Music Notes: Jan 1-31, 2016

What’s up with M.I.A.’s “Borders”?

Maya Arulpragasam is an English recording artist and video director, better known to her fans as M.I.A. Born in the U.K. in 1975, she spent her childhood in Sri Lanka, where her father, a Tamil activist, was forced into hiding during the country’s civil war. In 1986 she returned to England as a refugee and lived in a housing project in London. Her academic training and early career was oriented to visual arts and fashion design, but since 2004 she’s been a best-selling hip-hop artist, creating dance music and video that is celebratory and infused with her concerns: defense of refugees and protest against political repression, war, and gender stereotypes. M.I.A.’s new single, “Borders”, and its accompanying video, are both worth investigating. The lyrics reference a series of politicized buzzwords, of which M.I.A. repeatedly asks “What’s up with that?” Depending on one’s point of view, these lyrics might be interpreted as trivial, evasive, or thought-provoking. The video presents a series of epic (and expensive) scenes of actors representing refugees on land and sea. “Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs,” she’s said. “I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing.” Nothing? So what’s up? Is M.I.A. being flippant or is this a provocative artistic stance in an age of iPhone pop?

NHS Choir reaches #1 in U.K.

A single by the Lewisham National Health Service Choir reached number one in the U.K. music charts over Christmas, temporarily beating out Canadian crooner Justin Bieber for the coveted spot. The NHS Choir’s chart-topping song, “A Bridge Over You”, is a medley of Paul Simon’s 1970 song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Coldplay’s 2005 hit “Fix You”. It was released to celebrate U.K. healthcare workers at a time when they face fresh attacks from the Tory government of David Cameron. The choir, launched in 2013, consists of doctors, nurses, porters, physiotherapists, administrators, technicians, and other workers. They sing mostly for patients and the local community. Their video shows healthcare workers in action at South London’s University Hospital Lewisham, caring for sick children, elderly people, and those undergoing major operations. The choir’s fundraising campaign is worth your support. Proceeds from sales are going to Carers UK (http://www.carersuk.org/) and Mind (http://www.mind.org.uk/). Both charities support people with health issues not covered by NHS. By the way, Biebs was supportive, tweeting the link to the campaign’s website: http://www.nhsno1.com.

Musicians rally at COP21

Musicians rallied with climate-change activists in Paris during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21), held in the French capital last month. The “Pathway to Paris” concert at the historic Montmartre music hall, Le Trianon, on December 5, featured American rock & roll poet Patti Smith, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, Tibetan singer-songwriter Tenzin Cheogyal, Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and Congolese star Fally Ipupa. They shared the stage with renowned activists Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, and Bill McKibbon. “Pathway to Paris” was founded in 2014 by American composer Jesse Paris Smith and Canadian cellist-vocalist Rebecca Foon. They staged a series of musical events in various cities that built awareness and momentum for the COP21 conference. The Paris concert was the culmination of a process that included a “Pathways” presence at key way stations, including the UN gathering of world leaders in New York on September 21, 2014, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru in December 2014. Video highlights of the Paris concert can be viewed at K http://www.350.org/

John Trudell 1946-2015

John Trudell, the esteemed Native-American poet, musician, actor, and activist died on December 8. His acclaimed work as an artist began in earnest only after he had achieved wide recognition as a militant leader of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. Trudell left Native-American (institutional) politics in 1979 after his activist wife Tina Manning, three children, and mother-in-law were killed in a mysterious and still-unsolved fire, twelve hours after he had set fire to an American flag at a protest in Washington, DC. He turned to poetry and began reciting in public. Encouraged by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, and a friendship with the great Native-American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, he launched his career as a recording artist, creating a series of outstanding albums that fused his spoken word poetry with rock and blues. Unlike most poetry-music collaborations, Trudell’s albums really rock. His lyrics and voice fit well with the musical forms. The 1992 album AKA Graffiti Man is a good place to start for those who are new to Trudell (with “Bombs Over Baghdad” being a standout track). John Trudell, a member of the Santee Sioux nation of Nebraska, left an important legacy of revolutionary activism, music, books, film, and recorded speeches. Learn about him at http://www.johntrudell.com.


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