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

Mehmet Dede of Drom Reflects on the Defiant Relaunch of A Popular Manhattan Nightspot

In these difficult economic times, while some New York clubs desperately pander to the lowest common denominator with jello wrestling, beer pong and other ways of killing time on the Jersey Shore, the elegant New York East Village nightclub Drom at 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th St. is relaunching itself as an all-purpose world music emporium on April 1. It should come as no surprise that we’re fans of the club: having rated Drom as Best Manhattan Venue of 2009, we watched them slowly gravitate to being more of a restaurant before rededicating themselves to the live music that made the place such a mecca in its first two years, beginning in 2008. Drom’s Director of Programming and Bookings, Mehmet Dede, who along with global promoter Serdar Ilhan is responsible for the makeover, took some time out of his schedule to speak with us. Here’s the scoop:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: It’s no secret that we’re glad to see that Drom is back – we spent a whole lot of time at your place a couple of years ago. What’s behind the decision to make it a fulltime music venue again, other than it’s a lot of fun?

Mehmet Dede: It’s always been a fulltime music venue. About a year after it opened some creative differences arose among owners and the programming became less cohesive – the club lost its soul, in a way. When co-founder and brainchild behind the club, Serdar Ilhan, bought out his partners last summer (with his new partner Ekmel Anda), he not only remodeled the club, but also made necessary programming and management changes to re-brand the venue to fit its motto, “Global Music for a New World.”

LCC: On one hand, what you’re doing makes sense: the Poles want Polish music, the Turks want theirs. Same with the Azeris and the Dominicans and every other great culture in this melting pot of ours. So there should be a consistent market for all of that. Yet no club dedicated to “world music,” that is, music that represents pretty much every culture, has ever managed to stay in business in New York. Are you on to something that nobody else is?

MD: We tend to think of “world music” as music that brings together communities. What I think sets Drom apart is that it is open to sounds from more countries, communities and genres than other clubs: You can hear Russian space-age pop music, an alt country band and traditional Greek music all within the same day, at times here.

LCC: Does the grand reopening involve the sound system, or the decor? Since day one, you’ve been one of the best-sounding rooms in town – I hope that won’t change…

MD: We’ve enhanced the sound system, added new gear to our technical inventory and enlarged the stage area. We’ve also painted the floor, added new artwork to the walls, and new furniture as well. The biggest change is the addition of a big chandelier, which makes you feel like you’re listening to the artist in your living room.

LCC: You and Serdar use the club as home base for your frequent global music festivals, whether in Central Park, at the UN or the Town Hall among other venues. The latest kicks off with a mammoth free concert in Central Park on Friday, June 17 with legendary Turkish songwriter/filmmaker Zulfu Livaneli. Will you continue promoting big events like that one?

MD: Yes. Serdar and I started off as promoters, and over time added producing festivals and running a nightclub to the list. Today, while we continue to produce one-off shows in and around town, we wanted to bring our experience in doing these events to a live music hall.

LCC: Your schedule for April is as eclectic as anybody could want. Palestinian-American songwriter Stephan Said continues his monthly residency; you also have jazz, Turkish music, a terrific classical pianist playing her cd release show, Turku’s hypnotic Silk Road songs on the 16th, and diverse Middle Eastern sounds with Duo Jalal on the 27th, just to name a few events. Anything else that we should know about?

MD: I would add to that list the Beatrockers & Hardknockers event on April 23rd – the ultimate showcase of the beatbox artform. Poum Tchack, a sextet from the South of France, who are elegant and classy, will play on April 30th. Last but not least, new-soul-comer Chris Turner will play at Drom in April.

LCC: Maybe this isn’t your department – or maybe it is – but I noticed that while pretty much every other restaurant out there has raised their prices, Drom’s are lower than they were last year. And the menu is simplified. What’s up with that? Will you still have that mezze [appetizer] plate that I love so much?

MD: We have simplified the menu because we have a better idea now of what people eat when they attend a concert at our venue. We are primarily a live music hall:  to complement that, we’ve added easy-to-eat main courses, bar food and finger food to the menu. Don’t worry, your fave appetizers will remain on the menu!

LCC: Is there a reason why your place is so pleasant and so many other clubs aren’t? I mean, when I go to Arlene Grocery, the crackhead who does the door acts like she wants to rip my head off. If I want a decent seat anywhere near the stage at City Winery, I have to show up super early. Yet when I come to your place, it’s dark and cozy, everybody’s friendly and relaxed, I can always manage to find a spot somewhere to sit if I’m hungry and I never start to feel like going up and strangling the sound guy. Does one have to be Turkish or Bulgarian to run a club that doesn’t make the customers feel like they’re in a concentration camp?

MD (laughs): Maybe it’s the Turkish hospitality?!

March 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment