Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Category Archives: 2013

Notes on the writing of “Streets (One Way)” Dreams and Visions

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Notes on the writing of “Streets (One Way)” Dreams and Visions, song 1

One of the aims of this site is to produce songs that are linked to theory that can provide insights into the glut of junk the contemporary consumer world has made for us, and of us.  In that sense, the work of Walter Benjamin provides lucid ideas about the production and distribution of cultural work in the post-modern world.  This work is inspired by Benjamin’s work.

The first two songs of the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (The Karma Refugees, 2013) are explorations of Benjamin’s life and work.  The first is loosely based on my experience of reading One Way Street—an experience that is hard to summarize.  I have favorite sections like “To the Planetarium,” or “Caution: Steps,” which says, “Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven” (Benjamin, One Way Street in Reflections 77).  These words serve as a good description of making the songs posted here.  I write a simple folk song for one voice and one guitar.  Tom, Kathee, Caitlin, and many other wonderful, creative people who have collaborated with us over the years, transform the song and build it into a multiple track recording—each track created by the person who records it.  After the tracks are recorded, the long hours of producing a mix of the song by weaving all the multiple tracks and myriad sounds together make a posted song—a bit of cultural material.

The experience of reading One Way Street is like being lost in a city.  Once you find your way—once you start to get it—you feel a certain kind of elation.  Benjamin gives you some sign-posts along the way and you start to navigate.  The song is a metaphoric query about how we navigate through these ruins.  These links provide further details about Benjamin’s life and work–details which provide the sign-posts to the making of these first two songs.

Streets

The first two songs of the virtual album, Dreams and Visions (The Karma Refugees, 2013) are explorations of Benjamin’s life and work. The first is loosely based on my experience of reading One Way Street—an experience that is hard to summarize. I have favorite sections like “To the Planetarium,” or “Caution: Steps,” which says, “Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven” (Benjamin, One Way Street in Reflections 77). These words serve as a good description of making the songs posted here. I write a simple folk song for one voice and one guitar. Tom, Kathee, Caitlin, and many other wonderful, creative people who have collaborated with us over the years, transform the song and build it into a multiple track recording—each track created by the person who records it. After the tracks are recorded, the long hours of producing a mix of the song by weaving all the multiple tracks and myriad sounds together make a posted song—a bit of cultural material.

The experience of reading One Way Street is like being lost in a city. Once you find your way—once you start to get it—you feel a certain kind of elation. Benjamin gives you some sign-posts along the way and you start to navigate. The song is a metaphoric query about how we navigate through these ruins. These links provide further details about Benjamin’s life and work–details which provide the sign-posts to the making of these first two songs.

Film One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin

One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin from dhurjati bhattacharyya on Vimeo.

Brief glossary of Benjamin terms
Walter Benjamin Glossari

Article by JM Coetzee,–critical overview and summary of Benjamin’s work
History of W. Benjamin’s Work

Notes on the writing of “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin),” Dreams and Visions

1.In his classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that the base changes far more rapidly than the superstructure. Following this thought, he notes that history breaks down into images and fragments, not stories. In “The Storyteller” he argues that storytelling is passing from the post-modern world. He writes:

One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness. Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible. With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body. (83-84)

The conditions of life under post-modern forces of production have made storytelling fade into the background. Benjamin continues:

The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing. (86-87)

As the story—a remnant of an aging superstructure– fades in relevance, its counterpart in the age of technological reproduction—information– rises in prominence. Our senses are bombarded with information. Yet information does not contain counsel or wisdom. It comes to us in fragments and fragmentary images.

2.In late July of 2011, a group of musicians who call themselves “The Karma Refugees” gathered at my house for our annual recording session.  The 8-10 day session also involves a lot of jamming as we evolve new songs to record.  This year, the first song we addressed was originally entitled “Suitcases.”  Then it changed its name to “Benjamin,” and finally became known as “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin).”  While this song emerges out of a deep structure of reading a large amount of Benjamin’s work, it centers on an image.  The image is that of a suitcase.  This image gives rise to other images—guarded borders, travellers, an ominous gathering storm, and “the tiny fragile human body.”

