Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Midnight in Triana


In the ruins of the city
Cardboard for a bed
Sleep the great musicians
With visions in their heads.

At the end of Empire
Living in the debris
Arise the great dancers
Struggling to be free.

The city falls around them
“The fruits of Babylon”*
Soldiers in the streets at night
Terror in the dawn.

(“O yeah” / “Police and Thieves”)

Gunfire in the neighborhood
Children in the streets
Making beauty
Out of violence and deceit.

From the streets of Trenchtown
To the wars of Africa
Vaccinations for confusion
Immunity from despair

Playing on a tin can
Like no one’s ever seen
Dancing in the ruins
Of an economic scheme.

(Block 3 again)

Don’t you often yearn
For justice in this world?
That those who do the evil deeds
Should get what they deserve.

And everyone has problems
Small as some may be
Singing songs of freedom
Can almost set you free.

Rhythms in the alley
Strains of Tientos’,
At midnight in Triana
(sample of Tientos’)!

We experimented playing the following chord progressions drawn from flamenco in different orders until we settled on this pattern.

[Played block 1 (no words)
block 1 (1st stanza Am-G-F-E)
block 2 (2nd stanza) Am –G-C-E)
block 2 (3rd stanza)
block 4 (G-Am (3x) G-F-E (1x))
Then repeat this pattern through until the next block 4.

Then for the final 3 verses we play
block 3 (C-G-Am-E—on to the end).


Tom arrived armed with a copy of the film Benda Bilili, and a deep appreciation of Flamenco music. Tom writes: Benda Bilili is a group from the Congo made of street musicians, most of whom are victims of polio. They were discovered by a pair of French film makers, who filmed their ascent from the tough streets of Kinshasa to a successful tour of Europe. All the musicians have wonderful stories, but the story of Roger stands out. When he joins the group, Roger is 13 years old. The other musicians are much older. He plays a homemade instrument that consists of a single string attached to a tin can. There are plenty of stories within the American blues tradition of musicians (I think that even Jimi Hendrix told a similar story) whose first instrument was a homemade guitar they had made. A typical example was a shoe string attachment to a broom handle. It is quite rare for anyone to actually perform with such an instrument and develop such a distinctive musical style. In the clips below, one of which was filmed when Roger was eighteen; the “Je t’aime” clip below features Roger as a thirteen-year old). These became important elements in our session this year.

Perhaps unwittingly, but also led on by our attempts to play whatever music we study, we have become odd musicologists. Long ago, after collecting albums and reading theory, we committed to playing reggae music. This opened doors to other Afro-Caribbean music—descended through slavery—to contemporary forms such as soca, samba, ska and others represented in this project. Tom, in particular, has studied the Gypsy Trail from India through Europe and North Africa to land in Cadiz and bloom into flamenco. Before we assembled, he sent out 4 chord progressions drawn from flamenco. This song started with a jam session on these progressions—called blocks 1-4—me shouting out a different “block” and the musicians (Caitlin, Tom, Norb, Mike) playing that progression. Tom notes: Our initial difficulty was deciding which of the “blocks” to use and how to structure a song with a verse and a chorus around them. At times, it was frustrating and for a few days it seemed that we were going around in circles. We actually were going around in circles, jamming on the “blocks.”

Lost in Writer’s Block

It became fun to play these chord progressions and add variations. As we got better at playing “blocks,” I felt a certain pressure to write some words. However, I did not do so. Tom thought of a great title for a song we did not have yet. He said, “Midnight in Triana.” We all loved the title. We had a title for no song.

Tom’ Explanation

Triana is one the traditional Gypsy (Romani) neighborhoods where flamenco emerged in the 19th Century. Triana is located across the Gualdalquivir River from the Seville in southern Spain. When Mike first heard the basic chord progression (Am-G-F-E) for the song, he said that it sounded “dark.” When we were discussing a title, that remark came back to me, so I thought a nighttime setting would be appropriate.

Web Sites for Staff Benda Bilili

One night during breaks in a music session, we sat around and brainstormed on questions like, “What happens at midnight in Triana?” Or “Who is out at midnight in Triana?” It was fun to play this word game but still no words.

By Wednesday, all of us had seen the film, Benda Bilili. This provided a wealth of inspiration; we revisited the film and YouTube clips (E. G. “” or “Polio,” or “Je’t’aime.” Any clips are great!).

Web site for the film: Benda Bilili

Film trailer: Benda Bilili Trailer

Some songs:


“Je t’aime”


“Sala Mosala” Staff Benda Bilili on Jools Holland—playing reggae.

Some images began to form into a metaphoric vision. This metaphor wove together the sounds of the chord progression drawn from flamenco with images of the streets of Kinshasa from the film.

The Beauty of the Random

One of the random conversations we had involved the song “Police and Thieves.” This came up at the beginning of the week when we were watching the film, Westway to the World—and once again, and nearly every time I have ever played music, The Clash surfaced as an inspiration.

Then, later in the week, Tom pulled up a clip of the great Lee “Scratch” Perry. This was somewhat familiar ground to us, since we had long admired his work. One of the first songs we ever played together was “Daniel” from King Scratchy’s History, Mystery, Prophecy album—though I’m pretty sure I did not sing the words that Scratch wrote.

Cross link with Karma Refugee notes.

Late one night, we found this clip. An animated conversation resulted as we remembered learning about “Scratch” Perry. Learning the work of Lee Perry is one of the great joys of reggae music. Listening through his great productions, his original songs and all the dub is one of the most satisfying of musical adventures. From “Bed Jammin’” to “Dreadlocks in Moonlight,” it was good to rediscover Scratch—as amazing as ever.

Dub is a weapon!

Echoes of “Police and Thieves”

Kathee brought up doing “Police and Thieves.” That song was important to us during our days as The One Drop and though we played it many times, we recorded it only once on a 4 track. We noticed that block 3 of our progression was the chord progression for “Police and Thieves.” It became an influence in the song.

“Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin (Original version produced by Lee Perry)

“Police and thieves” cover by the Clash (from the film Rude Boy)


Images and how they might attach to the blocks of the song started to coalesce. The juxtaposition of sounds drawn from flamenco with images of the streets of Kinshasa from the film grew into a working idea for the song. The falsetto strains of Junior Murvin echo under the chord progression:

Police and Thieves in the streets

Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition.Police, police, and thieeeeevves.

Memories and ideas of Lee Perry’s work at Black Ark Studio came flooding back. This imaginative and complex work made in an impoverished post-colonial society out of a world-view that is at odds with the tenets of Babylon is among the great musical works of all time.

One of my first favorite reggae songs emerged from Black Ark: Lee Perry’s “Dreadlocks in Moonlight.”

In my early experience of reggae, I often did not know what Scratch said, but I knew it was true. The meanings and sounds of the actual words were up in the air—literally. A former student, David Hulm, took it upon himself to transcribe the song. We learned:

A time to sow and a time to reap,
Yes my friend.
The seed you sow is what you reap,
A bing a bang!

I once envisioned a mystical dread hanging out in the moonlight. The song has that feel. It nourished the spiritual reggae fantasy in my head at the time.

But then:
You send your big neck po’lice friend
To cool I out, but it no work!
Jah Jah walk right in and cool up the scene …

And then:
The knife that stick de sheep
A go stick de goat—Do you hear!
How you gonna feel
when d knife is at your troat .

In a nutshell, that’s the journey that reggae takes you on. We remembered that line, and when we pulled up a clip of “Dreadlocks in Moonlight”—revisiting an old favorite, we also pulled up the original “Police and Thieves.” Tom and I both thought they were the same track—laid down by the Upsetters at Black Ark. How many times we had both listened to those songs and never had that insight until that night in late July. We thought we had made a great discovers. However,

Tom noted:

“I am not too sure about this anymore, Lefty.”
At any rate, experience of the echo chamber effect of reggae plays a part in the writing of “Midnight in Triana.”

Friday Morning—The Fog Lifts

We had been playing the song in “blocks” and never settled on a consistent pattern. While Tom was recording and mixing bass lines in The Maltshop, I took my guitar to another part of the house and started playing the “blocks” until I settled on a structure. The words started to assert themselves—seeming at times to come out of the melody. Here are a few of the thoughts embedded in these lyrics.

“In the ruins of the city.”

I use the word “ruin” to allude to the work of Walter Benjamin—one of the overarching themes of this project. Even the juxtaposition of Benjamin’s terms—“mask,” “torso,” “ruin” seem poetic and visionary to me. It is in the “ruin,” the fragment, the discarded, that we see the clearest picture of our civilization.

“Cardboard for a bed.”

This line is an allusion to the film, Benda Bilili. The film provides a vivid glimpse into the ruin and the fragments of musical and cultural imagery that find expression in the music of Benda Bilili. They play reggae, funk, rhumba, rock and other forms—all African forms that made the forced journey into slavery and here return to The Congo through Benda Bilili’s music.

“Sleep the great musicians.” Tom says,

These two lines refer to the musicians who had to sleep on the street when the center for polio victims in Kinshasa burned down.

“Fruits of Babylon”

Whenever mass-media journalists interviewed Bob Marley, the questions they asked were poorly researched and often stupid. In one interview, the journalist asked Marley how it felt now that he was rich and famous and could enjoy “the fruits of Babylon.” Marley paused, scowled and said, “Babylon ‘ave no fruits.” This line refers to that interview.

“Playing on a tin can”

The satonge’ or mono-chord, the instrument that Roger plays in Benda Bilili. The symbolism of that instrument is like the band itself—that such style and beauty should emerge from the ruins.

