Karma Refugees: A Trip through Benjamin’s “Author as Producer”
After a while we started to think we needed to give a name to the group of song-makers had that gathered each of the last several years to write, play and record songs. Tom, Kathee and I had been members of The One Drop, a college-town reggae band. Our first original and consistently performed song was “Karma Refugee.” We played it every time we played.
Opitz, “Karma Refugee,” The One Drop, prod. Gary Neyers, Uberaffe Records, 1998.
Caitlin, Mike and Tom in the Maltshop—Karma Refugees.
Caitlin, Mike and Tom
We named ourselves after the song.
The Karma Refugees
Dr. Thomas C. Daddesio, Slippery Rock (PA) University, is a founding member of The One Drop—a reggae band from central Minnesota that played at venues around The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in the 1990’s.
Dr. Michael J. Opitz, The College of St. Benedict, is a founding member of The One Drop. Mike stayed with the band through the 1990’s until it broke up in 1998.
Kathleen (Regan) Downes was a lead vocalist for The One Drop.
Caitlin Brutger became a Karma Refugee in the winter of 2010.
Along with visits from other friends, and the valuable assistance of Adam Konczewski, College of St. Benedict media specialist, we have emerged in 2009 as a multi-media recording project, The Karma Refugees.
Walter Benjamin writes: “Before I ask: how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, I would like to ask: how does it stand in them?” The answers to that question provide valuable self-reference; you learn where you stand in the system. You learn the role you play in someone else’s narrative. My “long, strange trip” through music began with reggae. The song “Luiz’s Reggae” is the first song I recorded and produced. For me, this opens a necessary dialogue.
“I made a song for you”
I got a phone call on a blustery day at the start of spring break sometime in the early 1990’s. I heard a familiar voice:
“Hey man! I made something for you!”
“For your class, man!” The caller was Luiz Moriera, a Brazilian student in my Critical Theory and Culture class. A paper was due at the end of the break. “I made it for your class. I made a song.”
Connected to a cassette tape deck
After a couple of phone calls, it was agreed that Rima, Luiz’s Costa- Rican girlfriend, would drive him to my house that afternoon. Rusty, one of our regular drummers, happily agreed to play a ceramic drum amplified by a small stick-on microphone. I had a stereo recording device that connected to a cassette tape deck. My family room in the town of Rice, Minnesota was the unlikely setting. My kids were in school and then told to keep quiet (ha!) later. Luiz Moriera, musician, poet, cultural theorist, and in this remarkable modern world, also a student in a class where we study what people like me did to people like him. Luiz sat in a chair in the center of the room with one mic in front of him. Thus a concert—for it became a concert—played by a Brazilian man, flanked by a Costa- Rican woman, a Midwestern college student with red dreadlocks and a professor from a small liberal arts college who recorded it all on a cassette tape—took place that day. I’ve always delighted in that scene. My kids, though curious, really did try to keep quiet. Luiz’s music was remarkable.
Luiz’s Reggae (Luiz Moriera, SJU 1993)
I don’t care what you can say.
I don’t care what you can see.
Words are soft and I am hard.
Words are many miles away from me.
I don’t care what you can write.
I don’t care what you can do.
Deeds are out when I am in;
You are there and I am here,
And deeds are only
Deeds are history.
I don’t care what fresh new thought.
We are out when fashion’s in.
Your theory’s cool;
Your teeth are cute,
But you’re the rule.
And I’m no fool for kings.
I don’t mean to blow you out.
And I don’t mean to break your heart.
I don’t wish to hear you scream,
But kick your crown and piss your throne.
Spit me out; spare my sin;
Get a life and make it right,
And build a home–
And finally breathe us in.
Finally breathe us in.
Notes I wrote for our album
“Luiz’s Reggae” became an early standard song in The One Drop shows at Sal’s, The Butcher Shop, Brother Willie’s Pub or any other place we played in the mid-1990s. Once, in our early days, Luiz came on stage with us and played an entire set of songs. That afternoon in an off-campus basement show, Luiz played until his fingers bled on the strings. We put our version of his song on our album. I wrote these liner notes for our CD (The One Drop, 1998): “This song was written by Luiz Moriera, a street musician, community organizer, poet, liberation theologist from Brazil. Luiz’s back had been destroyed by the combined effects of malnutrition and hard physical labor. Brought to America by the Benedictines of St. John’s for back surgery and a college education, Luiz never stopped educating those around him. Once he confronted filmmaker Spike Lee, saying “If you are rich and people are poor, then you’re stealing.” Many days Luiz was too sick to get out of bed; a friend once asked him if he was dying. He laughed: “It’s too expensive to die in America.” Luiz has returned to Brazil where he works to support his “brothers and sisters”—people Luiz and his family have adopted from the streets and raised.
Luiz’s Reggae – One Drop version. Ubberaffe Records, produced by Gary Neyers
Songs among the ruins
Here are some other songs from the same session. I remixed these songs as digital files in the spring of 2011 when I was on sabbatical from my job as an English professor at The College of St. Benedict. Remixing these songs brought me back to the blustery, early spring day Luiz recorded them. All of us were transfixed by the beautiful playing and soulful singing. He performed the same concert a week later for several hundred people at the Great Hall at St. John’s. I rediscovered these songs among the ruins of my analog tape collection, converted them to digital files and remixed them on Mixcraft. As I was doing this, I thought about the many recordings we made on tape. We learned to record using tape; we learned how things sound on tape. We recorded traffic sounds for our recording of “Karma Refugee” on Lake Street holding a microphone and a cassette tape recorder. Once we hung a microphone in an oven to give us an “ambient sound” track on our tape recording. We had recorded tapes in porches, basements, garages or somebody’s living room. Now tape has vanished.
Here are three of Luiz Moriera’s songs from that spring break afternoon at Mike’s house in Rice, Minnesota.
If Luiz told me the name of this song, I have failed to remember it. He said it was one of his “tricks” to hold an audience’s interest. I suggested that audiences liked it because the song is lovely and the playing is heart-felt and passionate.
I was delighted to hear Luiz’s version of “Summertime” from the opera, Porgy and Bess, (George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward). It is amazing to follow the trip that songs takes you on– tracing the path of from Africa, through slavery to Catfish Row. Gershwin, inspired as so many have been, by African melodies and chants, wrote a song that was composed for an African-American voice. Picked up by pop stars, jazz players, or street musicians, the song traveled to Brazil where Luiz picked it up and brought it to Rice, Minnesota. Songs have a way of ignoring boundaries and borders.
Luiz loved Jimi Hendrix. In this same afternoon concert, he played Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as Hendrix had played it. I have yet to remix “Watchtower,” but I include “Little Wing” here. It was a special moment when Luiz played “Little Wing.”
These lovely songs had been stashed away on a poorly labeled cassette tape in a box with a shabby bunch of sad, old tapes. I’m not sure I even have a machine to play cassette tapes anymore. But finding them took me back to my first step on a musical journey. These analog recordings took me back to those exciting the days of discovering the power and delicate beauty of making and recording songs.
Pieces of stories
Benjamin continues: “This question aims directly at the function that the work has within the literary relationships of production of a period” (81). He begins the piece by noting that the debate in Plato’s Republic—whether or not poetry should be banished from the ideal state—is fruitless and raises the wrong questions. If the word “literary” focusses narrowly on conventional writing, bound in books and “read,” then “what is literary?” becomes another empty question. In “The Age of Technological Reproducibility,” the meaning of “literary” has exploded as information has exploded. New genres, made more of fleeting, fragmentary images and cultural references than stories find new ways of exploring the ruins. A contemporary reading of Benjamin’s idea here can be extended to focus on “the song,” or “rap” among the emerging modes of expression. These inherently reproducible forms are made of bits of information—fragmentary imagery and language, rhythms, sampled sounds of anything, altered sounds, melodies and pieces of stories. Benjamin uses the newspaper as an example of how mass media enables a shift away from the literary or the story toward information. Benjamin writes of the newspaper, (but think internet): “For the reader is at all times ready to become a writer—that is a describer or even a prescriber.” That which was once the province of the wealthy—the power to describe life or to draw conclusions about social and economic conditions—has become more diffuse. Through the purveyance of and demand for information in late commodity capitalist media, “writing loses depth but gains breadth” and “the distinction between author and public” fades. The distinction between “great works of genius” and work that anybody can post on the cloud gets more and more blurry. Benjamin notes: “Literary competence is no longer founded on specialized training, but is now based on polytechnical education, and thus becomes pubic property” (“Author as Producer” 83).
The media Benjamin considered (radio, film, newspaper, photograph, telephone) today must include social media, the internet in general and all its multiple attachments. A song, such as “Luiz’s Reggae,” performed by a Midwestern college band, stands in these ruins and speaks of them.