I think that Benjamin is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.  His multi-faceted work provides a complex and nuanced mapping of life under the conditions of late commodity capitalism.  In September of 1940, he travelled with a group of refugees to the border town of Portbou on the border between France and Spain.  As a German Jew, he knew the fate that awaited him had he been captured by pursuing Nazi agents.  The passage was difficult and Benjamin’s heart condition made the journey especially hard.  According to his guide, Lisa Fittko, he refused to abandon a heavy suitcase.  She reported that he told her it contained a manuscript that he very much wanted to protect.  When the border was closed, and the party was informed that they would be arrested the following day, Benjamin took morphine and committed suicide.

No one knows what happened to the suitcase.  Many have speculated that a final draft of The Arcades, Benjamin’s life-long project, made up the contents of the mysterious suitcase.  This sad story collapses into a central image—that of a refugee carrying a suitcase which potentially contains one’s life’s work.  The image gives rise to a speculation grown ripe throughout history; how does the control of boundaries and borders stop masterpieces from circulating and becoming known?  What if a masterpiece is incomplete?  What happens to unfinished lives or works?

Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)

3.The flash of image that initiates the song “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)” is this suitcase—possibly containing the work of a lifetime.  Beginning with the image of a mysterious lost suitcase, the fragmentary narrative of the song expands into other images—patrolled and closed borders, boundaries that cannot be crossed, refugees fleeing horrible death camps and the ultimate impossibility of escape.  Thrown into this conflagration of events, “all the knowledge in the universe”—the work of a lifetime—isn’t enough.  Refugees are caught “in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions,” and their possessions are lost.

The melody of the song and the chord progression was intended for a different song.  Tom Daddesio noted on the first morning of our recording session, that we had a good melody and chord progression.  His idea was to return to an old chord progression and try new words.  We played the song several times and recorded a first take with vocals, guitar and bass.  While I worked on refining the words, Tom searched the Mixcraft loop library for a good drum loop.

We had a recorded version—a first vocal track called a “guide track”—meaning that it will ultimately be erased but in early recordings serves to guide the other parts of the song.  We had a drum track, and bass.  When Kathee arrived later in the evening, we had a good start on the song-writing process.

The next step was to hang out and play live music.  Around midnight, we turned on the microphone and recorded a live version with K on vocals.  This step was important as she tried out vocal ideas and made creative choices.

The next day, Kathee spent several hours recording her lead vocals and harmony tracks.  That afternoon, Norb Jost—former saxophone player on The 1 Drop album, added harmonica tracks to the song.  Later in the evening, Caitlin Brutger added keyboard tracks, and I added some guitar tracks.  We had a song with four keyboard tracks (chords and melody), five guitar tracks, four vocal tracks, bass, drum loops and two harmonica tracks.  The following Saturday, Anna Wigtil—one of the video artists who shot the podcast—added three violin tracks to the song.  At the end of the week, we had a song of 18 tracks.  After he returned to Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, Tom discovered a Celtic drum beat that sounds like a heart-beat in the song.  We added that beat well after the other tracks were recorded.

All of these tracks are part of the composition process.  They illustrate the point that each contributor “authored” various verbal or sonic aspects of the song.  In this way, the “writing” of a song expands to fill the medium of technologically reproduced works of art.  The concept of a solitary writer making a finished work is the product of an older superstructure built upon a base that has already changed.  Foucault’s question, “What is an Author?” reveals it’s meaning in this process.  In this case, the author function happens through collaboration on multiple levels.

The final step in making “Suitcases (for Walter Benjamin)” happened over many nights of listening and mixing the 20 or so recorded tracks.  The sounds can be blended and altered in countless ways to give a final recorded song.  I did this mixing for about a week—working several hours each night—sometimes making very small alterations in the recorded sound—sometimes cutting a track completely or using it for a part of the song.  This process produced the mix that is posted on this website.  However, the point here is that I (or anyone else with access to the tracks) could add, change or subtract material from the song at any time.  This makes my final point.  In the age of technological reproducibility, the concept of a “finished” work is called into question.  A recorded song may be mixed into a stereo song—but as long as the tracks still exist, that production is never final.

