San Francisco Weekly, June 25, 2003
On the local compilation Azadi!, the music matters almost as much as the cause itself
By San Prestianni
From psychedelic folk phenomenon Country Joe & the Fish, whose '60s anti-war anthem "Fixin' to Die" was the toast of Woodstock, to Spearhead's Michael Franti, who pleads persuasively for peace on his latest single, "Bomb the World," Bay Area musicians have long used the spotlight to rally the public around activist causes. But not all civic-minded artists wear their politics on their sleeves or feel compelled to sloganize à la "We Are the World" to get their point across. In fact, as the extraordinary new two-CD set Azadi! makes clear, the best protest music is oftentimes the least in-your-face with its message.
Produced by local scenester Steve Tobin for Fire Museum and Electro Motive Records, this benefit compilation for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) brings together a wide variety of players spanning a multiplicity of genres, from jazz, modern classical, and experimental improv to folk, indie rock, and dance. While a few of the featured artists hail from distant lands -- e.g., freaky instrumentalists Godspeed You Black Emperor! (Montreal) and Turkish avant-garde singer Saadet Turkoz -- most were handpicked from our own back yard. Familiar names include art punks Deerhoof, global-minded altrockers Charming Hostess, estrogen-powered a cappella sensation Jou Jou, and haunted fairy-tale duo Faun Fables; lesser-known standouts are post- Pixies pop group 20 Minute Loop and queer hip-hoppers Deep Dickollective.
By and large, the most convincing acts on the album do not use the mike to pointedly take a political stand; rather they let their eclecticism and staunch individuality speak for itself. "Many of the people on this collection probably don't consider their work to be at all didactic," Tobin says, "yet they chose to lend their talents to a project which may be perceived as a form of protest." Through focusing on the music, not the rhetoric of the cause, these three dozen fiercely independent voices end up furthering both, which is ultimately what makes Azadi! such a powerful record.
The roots of Azadi! go back to saxophonist Rent Romus, who first heard about RAWA's struggles on Stanford's KZSU-FM (90.1). Seeking more information, he checked online at www.rawa.org, where he found disturbing photographs, video footage, and personal stories that documented the beatings, torture, imprisonment, and brutal murder of the Afghan people under fundamentalist rule. "The RAWA Web site brought me to tears," Romus recalls. "I had to try and help."
So in late 2000 he put together a small benefit showcase at 848 Divisadero, which inspired Tobin, who happened to be in the audience that night, to launch his own activist campaign. To date, under the moniker Fire Museum, Tobin has hosted eight charity performances, netting a total of more than $10,000. For Tobin, a recording to commemorate these shows -- with 100 percent of proceeds going to RAWA -- seemed the logical next step.
Though he would love to bring his political message to the masses, Tobin recognizes that the average music consumer will never embrace the kind of diversity-in-the-extreme represented on Azadi! "Unfortunately, these are not Top 40-selling artists," he concedes. "But with all the work that goes into putting on an event or releasing a CD, if the music didn't interest me it would be difficult to invest as much energy into it."
While the audience for this compilation may be limited, it is far from nonexistent, particularly in the Bay Area. In fact, Tobin's wide-open yet discerning ear makes him the ideal producer for broad-minded listeners who tend to be both clued-in politically by day and likely to rove the low end of the radio dial deep into the night. Some of the most stunning cuts on the album are the least commercially accessible: a pair of too-brief yet moving cello-piano duets by cellist/ composer Danielle DeGruttola; an evocative, semi-improvised solo on the oud (the classical lute of the Muslim world) by David Slusser; the amphetamine- doused, tongue-twisting rap of Deep Dickollective; an avant-hymn by Saadet Turkoz, with echoes of goth diva Diamanda Galas (sans ear-bleeding squall); a moody dirge by Faun Fables set in "A Village Churchyard"; Miya Masaoka's eerily cinematic electro-acoustic soundtrack for koto and electronics; and Godspeed's madcap applause-punchy mix-mash "GeorgeBushCutUp," with its trenchant refrain, "Why am I here? And what can I do to make it better? How can I do what is right?"
Aside from the brilliant Dubya beat-down, all of these pieces are understated in terms of a political message embedded in the music. But that doesn't mean that the players are socially unconscious or inactive. "I first took up the oud in the early '80s," explains Slusser, "learning from some Moroccan friends. I was playing with them not only for musical knowledge, but to use music as a means of understanding another culture. Since then our nation has been in increasing conflict with that part of the world, and I've kept approaching that music for deeper understanding. Now, all my attempts at playing the oud concern aspects of bridging the gaps and exploring the relationships between our world and theirs, and perhaps [finding] a place where there isn't a difference. ... If, at times, my oud sounds more like a Delta blues guitar, that's part of the point -- our common humanity."
The compilation's most conspicuously activist tune, "One More Parade," an old Phil Ochs number played up true to form by a combo of anonymous traditionalists who call themselves Folk This, underscores the problem with overt musical politicking. Arguably the CD's weakest title, this heartfelt banjo-plucky ditty suffers from the same shortcomings of most folk- protest anthems: While the lyrics are meaningful and smart, the music and vocal melody just don't cut it. There's a goofy quality to the singing, which even when taken as satire undermines the track's listenability beyond one or two spins.
Still, thanks to the overarching adventurousness and do-it-yourself spirit on Azadi!, this compilation is hands- down the most compelling collection of music activism to come along in years. Romus, who appears on the album with his high-octane out-jazz group the Abstractions, speaks for all the participating artists when he suggests, "Everything [we] play is an indirect socio-political statement." When the delivery is more nuanced -- and focused on the music -- the message comes across with power.
Though the efforts of Tobin and the indie musicians who contributed to the Azadi! compilation will do little to rout the warlords who rule Afghanistan, Tahmeena Faryal, a RAWA foreign affairs representative who just wrapped up a stateside speaking tour, is deeply appreciative. "It means a lot to us," she says. "Increased awareness and even a little bit of financial support can help a lot; there is no peace or security or democracy in Afghanistan. The struggle continues."