Category Archives: Politics

Square dance and cultural politics

In 1988 the U.S. Congress convened four panels of witnesses for and against proposed legislation that would designate square dance as the National American Folk Dance.

Leaders of the nationwide network of recreational clubs that perform what is generally referred to as modem Western square dance campaigned for the bill’s passage, presenting numerous petitions with thousands of signatures gathered from their membership; opponents included recognized African American, Hispanic American, and Native American dance performers, as well as professional folklorists and one square dance caller not affiliated with the sponsoring organizations.

Proponents of the legislation cited the historical depth of square dance in the U.S.—“This form of dance alone can claim a development from the earliest days of our nation, through expansion of our population across the land”—and cited the genre’s association with “old-fashioned values” rooted in the “melting-pot of the dances which our ancestors brought with them when they settled in this nation.”

Witnesses for the opposition noted the absence of people of color from this picture, and generally argued against the whole idea of designating a national dance—“I can’t see how any one dance could be singled out as our National Folk Dance when we are a pluralistic society, a land of geographic, racial, cultural, and religious differences,” testified a representative of the Makah people. “I believe choosing one, any one, would give birth to feelings of resentment and animosity.”

Although the bill was defeated, similar debates continue to this day.

This according to “Reflections on the hearing to designate the square dance as the American folk dance of the United States: Cultural politics and an American vernacular dance form” by Colin Quigley (Yearbook for traditional music XXXIII [2001] pp. 145–57). Below, Bob Dalsemer, the one square dance caller who testified for the opposition.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dance, North America, Politics

Harry Belafonte and social activism

belafonte-king

In a 2001 interview, Harry Belafonte discussed the relationships between his career choices and social activism.

“I wanted to use some cunning and find a way to introduce an art form into an environment that was extremely limited—to be able to make a social and political statement to listeners without them suspecting it.”

“There was a conscious awareness of how hostile the environment was, and how clever you’d have to be to outsmart the predator. So there was selection and choice. But there was never compromise in the content. The fact is that I didn’t sing a lot of protest songs back then because most of that material had been written or covered by others, and because I saw another way to move my image and my cause through the ranks of the human family.”

“I think that black culture commands a global audience because of the sheer power of it, the beauty of it—it is hard to dismiss. And because it brings so much delight, it can easily be embraced. The physical presence of black people, however, is something else: it reflects a history of oppression that white people don’t want to deal with, not because they wouldn’t like to see the oppression go away, but they don’t want to pay the price for it to be gone.”

“Black people are going to have to understand that the issue here is more than race. We are the souls, we are the people that must save the soul of this nation.”

Quoted in “Remains of the day-o: A conversation with Harry Belafonte” by Michael Eldridge (Transition XII/92 [2002] pp. 110–137; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2004 [Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004] pp. 68–92).

Today is Belafonte’s 90th birthday! Above, with Martin Luther King, Jr.; below, performing in 1997.

Related article: Mr. Belafonte and Dr. King

Leave a comment

Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

The February Revolution and the Mariinskij Teatr

mariinskij-teatr

The 1917 February Revolution had an immediate impact on the Mariinskij Teatr Opery i Baleta. The fall of the monarchy plunged the dancers into a state of confusion, and there was an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future of ballet.

Against this background, the well-organized opera artists demanded unconditional power at the theater. Representatives of the ballet company, faced with this attitude from their colleagues, complained to the director of the Imperial theaters and the government commissioner of the former Ministry of Court.

After the details of the conflict leaked into the newspapers, the representatives of the opera troupe officially declared their deep respect for the art of ballet—but the opera artists continued to treat their colleagues as a secondary presence in the theater. One reason for the conflict between the opera and ballet troupes was the group egoism typical for the revolutionary era, when the overly exploited role of the team eventually led to a confrontation with other teams.

This according to “Из истории музыкального театра революционной эпохи: Борьба оперы с балетом” (From the history of musical theater of the revolutionary era: The struggle of opera with ballet) by Petr Nikolaevič Gordeev (Музыковедение 3 [2015] pp. 11–15).