“Strains of Tientos”
“Tom says,” Tientos is an important style of flamenco.

Is the Song Finished?

At the time of writing this entry, we do not have a “final” version of “Midnight in Triana.” In some ways, the song is still new and has a lot of growing up to do. Matt Gaffey provided some nice guitar tracks. Vocals need to be designed and recorded. This is an exciting time in the creative process because the raw material of the song now exists. The sonic possibilities are just being imagined.

One of the theoretical points of this project is that the song need not be finished. Unlike commodities such as books, records or films, song recording can continue as long as one of us wants to work on it. Tracks can be rerecorded, added, subtracted, modified, repositioned in the mix—the possibilities are staggering. I intend to repost this song as soon as I can get improved vocals.

Epistemological concepts, maintained and supported by literary conventions such as “the story,” “the end,” “the finished product,” “the book” are called into question by the emerging genre of the home-recorded song. “The story” becomes a collection of fragmentary images, sounds, collaborations and computers. “The End” could be the beginning of a remix.

Changes based on feedback loops can be made;

“the end” of a “finished product” transforms into “moments in an evolving process”—the process of song making.

Tom’s Review of the Benda Bilili Concert, October 18, 2012

I saw Staff Benda Bilili in NYC on October 18, 2012 and it was well worth the trip from Western PA. They played roughly 13 songs (11 in the main part of the set and 2 as an encore). The crowd was probably several hundred with a mix of all ages, but very predominantly white.
My overall reaction was to marvel is how good they have gotten now that they have had a few years to focus on music. All the elements were there from the early days when they were playing on the streets of Kinshasa, but they have grown more polished and self-assured. This was apparent in the tightness and elastic swing of their grooves, in velvet smoothness of their harmonies and in the cleverness of their arrangements. Although they played a few slower songs (by that I mean they started them at a slower tempo and then kicked things into a faster tempo after a minute or two), most of the songs are high energy, up tempo affairs. They have better equipment since their early days on the streets of Kinshasa. Roger is still playing his homemade satongé, but now he has built-in amp connection and runs it through an effects pedal. The sole exception is the drummer who is still using his home made drum kit (the bass drum is an empty crate; he uses some small hand drums as toms, and several tin cans as cymbals. He also uses a medium-sized kitchen pan as cymbal and he really makes that thing sing. He plays that kit marvelously and he is an important part of their grooves. That home-made kit helps maintain their rootsy sound.

The next thing that was impressive was the quality of their songs. They played 13 greats songs, even though they skipped of some of my favorites, like “Polio.” An excellent feature was that the concert program listed the songs they were to play and included a short translation of the lyrics.

What also stood out seeing them live is what a fabulous dance band they are. Despite having relatively sparse instrumentation, compared to other African or salsa dance bands which often use multiple guitars, keyboards, horns and percussionists–how sparse in their instrumentation is; they laid down heavy, irresistible dance grooves all night long. They had Coco on guitar (Theo also played guitar on a song or two) playing repetitive rhythmic patterns, bass, homemade drum kit and Roger on his amplified satongé (a homemade one string lute made from a tin can) improvising over the top. Roger’s role was often to drive the groove to peaks of frenzy. Being an American audience, people were reluctant to get up and dance. After the ninth song Kabose went up to the mic and said “Thank you, thank you, please, stand up,” and the crowd stood up and started dancing. It was as if everyone was waiting for permission to do something “outrageous,” like dancing to music. The crowd stood on their feet for the rest of the show.

Finally, they are a wonderful harmony group. They feature four major soloists (Coco, Papa Ricky, Theo and Roger), but during the show that I saw all eight members of the band took turns doing solo vocals. Their standard format is to have one person doing the main vocal with three to five other members of the band singing a harmony response. (It would have been nice to have someone like Kathee or Caitlin along to figure out how many different harmony parts they were singing), but in any given song they would trade off the solo part several times.

Here are a few additional comments:

Roger was wailing all night long. It has been interesting to see him develop from a timid 13 year old (in the early scenes of the Benda Bilili documentary) to become a self-assured adult with amazing talent as a musician and a performer. He has star quality written all over him and no doubt one day he will be fronting his own band, but he seems quite at home in Benda Bilili. He often jokes with the other members of the band. At one point Kabose lost one of his crutches and Roger went over to retrieve it for him.

One thing that surprised me was that Papa Ricky was very somber, he hardly smiled the entire show. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well, but I felt kinda of bad that he didn’t seem to be enjoying the event more. Playing in NYC had to have been a dream-come-true, I expected to him to enjoy it more. Well, he did enjoy it is his own way. He was however, quite dapper in a light pink cloth shirt. He would have looked almost preppy, if not for his white, wrap around shades.

My first recording and Benjamin’s “Author as Producer”


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.

“Little Wing”

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!