Here again, Benjamin’s suitcase comes to mind.  Literary theorist, Susan Buck-Morss argues that Benjamin never would have finished his Arcades Project.  The post-modern world of commodity fetishisms assaults our senses with a constant parade of fragmentary products and shards of information.  One of Benjamin’s subtitles for The Arcades was “a dialectical fairyland.”  The idea of a finished work of “genius”—a “masterpiece” seems lost in this world.  Our best hope under this regime of truth is not the finished work, but the constantly evolving project.

This webpage is such a project.

My Grandmother and the “Bandit”: Two Songs About Marietta Marcolini

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My Grandmother and the “Bandit”: Two Songs About Marietta Marcolini
My grandmother, Marietta Marcolini, was born in rural northern Italy and came to New York as a very young, naïve woman. She came for an arranged marriage to a much older man, who soon died and left her a single mother. Thus began her descent into America—a place where she never felt welcome or at home. I think the greatest sadness of her life was that she was never financially able to return to Italy for a visit—as she said it—“To see my mama, again.” When I was a child, I sat at her feet holding skeins of yarn while she rolled it into balls. As she rolled yarn, she told me stories. One memorable story was about a bandit who had escaped from the prison near her hometown of Belluno. These stories and my childhood with her are the basis for these songs.

I find it surprising and also not so surprising that I would write two songs about my grandmother. The first of these songs was recorded by The One Drop and is included here. I wrote “Harbor” while walking around in the moonlit kitchen of our house in Rice playing my guitar. I played the Em-A progression over and over while thinking about young Marietta Marcolini. She had found herself alone in New York as a teenager. She had been sent there to meet and marry a man who was a stranger to her. When I was a child, she told me that before she came to America, she had only left her home in rural northern Italy once before for a trip to Venice. It is certain that she was victimized. A year later, she found herself a widow with a child. Since my grandmother lived with us when I was growing up, I heard her stories—spoken in broken English with great feeling and few words. The sorrow of her life was that she could never return to Italy. She had a lot of “nervous breakdowns.”

Harbor

“Harbor,” The 1 Drop (Ubberaffe Records, 1998. Produced by Gary Neyers)

What if when you wake up
You don’t know where you are,
And when you wake up
You don’t know who you are.
And when you wake up
You don’t know what you are.

You find yourself alone in a multitude.
Your situation is rearranged.
Your context is abused.
You look around you.
They took away everything that you do
You find yourself adrift on a ship of fools

Chorus:
And your harbor is where
The sailors put you off.
Your harbor is in the sign of the cross.
Your harbor is where
The pirates put you off.
Your harbor is in the heart of Babylon.

One day I woke up
I did not know where I was.
One day I woke up
I did not know who I was.
One day I woke up
I did not know what I was.

I found myself alone in a multitude.
My situation was rearranged.
My context was abused.
I looked around me–
“Who are all these people?”

By: The One Drop is:

Mike Opitz songwriting and guitar
Kathleen (Regan) Downes vocals
Jeremy Corey guitar and vocal
Corey Rickheim keyboard
Jason Hastings bass
Gary Neyers drums and production of the track

While playing the chord progression and writing the words, I also thought of a dialog between my emerging song and one of my first favorite reggae songs,

“Rivers of Babylon,” by The Melodians. One of many biblical reggae songs.

I imagined waking up in a strange land where I did not know the language—as she and countless other displaced people have done. The meditative repetition of the chord progression carried my thoughts to other displacements—to slavery in Babylon—the great theme of reggae music. One of the greatest questions ever posed in a pop song—“How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?” Nevertheless, blues, jazz, rock, reggae, samba, salsa, soca and more are all exactly that. “Rivers of Babylon” explains the wealth of bold and vibrant music descended from African slaves. It sings of: “How the wicked carried us away into captivity/ Required of us a song.” .

The word “pirates” is a common reggae word for slave traders in the sense that Bob Marley uses it in “Redemption Song.” I thought of Marley’s use of the word and chose to echo his word—“old pirates.”

Bob Marley, “Redemption Song,” live in Dortmund.

In this clip, Marley introduces the song as “Old pirates, yes they rob I. / Sold I to the merchant ships.” Like so many Marley lines, this one resonates on multiple levels. It evokes the human horror of the African Diaspora (cf. Marcus Redikker, The Slave Ship), the robbery inherent in the origins of capitalism, and the rapid evolution of slavery into wage slavery. Through Marley’s Rasta “I,” (Eye) this all becomes personal and visionary. Now we all find ourselves on “the merchant ship.” The thought process of the song evokes a powerful constellation of ideas: ideology (Marx), hegemony (Gramsci), myth (Barthes) and ultimately all of Benjamin’s work on “the human sensorium” under the conditions of mass information culture. Marley says “Liberate yourself from mental slavery.” Once you start doing that—start peeling away the layers of ideology you have grown up with, you wake up—on “the merchant ship”—sailing in Babylon

“Babylon” is a common Rastafarian term for the culture of the enslavers. The version of “Harbor” included here was recorded by The 1 Drop and produced by Gary Neyers. We recorded the tracks in Gary’s basement laundry room in St. Louis Park. We lined the walls of a little broom closet with a mattress and created a somewhat sound-proof space for recording vocals. This was our “studio” for The 1 Drop album. Norb Jost added an array of saxophone tracks that Gary mixed and arranged. Kathee contributed creative and insightful singing. Again, Gary crafted all the tracks. This version of “Harbor” illustrates the collaborative nature of this genre as well as Gary’s brilliance as a producer—incorporating dub elements into the structure of the song. When I wrote a metaphoric meditation on my grandmother’s life, I could never have imagined THIS.

Harbor revisited
One night, The 1 Drop played at a small, college-town bar while a blizzard raged outside. Every time anyone opened the door, it blew open. Few opened the door that night. The manager was upset. He said, “I thought you had a following!”

At that moment, an unruly group who could well have been our “following” came rolling in—wearing costumes for some reason. They had been partying somewhere else, but now they were our “following.” We had been playing dubbed out version of “Harbor.” For some reason, in response to this motley group of people we knew, I yelled, “All Right! It’s story time!” while the band kept the groove. We had not done this before, and I did not know what I was going to say over this groove. I decided ( if this is a decision at all) to tell a story of one of our first gigs—on a night that also had a snowstorm—in a dingy basement in a small, college town.

I want to tell you a story happened many years ago
When the 1 Drop band played reggae
Down in Old St. Joe.

Down in a basement party– playing our songs
Songs like “Downpresser Man,”– but nobody was listening
Everyone was playing that Downpresser game
Nobody was listening they were living
That Downpressor Fan Ta See.

Suddenly out of the corner of my eye
What did I see?– a beautiful woman in red leather pants
Looking right at me. Well I was looking at her
Looking at me, looking at her, looking at me
Said, “Whose fantasy is this? Whose Fan Ta See?”

Said, “Babylon child, drove me wild. Babylon child.”
See I’m a Babylon man in a Babylon band
Playing Babylon songs in Babylon land!
Whose fantasy is this?

Our harbor is where
The sailors put us off.
Our harbor is in the sign of the cross.
Our harbor is where
The sailors put us off
Our harbor is in the heart of Babylon.

Song writing, vocals, production Mike
Bass Tom
Keyboards Caitlin

I had no conscious idea of saying those words when I started the “story time” bit. I don’t know why I remembered a particular desultory basement party “Down in old St. Joe” from our earliest and roughest gigs. I think I just wanted the people dancing in costumes to stay.

The track posted here is another form of a guide track. Caitlin, Tom and I recorded these parts so we could remember what to play when we make a better recording of this song. This is how the draft sounds now. Also, this is the first time I have written out these words that have curiously become a part of “Harbor.” They emerge from the oral tradition of Saturday night band improvisations into the world of digitally (in Benjamin’s terms, “technologically”) reproduced information. For years, these words were told by me as a way of telling a story of The 1 Drop band. As such, the images and metaphors provided information about “the storyteller.” In Benjamin’s terms, this information provides context for the story and valuable links to whatever “wisdom” a story may provide. These revised lyrics have remained only in the “oral tradition” for many years—repeated in coffee shops and jam sessions with friends.

