Lucid Culture


Creating a Global Movement with Stephan Said

Multi-instrumentalist tunesmith Stephan Said has been on the front lines of cutting-edge, socially aware music since he was in his teens. As Stephan Smith (his record label insisted that a songwriter with an Arabic name would never get anywhere) he released a series of potently lyrical albums that unapologetically confronted the reality of the Iraq war and the Bush regime’s reign of terror. These days, Said has a monthly residency at New York’s world music mecca, Drom, where he plays tomorrow night along with his band the the Magic Orchestra, with a special guest appearance by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. The concept here is to create a space for cross-cultural communication, both onstage and in the audience. Said’s an intense presence onstage; out of the spotlight, he’s as thoughtful and historically aware as you would expect. He took some time to give us the scoop on his ongoing series of shows:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The theme of of your show tomorrow night, the 14th, is from Trahir to Madison: Building a Global Movement. Why not Trahir Square to the White House? Or Wall Street?

Stephan Said: It could be either. Or the same thing! The concept is that this is global, it’s truly become a global issue, and my life has been all about that. I think that consciousness is the answer to any of these national or international problems. A solution can’t come from anything other than an international movement for systemic change, and how we live together. That idea is reaching critical mass by itself.

LCC: What do you say to somebody who says music can’t change the world?

SS: Can music initiate change and make that happen here? I think it can. We’re at a time where it has to! If the US isn’t a part of it, it’s not because it’s not happening, it’s because something in the system like monopolized corporate entertainment, and the music industry following suit, is preventing it from growing. But that’s not stopping it happening on a global scale. I can’t believe it can’t happen now – my career is a testament to that. Being an Iraqi making pop music – Clear Channelable music! – that had a message to it, I was fully aware of the reasons why I wasn’t allowed to open up for somebody afer 9/11. It wasn’t because of the music. There’s been a mainstream evasion of these kind of things, and for this to happen we especially need to hear voices from the Middle East and North Africa, which is a small part of what we’re trying to do here.

LCC: There are all kinds of good things going on across the world, Fukushima or not. Tunisia, Egypt, now Ivory Coast, maybe Syria. If the people of Arab world, and the African world, can overthrow their dictators, can we overthrow Goldman Sachs?

SS: Their dictators are Goldman Sachs. Let’s get real: the generation of activists over there are not largely any different than they are over here, drawing from the same demographics that we saw when I organized demonstrations in Seattle. These are educated people, and they’re fully aware of the magnitude of what’s facing not only them in their own countries, but in the whole world. And to relegate the struggle in Tunisia or Egypt, or Syria or Iraq – or Madison – to those local communities would only be to ignore the global context or the real causes. Dictators are a local problem, and they’re a global problem.

There’s just one conversation that we need to proliferate: change the global economy.

What we have to do has to be as infectious as possible, peneterate everywhere, no enemies. Including Goldman Sachs. One of the songs I did with Hal Willner, on the difrent album, is Isn’t There a Dream: “The enemy is only he who has not been made a friend.” I know people from that sphere, the world of banking and finance, and they are very much aware of the need for community and the changes that need to be made. The people at Goldman Sachs aren’t the enemy. It’s literally all hands on deck now. That means that Republican over there, he’s not your enemy. It’s way more scary than that. My family’s been bombed by our country, in Iraq, and I still don’t think our country is is to blame – the whole world is responsible. We need to get real about changing the global economy, and the first step that we need to take to create change is to create a community where we can face the truth and we can do something about it.

LCC: Breaking down boundaries between cultures is an idea whose time has come. But you know how it is, you go to this concert, or that rally, and after awhile you start to see the same faces over and over again. This is a question that I struggle with constantly, and I haven’t been able to come up with an answer. To what extent are we preaching to the converted? Are we really reaching anyone we wouldn’t otherwise, and if not, how do we get there?

SS: Does anybody have any answers for that? And yes, I do think about that all the time. My thinking is that the ways we have to do it are the ways that it’s been done forever. I was just joking with George, our bass player – it’s the past future, post-contemporary music. To answer your question specifically, I don’t think we should ever think of recruiting people. From the mid-90s, I was one of the few people surrounded by computer geeks when most people didn’t have a computer, when we launched the Independent Media Center in Seattle. The idea was, what if we started a cultural site for the networked global generation in the same way that the printing press served for the independence movement? When a single movement sets up its individual information distribution system, instead of a million individual voices speaking out in the wilderness separately, that’s when change happens.

My two mentors were Allen Ginsberg and Pete Seeger. I learned so much from them because they were both the single individual in their scenes without whom those scenes would not have happened. Without Seeger, there never would have been a folk revival, or even Bob Dylan, or Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix. All of that flowed out of something that created a community of social activism, that allowed records to be sold, and a flow of information along with it. Same with the Beats. Kerouac, Corso, amazing writers, but Ginsberg would start mentioning that there are other people doing the same kind of thing, so people would go, “Oh wow, it’s not just about him, or her.” That was something that got lost after the sixties.

I mean, look at the number of megastars that we have today who cite Martin Luther King or Woody Guthrie as their heroes. Do they really emulate them? They have millions. Martin Luther King and Woody did it while being blacklisted!

Now we’re at a time where based on what all those amazing people from the 60s and onward have done, if we can bring our voices together, we can create a community where things can happen. It’s up to us to create a culture to unite people across borders, for me to make a new world pop music that effectively breaks borders and brings people together. Like those theatre movements like dada or surrealism, those rare moments where art can lead the way, we’re in a time of great hope, but it ‘s up to us to create the great culture for all the world to see. If we get off our butts and seize it, we can make the dream of a new global economic system come true if we make it come true, and it’s obvious that it’s going to be culture that leads the way.

LCC: Isn’t that easier said than done? So many people are xenophobic, maybe by nature. A lot of people are terrified of change. How do we get them to get with the program?

SS: The engine of the train never has to worry about how far back the caboose is. They can get on whenever they figure it out. I’m going to the next world and if somebody else isn’t ready to be there, the best way I can help them is to go there myself.

Stephan Said and the Magic Orchestra play Drom tomorrow night, April 14 at 8 PM along with special appearances by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and actress Najla Said with co-sponsors OR Books, FEN Magazine, Helo Magazine, The Mantle, and the New Jersey Outreach Group.


April 13, 2011 Posted by | Culture, interview, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment