrancy from last night; just put on accent on the left.
While this was the sixth Dissident Arts Festival, and the second in Manhattan, its gathering seemed decidedly new and brash. Beyond the walls of Greenwich Village’s Brecht Forum stood a city filled with economic uncertainty. Police barricades along West Street could not contain the striking Communications Workers and Electrical Workers who were staring down monopoly capital just a few blocks away, in the shadow of where the World Trade Center once stood. Grifters, grafters and stray teabaggers haunt the outer edges of major media, straw polls and even our home turf seeking blame and profit in all the wrong places. These are tenuous times, times that cry out for an infusion of inspiration and expression.
In 2006 the Dissident Arts Festival came to be in light of and in spite of the Bush Administration. That first year we offered a forum up in Beacon NY for cultural workers of every stripe to sing, to orate, to recite and improvise, and the people came. Pete Seeger and Malachy McCourt (then running on the Green ticket in the NYS governor’s race) were among the best-known names but every performer and speaker carried the weight of establish the nation’s only annual protest arts festival. In the years that followed, the Beacon-based event offered tributes to Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, Bertolt Brecht and Phil Ochs, spoke out against war and corruption, talked about social change and social ills and acted as a sounding board for that Hudson Valley community and the friends who traveled far and wide to be a part it-- for at least one day.
In 2010, when my wife and musical partner Laurie Towers and I moved back to Brooklyn after living up in Beacon for several years, the Festival of course followed. Last year was the Fest’s Manhattan debut and what better place than the Brecht Forum. We had a good turn-out and some amazing performers and the strong desire for serious, serious growth. Planning this year’s Fest began almost a year ago. Poet Steve Bloom came aboard and agreed to stand as Poetry Director, which took a load off of me and allowed me to focus on organizing the other aspects of the event. I saw the potential for Festival 2011 and by working closely with many performers and the good folks at the Brecht Forum, we now have good evidence of the power of the arts as a weapon of social change….
The Dissident Arts Festival 2011 began, fittingly enough, with a screening of the incredible film ‘SALT OF THE EARTH’. Conceived and directed by Hollywood 10 member Herbert Bieberman, the story concerns a real-life strike by a local of the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, CIO—a radical union led by Communist Party members which defended the rights of miners and mill workers with a thoroughly egalitarian approach; many of its members were Mexican immigrants and the union fought hard for true equality in the workplace.
Bieberman, under brutal attack by HUAC, reached out to writer Michael Wilson, also a blacklistee, to create the framework for the miners’ story. Paul Jarrico, yes another blacklisted film artist, served as producer and the three brought several professional actors down to a site in New Mexico to begin filming with a cast made up largely of the miners and their families. No major studio would touch it and the film workers unions (SAG, IATSE, DGA) forbade their members from any involvement. Will Geer, who’d been a close associate of the CP and a loud activist for years already, knew he was walking the blacklist line but saw the need to become a part of this and signed on to play the sheriff (he must’ve eaten this up as he rarely if ever played villains). Mexican-born actor Rosaura Revueltas played the powerful lead role up until just before filming ended and she was forcibly deported by a frightened government hell-bent on ceasing production. The film only survived by being smuggled out of the state and finalized in post-production in secrecy.
Yesterday’s screening of ‘SALT OF THE EARTH’ served to inspire the Festival house. With so much attention on the strength of solidarity, if time had allowed I would have gotten some workers from the Verizon strike to come out and speak as well! But we were able to persuade the brilliant film maker KEVIN KEATING to become a part of the Fest for a second year in a row. Keating, who’d been cinematographer of ‘Harlan County USA’ and directed his own ‘Giuliani Time’, focused his discussion not so much on the art but the action----he offered even some burnt-out activists a new spark as he threaded together the visions of a 1950s multi-cultural, gender-equal strike with global rise-ups happening around the world right now.
The concert began in the 6 o’clock hour with THE GWEN LASTER ENSEMBLE (Gwen - violin/piano/voice, Monet-flute, Gary Fitz-percussion) working in tandem with a short indie film, ‘Divine Sparks’, by Imogene Drummond, about the transformative power of creativity. The Ensemble’s ethereal soundscapes and discordant New Music blended beautifully with the film’s imagery and narration and the audience seemed deeply embedded in it.
As the evening progressed, the music, true to form, traded the spotlight happily with poetry. STEVE BLOOM took the mic for the first time of the eve to not only introduce this segment but shared some of his own moving works with us. Steve’s poetry seems to easily straddle the styles of proletarian literature and daring spoken work of today. He was heard later in the evening too, always inspiring others to take pen to paper in a conscious attempt to change the world with poetry. He then brought out MARY ELLEN SANGER to recite her own socially-conscious pieces, some of which were based on her time living in Oaxaca, Mexico and incorporate both English and Spanish-language phrases. Mary Ellen too made more than one appearance over the course of the evening, greatly appreciated by this crowd hungry for wisdom between verses, activism in each phrase.
JUDY GORMAN has been a welcome presence at rallies for many years, sharing her music and insight with activist-audiences in several countries. She was also a wonderful presence at that very first Dissident Arts Fest in 2006 and made a huge impact at this one too. Judy taps into the folksong library but adds new spins to sacred protest standards that shake the cobwebs off and bring the audience together in rhythm. Her version of the Almanac Singers’ “Talking Union” bridges rap with old talking blues and her take on Woody’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” brought Guthrie to Joni Mitchell!
UPSURGE! came all the way from San Francisco to bring the crowd to its feet. Led by jazz poets Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg, the ensemble presented a finely confounded emulsion of modern jazz and spoken word, at once recalling the Beat poets, John Coltrane, Gill Scott-Heron and Amiri Baraka. The end result could serve to bring the Hip Hop generation straight to jazz! They have performed their call-to-arms smorgasbord of sound at multiple progressive gatherings in recent years and if they can arrange to travel across country each summer, they’d be a welcome part of future Dissident Arts Festivals. Ensemble members included Tony Jones on tenor saxophone, Rudi Mwongozi on piano, Bryce Sebastian on upright bass and Larry Johnson on drums (a very hip shining kit of Gretsch drums, I might add).
Next up was poet and singer-songwriter JACKIE SHEELER who performed two of her punk-influenced politically adept acoustic-guitar driven songs and then an expressive poem about aging in our society. Jackie notably wears her heart on her sleeve and her colorfully radical tattoos and mode of dress gave the Fest a much-needed punk jolt; we need to bring on more vestiges of the punk rock movement which also remains near to my own hear---I was happy to offer Jackie some percussion accompaniment on one of her more rhythmic songs. It’s not hard to hear the echoes of Patti Smith and CBGB in her performance.
THE NYC METRO RAGING GRANNIES filled the stage area next and taking it with a vengeance! This gathering of radical ‘women of a certain age’ included Corrine Willinger, Mercy Van Vleck and Sunny Armer, among a bunch of others and leader/accompanist Pamela Drake on guitar. The women brandished ‘Union Now!’ signs and sang several pieces which often newly radicalized old, formerly trusted melodies, to the delight of all. No, there was no need for polite patronizing: these ladies sang with verve and a strong sense of harmony all the while displaying their flowered bonnets!
Spoken word artist SARA GOUDARZI came on next. Originally from Tehran, Sara’s works included pieces about her childhood in Iran and offered a gentle but firm insight into the struggles of the Middle East and her people on these shores. Never raising her voice above a soft, conversational tone (she didn’t need to), the poet offered some wonderful examples of why she’s been so widely published.