Today is the centennial of the beginning of the February Revolution! Above, the Mariinskij Teatr around the time of the Revolution; below, the Mariinskij stalwart Mariâ Nikolaevna Kuznecova.

1 Comment

Filed under Dance, Opera, Politics

Haiti’s celebrity president

michael-martelly

With his country descending into its worst political crisis since the 2004 coup d’etat, and thousands of people demanding his resignation in the streets, in early 2016 Haiti’s outgoing president, Michel Martelly, went back to basics: He released a new song insulting and taunting in crude and sexualized terms a female journalist known to be critical of him.

Before becoming head of state in 2011, Martelly was a pop star known as Sweet Micky who performed Haitian compas (kompa direk). Micky was famous for saying or doing anything to get a reaction, and his genius was combining the image of the rock rebel with the anything-goes, upside-down spirit of kanaval, the Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras—for example, one can find video footage of Haiti’s president performing in a halter top and miniskirt.

Bringing a similar strategy to his presidential run, he was the anti-politician who openly insulted competitors, critics, and the media. Before his election Martelly’s supporters argued that, because he was already so rich and famous, their candidate couldn’t be bribed or bought. The competition dismissed Martelly’s candidacy as a joke, at first, and the press did too, all the while giving him blanket coverage.

With support by foreign investors and the backing of the U.S., Martelly won a surprise victory. But after five years of stalled and canceled elections, rising insecurity and poverty, political violence, and accusations of corruption, Sweet Micky’s novelty wore off—and in his last weeks in power any vestiges of presidential restraint also wore off, as evidenced by the song referenced above. It may turn out that Haiti was, as it has been so many times, ahead of the historical curve, anticipating the rise of other populist celebrity political figures worldwide.

This according to “What happens when a celebrity becomes president” by Jonathan Katz (The Atlantic monthly 9 February 2016).

Above, Martelly dancing at a presentation ceremony; below, the song in question.

BONUS: Sweet Mickey performs in drag.

Leave a comment

Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Soundscape of a coup d’état

f16-jet-istanbul-7-15-2016

The attempted Turkish coup d’état on 15 July 2016 brought some unfamiliar sounds to Istanbul–including low-flying F-16 jets and sonic booms–in addition to mosques broadcasting the sala, which serves to notify the community of an all-concerning event in an Islamic context; recordings and performances of Ottoman military music; and the sounds of chanting demonstrators.

Conversations, which incessantly continued in both public and private spheres, constituted another auditory aspect of the attempted coup and its aftermath.

This according to “Soundscape of a coup d’état” by Evrim Hikmet Öğüt (Sound matters 6 September 2016).

Today is the two-month anniversary of this historic event! Above, an F-16 jet flying low over Istanbul; below, the sala that night, with the sounds of bombs.

1 Comment

Filed under Asia, Politics

Rumba and racial politics

rumba

The Afro-Cuban music and dance genre rumba has historically been considered una cosa de negros (a black thing) and reviled due to racialized stereotypes that link the practice with el bajo mundo (the low life), excessive alcohol use, and violence. Nevertheless, the socialist government has sought to elevate rumba’s status during the past half century as part of a larger goal of foregrounding and valorizing the African contributions to Cuban identity and culture.

Rumba is the most significant and popular black-identified tradition in Cuba; in addition to its association with blackness, it is often portrayed as a particularly potent symbol of the masses and working-class identity, another reason why the government has aimed to harness rumba to its cultural nationalist discourse.

Despite the discursive valorization of the practice found in much Cuban scholarship and political rhetoric, rumba continues to be identified with a particular and marginalized sector of the population. In many ways, the complex situation of rumba performance conforms to the more general trend of contemporary racial politics on the island.

This according to “National symbol or ‘a black thing’? Rumba and racial politics in Cuba in the era of cultural tourism” by Rebecca Bodenheimer (Black music research journal XXXIII/2 [fall 2013] pp. 177–205). This issue of Black music research journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, street performances of rumba.