“The Album” became a new genre
Sweeping changes in consciousness have occurred almost before we noticed them. One of these changes is the rise and decline of “the album” as a cultural genre. Sometime around the emergence of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, the album was invented. Combining the poetic insights and techniques of the lyrics with powerful polyrhythms, amplified instruments, and voices, the album happened when the technology to produce it became available. In order for a product like an album to become reified, it’s conception, production and distribution must appear to be inexorably linked to “the music industry”—a particular branch of what Adorno and Horkheimer call “the culture industry.” The emergent genre of “the album” necessarily includes all the details of recording, production, advertising and marketing. For a complex and powerful new genre, “the album,” to emerge at all, it had to emerge as a commodity. “The Album” became one of the new forms of expression, entirely connected to “technological reproducibility,” speaking of and to an increasingly fragmented world. Still, no matter how discordant and fragmented the messages of albums grew to be, the album somehow managed to find creative ways to hold things together on a single (or double, or triple, like Sandinista) disk. Though the album has become a versatile and flexible form, it is still a thing, sold for a price, stored in a package, existing as a finished product.
A college band producing cultural material
I remember always feeling uncomfortable about the position of The One Drop, a college-town reggae band, in the relationships of production. Even on a small scale, we were producing cultural material. Because of the reggae we played, the relationships of production became visible through the structure and meaning of every show. We often began a show with Willie William’s “Armageddon Time,” and ended with Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” It is not possible to play these songs without confronting the relationships of production. The songs name a world where “A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight/ A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight.” Our music explored that world in poetic, sonic, kinetic ways and ended by expressing the hope that “Everything’s gonna be alright, yeah!”
This live recording was from the end of a show—sometime around 2:00 A.M.—well past closing time. We had started with “Armageddon Time” five hours earlier. People did not want to leave, and that explains why we extended this last song so long. It was a great moment at the end of a long show, and Kathee’s singing made it magical.
No matter how small-time we were
Sometimes during a show, some faceless member of the crowd would yell something other than “Play Freeeee Birrrd,” or “You Suck.” One time I heard someone yell, “Sellouts!” I remember feeling uncomfortable. The One Drop was a college-town, middle-class and mostly white band that played reggae, ska, soca, and rock. The subject of getting paid always came up. I was older than most of my band mates and had a steady job. Most of them were students and understandably wanted to get paid. No matter how small-time we were, we got paid to play our shows. We invested some of our earnings in recording equipment and the various elements of a PA system. We wrote, recorded and sold an album of original music (The One Drop, 1997). We hauled ourselves around back and forth to Minneapolis or St. Joe, in snowstorms to practice in the oddest of places –the ones that would tolerate a rock band practice. One of the reasons for all those Saturday afternoon and Sunday night practices was to improve our playing and writing. If we could get better, we could play more shows and get paid the small amounts that bands were paid in small college towns. Everyone came to the practices because all of us wanted to play. I thought and still think that my primary motives and those of my band mates were artistic and political; we all put a lot of time into the band and in some ways it became a focal point of our lives. We liked playing and writing music for the political and artistic fun of it. We took delight in playing songs about the massacre at Wounded Knee (“Dancers of the Dawn”) at a Saturday night college bar. Making up a set list for a show was a political and creative act for us. Still, even on a small scale, the thought of making a buck by being a band always came up.
The mythologies of the social construct—the band
The mythologies that surround the social construct called a band always include a discussion of “making a buck.” The story gets hijacked into the conversation about how many albums were sold or will the band become the new Beatles—the next thing. And this conversation happens even among small-time, college-town, bar bands. The blueprint is something like this: some alienated, talented, rebellious boys luckily meet up; they are drawn to sometimes little known kinds of music—often the music of oppressed minorities; they develop a style and a vision; since they are “bad” boys, they play in some tough places, take pride in doing so and hone their sound. In the “story,” they gain a following, and in doing so, create a scene. An array of “scenesters” and fans appears and often the same people are at all the shows. The band becomes “successful”—and this happens even on a local, small scale. However, after the band reaches “success,” the downward slide begins. At this point in the mythology, the band gets signed to a “label.” The scene becomes a marketing plan. The bad boys get rich and aren’t bad or friends anymore. The vision is lost and the band’s old fans lament its passing and move on to the new scene. Following this script, the band enacts and embodies the relationships of production. Even in small, local ways, this roadmap gets travelled again and again. I think The Clash said it best in “Death or Glory.” In countless places in the technologically reproducible world, somebody “grabs the mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold”
(The Clash, “Death or Glory, London Calling). We know what the research inevitably shows!