My new band RADIO NOIR enjoyed its debut performance this night as well. Radio Noir plays what I like to call ‘Art Deco-damaged protest song’ or perhaps ‘1930s-tinged avant jazz’. In any event the line-up includes a wonderful young clarinetist Quincy Saul (a protégé of Fred Ho and increasingly busy musician, activist and author in his own right), Javier Hernandez-Miyares on electric guitar (Javier is a director at the 17 Frost performance space in Williamsburg, a producer, and prolific guitarist whom I first worked with over 25 years ago) and my much better half, Laurie Towers on electric bass (Laurie’s take on the bass guitar is akin to that of a lead guitarist in most settings, easily bridging jazz with R&B and rock). Radio Noir affords me the opportunity to feature my main instrument, the xylophone, one that is often completely overlooked in jazz music post-1935! I play xylophone with 4 mallets, something usually seen only with vibraphone and marimba, moving between the role of soloist and accompanist. To wonderful response, we performed Brecht/Eisler’s “Song of the United Front” (I also sang a couple of verses), an original modernist blues called “Langston”, a rather spacious take on Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”, a free improv over Hanns Eisler’s statement against HUAC (“Fantasia in G-Men”) and closed with a unique reading of the standard “Temptation”.
DAVE LIPPMAN, celebrated political satirist, had the audience in stitches as he portrayed the ‘Bard of Bankers’ and tore a new one for the transglobal capitalists and lost tea party minions equally. His punchy, comedic songs called attention to so many issues in such rapid succession that I lost count. Basking in the glow of his Bush-inspired, insipid characters, Lippman laughs at the conservative heartland even as he looks deep into the core of us all. As he set out to do, he kept the Festival “fairly unbalanced” in the best possible way.
The celebrated activist poet ANGELO VERGA offered the final spoken word performance and as always his was a powerful note to close that genre on. Angelo founded the ‘3 Poets 4 Peace’ in anticipation of the Iraq war and has been a presence in progressive and/or literary circles for many years. In his works, one can find a vision of life in New York that brings to mind the great Gotham writers of decades passed even as he conjures the state of affairs in today’s news. The lineage of John Reed, Mike Gold and Langston Hughes is well preserved in Angelo and many of the poets heard at this year’s Festival.
The Fest closed out with an aural eruption, the post-modern jazz ensemble SECRET ARCHITECTURE. I encountered this group, in their full quintet line-up, performing at Roulette for a special celebration of John Cage’s Musicircus about 3 months ago and immediately approached leaders Zach Mangan (drumkit) and Fraser Campbell (tenor saxophone). Last night they appeared as a whirlwind of a trio, with bassist Julian Smith, making up for lost sounds without ever breaking a sweat. A monstrously creative, communicative band, they use no written music, relying instead on previously composed vignettes that are masterfully woven together with musical cues and the occasional bit of eye contact. Drummer Zangan’s blurring chops, agitated ghost notes and penchant for tribal rhythms wrapped around Smith’s bold, barking and sliding bass lines and together they provided a brilliant foundation for the tenor of Campbell. The three successfully called on the Coltrane’s inspiration but one undoubtedly heard the 1960s Sonny Rollins trio in there and the spirit of jazz tomorrow! I sat listening but always in anticipation of another gig in which I would love to see this band paired with my own.
Perhaps the revolution may not be televised but one can easily imagine fomenting rage and action with the combined forces of dissentful free jazz, revolutionary word, angry ballads, radical modernist harmonies, dissident dance and theatre, realist and surrealist film and the model of a century of revolutionary cultural workers who came before us to try to change the world. In paraphrase of a Brecht piece, ‘Daily Worker’ journalist and noted proletarian novelist Mike Gold wrote a column for many years which called on artists to take to the barricades in the social struggles of his day; he entitled his column “Change the World—It Needs It” . As much as it needed it then, the world desperately needs radical change today. Now. We are on the verge of a new agitation, a new awakening, a new inspiration that cultural workers must embrace and grow if we are to ever have the organization---the large majority of progressives---to take leadership and truly change the world. And no movement for such change has ever been sustained in the absence of revolutionary art. Dissident Art.