Leave a comment

Filed under Black studies, Central America, Dance, Politics, Popular music

Pauline Pantsdown and “Backdoor man”

Pauline Pantsdown

Although the 1997 release Backdoor man is attributed to Simon Hunt’s cabaret alter-ego Pauline Pantsdown (above), the vocals on the record (backed by looped disco grooves) are made up of snippets of speeches by the right-wing Australian politician Pauline Hanson that were cut up and re-edited.

In the song she declares, among many other things, “I’m homosexual” and “I’m a happy person because I’m a backdoor man”.

The song was a huge hit on the youth radio network Triple J, and was played almost hourly due to a massive number of requests, making it number 5 on the 1997 Hottest 100 list. However, less than a week after its release Hanson obtained a court injunction against the song, claiming that it was defamatory.

This according to “Two Paulines to choose from: An interview with Simon Hunt/Pauline Pantsdown” by Jon Stratton Perfect beat IV/4 [2000] pp. 34–44).

The song can be heard here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Humor, Politics

Bobo Jenkins and “Democrat blues”

Bobo Jenkins

In an interview, Bobo Jenkins discussed the genesis of his first song and hit recording, Democrat blues.

He wrote the song on election day in 1952, while Eisenhower was being elected. He explained that it was really a song about the Great Depression and the especially hard economic times that plagued the poor during Republican administrations.

“I was workin’ out to Chrysler…and I sat down at the end of the line and wrote that song…The whirrin’ of the machines gives me the beat. It’s like listening to a band play all day. Every song I ever wrote that’s any good came to me on the assembly line.”

In 1954, with the help from John Lee Hooker, he went to Chess Records with his new song. “So I goes to Chicago with my guitar and a little amplifier, and the man says ‘What you got now? Usually everybody comes from Mississippi and brings a hit with them.’ I said, well, ‘I’m from Mississippi.’ See, I was lyin’ ‘cause I was livin’ in Detroit, but it sound good to hear it.”

This according to Bobo Jenkins: A bluesman’s journey by Fred Reif (Detroit: Detroit Music History, 2001).

Today would have been Jenkins’s 100th birthday! Below, the original Chess recording.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Politics

The Fugs in the 1960s

fugs (1)

Few rock musicians have been as politically and stylistically radical as The Fugs were in their first incarnation, which ran from about 1964 to mid-1969.

They were the first group to shatter taboos against profane and obscene language and explicit lyrics about sex and illicit substances in rock music, predating even The Velvet Underground. They were also among the forerunners of the hybrid known as folk-rock.

They claim to have played more benefits for left-wing political causes than any other band of the era did. They suffered draining battles against censorship and harassment from politicians, law enforcement, and right-wingers.

They drew upon the poetry of William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and others for some of their more literary lyrics. They were among the first rock artists to smash the barrier against songs running more than five minutes and, along with The Mothers of Invention and The Bonzo Dog Band, they were the funniest band of the time, couching their political and social satire in wit that could be both ferocious and gentle.

This according to “The Fugs” by Ritchie Unterberger, an essay included in Urban spacemen and wayfaring strangers: Overlooked innovators and eccentric visionaries of ’60s rock (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 2000, pp. 94–108).

Below, The Fugs at the Fillmore East in 1968 (audio only).

Leave a comment

Filed under Humor, Politics, Popular music

Doggies and politics

checkers

In music as in politics, dogs can be useful props.

Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers speech”, which saved his vice presidential bid and set a new standard for emotional appeals in political advertising, made news the same year (1952) that Patti Page had a number-one hit with (How much is) that doggie in the window?

The subsequent 1952 presidential race included an ad for Adlai Stevenson that featured a saucy Patti Page lookalike addressing the camera and singing, “I love the gov, the governor of Illinois…Adlai, I love you madly.” This was the first presidential race to feature widespread use of the new televisual medium, and Dwight D. Eisenhower won both the ad war and the presidency.

This according to “Political machinations: How much was that doggie in the window?” by Philip Gentry (IASPM-US 1 October 2012).

Above, Checkers; below, Patti Page!

Leave a comment

Filed under Animals, Politics, Popular music