But now, as digitally recorded and mixed bits of information that we hear as “sound,”—and with very little conscious purpose on the part of the author (improviser) (me)—these words become part of the dialog between “Redemption Song” and “Harbor” that formed the basis of this montage. Somehow, surprisingly, my thoughts about the life of my grandmother became a meditation on the many and various forms of “mental slavery.” “What if when you wake up,” when “You don’t know who you are” becomes the time you grow to understand that “none but ourselves can free our mind.”

Bandit
The song “Bandit” is the second song I wrote about my grandmother. I am still surprised that out of a lifetime filled with commodities called “memories,” that I should pick this one and make it into a song.

One of my grandmother’s stories was about a bandit who escaped from the prison in the town of Belluno. She and her best friend had to work at night, and they were scared of him. But he was said to be handsome. I invented games with blocks and marbles in which the bandit escaped, rolled across the living room floor and got away. “The Bandit” was my best marble; I always wanted him to get away.

This thought led me to songs about outlaws—a rich theme in blues and rock—as well as reggae music. Here are a couple versions of the bandit theme that I thought about in writing this song.

The Clash, “Bankrobber”

The Clash, “I Fought the Law.”

Bob Marley, “I Shot the Sheriff.” One of my all-time favorite performances.

And, my favorite of them all; Jimmy Cliff, “The Harder They Come” both film and song.

There are a million more—but I consciously consulted these songs by playing and singing them. The I Drop had played all of these songs in previous years so they were familiar to me.

Memories
I have a very vivid memory and after reading Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” I wonder what that means. My memory is primarily a memory of a sound. As a little kid coming home from school, I heard it at least a block away from my house, and as I got closer, I understood that it was coming from my house. It sounded like wailing and screaming combined. I found it scary. My grandmother and her Italian friends were sitting on the bed, hugging and wailing. I learned later that they were keening over the death of my grandmother’s childhood friend. I knew of Zia Severina because she sent us packages of Swiss chocolate. Later when I grew old enough to hold skeins of yarn for my grandmother, she told me the stories that provide the background for the song, “Bandit.” How she was scared of the bandit—how all kids should be scared that something might “get them.”

My fantasy of what my grandmother’s life might have been like also provides a background for the song. Some years ago, I visited the “green and grassy” fields around Belluno and Feltre, and I also thought of that place when I wrote the song.

Bandit

They say the bandit was a handsome man
A devil may care, bank robbing man
And one dark and stormy evening
He bid his jailers goodbye.

He made his escape through the underbrush
His path was narrow and wide
He cast a thousand stories
Into the wind that night.

(play through chorus without singing it)

Marietta and Severina—a country road
Miles from where the bandit fled
They called each other sister
As they walked to work at the mill.

Two peasant girls, barely 15 years old
They’d lived together all their lives.
They worked the night shift
All their teenage years.

Chorus

I wouldn’t say if I knew (2X)
If fantasies come true (2X)

That night, every sound in the howling wind
And the rain beating on the window sill
Conjured visions of the bandit
Who could have been prowling round the mill.

A branch would crack, the girls would scream
Then laugh and hug each other tight
Fantasy visions danced
In the dark and stormy night.

Chorus

The nightshift passed
The work was done.
The bandit was captured and later hung
And the girls said goodbye not knowing that their new lives had begun.
Severina was married and sent to Switzerland
To live a life of service and of pain,
Mairetta was shipped to America
Land of the greedy and the vain.

Chorus

A young boy walked home from the second grade
Found his grandmother weeping on the bed
A letter from Italy had told her
That her best friend was dead.

Now I can imagine two peasant girls
Walking through a green and grassy land
Their girlish dreams and visions
Never really had a chance.

Chorus.

Song writing, guitars, vocals Mike Opitz
Bass, production of track Tom Daddesio
Vocals, Kathleen (Regan) Downes
Violin Stephanie Franzen

Different Lifetime

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Romance in a Different Lifetime
There was grace and mystery in her
attitude as if she were a symbol of
something. He asked himself what is
a woman standing on the stairs in the
shadow, listening to distant music,
a symbol of.
James Joyce, “The Dead.”

The song began on a cold January day in 2011. My daughter had brought me her Casio keyboard to keep me company while she and her mother traveled in India. I love the preset rhythms on the old Casio and remember the time when it was the only drummer of our neophyte reggae band. As in the old days, I amplified the keyboard rhythm and played through our old One Drop PA system. I started playing with the rhythm and this song started to happen. It seemed a good time to make a song about romance and lifetimes. I know I was looking at a wind-swept snowscape when I imagined a warmer planet, “closer to the sun.” This is the first song Caitlin played on. One of her friends had cajoled her to volunteer to play on my recordings. I’ve been grateful to him ever since. This song was written in the dead of winter. I remember picking her up on one of the coldest days.

Caitlin

We played in a cold room. I knew very little about recording technology and made a lot of mistakes. Only one speaker on the keyboard worked. Still, Caitlin’s inventive piano parts shaped the song from the beginning.

Different Lifetime
In a different lifetime, I wrote a paper, “Romance and Marriage in ‘The Dead,’” for Professor Naomi Scheman’s philosophy seminar at the U. My paper focusses on the half-hidden image of a woman on a stair listening to distant music. Joyce invokes this symbol. The man at the bottom of the stair sees the beautiful woman standing there and desires her. He then finds out that she is indeed his wife. For her part, she is inclining toward the music because it carries the memory of her lost lover. Thus one of our symbols drawn from “the romance paradigm” emerges. Joyce’s main character imagines painting the scene, calling it “Distant Music.”

I tried writing the words out in prose form as many song writers do these days. One particular favorite, John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, was the immediate inspiration to try this style.

Different Lifetime

Musicians
Mike Opitz: songwriting, vocals, guitar,and production
Caitlin Brutger: keyboard and vocals
Tom Daddesio: bass

Wish I knew you in a different lifetime, different from this one. Wish I met you on another planet, closer to the sun. The heat would rise from our bodies and melt into the air, ecological convergence, a bi-symmetrical pair. Wish I knew you in a different way than gender and despair.

Wish we had a different story with a different kind of plot. Wish we had some different meanings than the fucked up ones we’ve got. Where ancient connections find ways to be known. The aesthetic of being alive flowers and grows. Wish I knew you in a different time when it was possible to hope.

Wish we had a different symbol when I saw you on the stair. You were just seventeen, “you know what I mean when I saw you standing there.” Ah the dream-like figures half-hidden in the dark. Like unacted desire lifetimes miss their mark. Wish I knew you in a different way. Wish I loved you with a different heart

The Process of Making “Summer and a Dream”

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The Process of Making “Summer and a Dream”

Documenting

Caitlin said that she loves to document things. This seems to conflict with my avoidance of documenting things. I rarely even take pictures, and like to scratch lines on the beach that the tide will wash away at high tide. Through some strange path of personal reasoning, that reminds me of the Doomtree line, “We’re not a legend/ we’re the third set of footprints (“Knives on Fire,” False Hopes).” The thought of leaving a trace—perhaps making a map—collides in my mind with one of my oldest ideas—hatched when I was a sophomore Theater major. My favorite part of a production was always the “strike”– when after the last show, the whole production is torn down and vanishes. The remnants—photos, old programs, scraps of the set or costumes, memories—evoke a sense of nostalgia that gives a fleeting, fragmentary glimpse at the ruins of the production. I’ve discussed this with Caitlin and find that we both have always thought that live performance was “better than” recorded performance. Maybe it retains an “aura” because it vanishes. Still, I see Caitlin’s point about documenting things now. Sometimes things don’t have to vanish; they can grow and develop.

As I’ve become more aware of possibilities and impact of contemporary technologies for recording and distributing sounds and images, I’ve come to see the value of documenting and recording. Not in the sense of making a commodity—a thing that could be sold and perhaps be called a “legend” –but rather of leaving footprints for others to follow—of making a map.

So here is a documentation of the process of making “Summer and a Dream.” The song was written during our recording session this year.

Background

I saw Cyril Pahinui play at a small club in Honolulu and met him at intermission. I left with an avid interest Hawaiian slack key guitar playing and singing. In the months leading up to writing the song, I was playing simple variations in the “taro patch” tuning (G tuning). I tried this with different rhythm tracks. This was an inspiration for the song—on a level of sound. I liked the sound and even the vibration of the guitar when plucked.

Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon, “Waialae.”

Gabby Pahinui and Peter Moon, “Waikiki Hula.”

Cyril Pahinui, “Hi’lawe”

As I entertained myself playing around in the G tuning, I found the sounds to be beautiful and I started playing more slowly—thinking of ocean waves and kinds of love.

A Place in the Heart?

Michael Dennis Browne has noted that a poem—the verbal part of a song—comes from a “place in the heart.” Well—maybe—but for me it is more like a fragmentary illumination of something that lies just beyond visibility. At any rate, like many works of art and transformation, this song has a personal and even private inspiration. Many words in the lyric of the song are drawn from the well of inspiration on this level as the personal dream emerges into language.

Imagery

Tom arrived on a Sunday afternoon and we started playing around with the slack key progression. Since Tom is a scholar of Flamenco, we have talked about the imagery and construction of a Flamenco song. My understanding—though not an expert one—is that the imagery of each verse may be unrelated, but that each verse evokes a depth of feeling that carries the song. So I was consciously trying to make the images and similes fragmentary but evocative. The words emerged by Monday—playing the chord progression led to an arrangement and a rhythm that resulted in the writing of the words. The minimalist feel of the playing suggested a lyrical structure. The structure is made of fragments. It is a fragment itself.

A Joyful Moment

By Tuesday, we played the song with Caitlin on keyboards and Tom trying different bass lines. We recorded a version of “Summer and a Dream” with my vocals as a “guide track”—a kind of sonic blue print for later versions of the song. The moment, when the song “comes together” is a joyful one. Sometimes it makes me want to dance and shout!

Thursday night when Kathee arrived we had a jam session in The Maltshop—Tom on bass, Caitlin on keyboards, Kathee working on vocal arrangements and trying things, and me on guitar. We amped everything a little and just used one mic to record the results. The song started to take its shape.

Most of the night, we jammed on another emerging song, “Midnight in Triana” but recorded a couple of versions of “Summer and a Dream.”

By the next day, Kathee had thought through some vocal parts and recorded several. Kathee is very thoughtful about the vocals she designs, and also very critical of her own work. We always love everything she does, so we have learned to pay close attention to Kathee’s critique. Critique is a feedback loop in this process. After some listening and editing, we settled on keeping three vocal tracks. We all fixed up our parts and wound up with some (insert) tracks fit for mixing. Some of these tracks will be rerecorded before the “final” mix (which really need not be “final”).

First Mix

Tom did the first edit and the major amount of work on the mix. We had 4 vocal tracks, 1 keyboard, 1 gamelan (found by playing around on the keyboard), 1 bass, 1 guitar track with a plan to add more, a click track, a couple of punch-ins, and a maraca track have not used so far. He then sent me the tracks on a CD and I did this 1st version of the song.

Imagine the first sound-makers sending visions into the wind. Each sound is a node on a map, each map a path through the world. Then words can become documents and somehow we can know the words that were spoken at The Globe Theater in 1603. And each document creates and reflects a world that wants to last. The staggering thought is that we can now do this to sound. This is a document.

New Album – Dreams and Visions

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Streets
Suitcases for Walter Benjamin
Midnight in Triana
Bandit
Different Lifetime
Boom
Soca for Soul Reprise Remake of One Drop Song
Lost Cause Beck
Summer and a Dream
Virtual Bliss
What a Shame Trad Blues
Murakami Moon from Haruki Murakami 1Q84
Summer and a Dream (live in the Maltshop)
Angel from Montgomery (John Prine Live at the Malthshop)

Midnight in Triana

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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).

Background

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:

“Polio”

“Je t’aime”

“Marguerite”

“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)

Juxtaposition

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”

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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:

“Luiz?”

“Hey man! I made something for you!”

“OK?”

“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.

“Instrumental”

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.

“Summertime”

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!