The Author Performing at The Tate Modern with Tarek Atoui, Steve Noble, Dale Berning, Keiko Yamamototo, Ute Kanngiesser, Gerry Moore, and Lia Mazzari Photo: Jamie Quantrill
For more than a month I have been silent – unable to approach the keyboard. The cause isn’t writers block, internal crisis, or lack of faith in my subject. It’s fear.
Roughly a year ago a moving truck pulled up outside our apartment in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. We weren’t just leaving New York, my girlfriend and I were leaving America – embarking on an adventure into the unknown. Our plan was to pick a city in Europe and try it out. If it didn’t stick, we’d move on until we exhausted our savings or found a place that suited us. I was burnt out from a decade and a half working in commercial art galleries, and felt an overwhelming need to write. Jenny (a chef) simply needed change. Not long before our departure fate intervened. Six friends gathered on a summer evening for Uzbekistani food in Coney Island to celebrate our friend Che’s (75 Dollar Bill, etc) birthday. Within this close group, to my surprise, I found myself sitting next to a stranger named Jordan. Though Jordan had spent many years in NY, and had been part of the same experimental music community to which I belonged, somehow our paths had never crossed. This was partially due to the fact that he was currently living in Mexico City. He’d been there since I returned to NY two years earlier (after spending nearly a decade in London). Over the course of the meal we chatted and got to know each other. Having heard great things about the city where he had made his home, I picked his brain. The picture he painted was remarkable. I brimmed with envy.
Jordan Topiel Paul, Mexico City, 2016. Photo by the Author
When I arrived home I recounted to Jenny what I had heard. Our conversation went something like this – Jenny: “Fuck it, let’s go.” Me: “Really?” Jenny: “Yeah, why not?” Me: “Ok, Fuck it.” It was that simple, and how we decided to move to Mexico City – a place neither of us had visited.
Jenny and The Author Shortly Before Leaving New York
At the end of the summer we left our jobs and boarded a flight to London. We spent three months relaxing, spending time with friends, and in my case beginning my first period of focused writing on The Hum. As winter approached we flew back to NY, caught up with people for a week, flew on to Chicago for a week with Jenny’s family, and then to the sleepy surfing community in Florida where my father had recently bought a house. On Christmas day we landed in Distrito Federal for the first time.
Our First Day in Mexico City, 2015. Photo by the Author
Neither of us had any expectations. Most people who had heard our plans had looked at us like we were crazy – convinced that we would be kidnapped or wake up in a bathtub with missing kidneys before the first week was out. We laughed it off, but had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know if we would stay one month or six. Jenny wanted to learn traditional culinary techniques, I wanted to disappear into a cloud of music and the written word. We needed a break from the world, and a way to stretch our money as far as we could. Mexico seemed as good a place as any. At the end of our first day of wandering explorations, it was clear we had both fallen in love with our new home. The city was beyond what words could have prepared us for – overflowing with chaos and beauty. Most of our first month was spent in relative isolation, exploring neighborhoods, markets, and in my case immersed in a flurry of writing. I started the blog extension of the original Hum site, found my readership rapidly growing past anything I expected possible, and with it my expectations of myself. Jordan was away. We didn’t know a soul. When he returned he began taking us to shows staged by the the city’s experimental music community, introducing us to its members. The world opened.
Mexico City, 2016. Photo by the Author
For most of those living beyond Mexico’s borders, the country exists behind a cloud of media reports on cartel violence, poverty, and a population running for the US border. The reality I encountered is far from what the world presumes. This is a land of color and beauty, of incredible culture and history, where music fills the streets and the arts are part of daily life, where even those condemned to the most abject poverty approach their lives with more celebration and joy than I have ever witnessed among the more fortunate in America or Europe. It goes without saying that Latin America is a complex place, one with intricate cultural realities, and whose post-colonial era and economic conditions have largely been scripted by forces beyond its borders. It’s not the time to deconstruct the ills of NAFTA, drug policy, or aggregators of immigration, but the legacies of each play a role in understanding the cultural realities and history of the country where I now reside. Around me lay the ghosts of the Twentieth Century – the beautiful and the ugly, the idealistic and the cynical. Among them are the remnants of what so many of our cultures have cast off – thrift and resourcefulness, community and family, the simple celebration of what you have, and a belief that if taken in ones own hands, any life can be beautiful.
Mexico City, 2016. Photo by the Author
It would take pages to outline what I hope to achieve through The Hum. My central desire is to draw attention to those who make and produce great music outside of mainstream structures, and to do so in a way that inspires community and undermines the forces in the world which seek to divide its inhabitants. I believe that great music, and as such art, can collapse borders and divisions (be they racial, cultural, or economic), promote empathy and understanding, and bring us together. Nowhere have I encountered music operating outside of the mainstream, and with such avant-garde ambitions, while suffering an equivalent degree of neglect, as I have in Mexico. Nowhere is there a greater obscuring of truth, loss of history, or need for the destruction of the borders which divide us.
Ramón del Buey performing Alvin Lucier’s Music for Gamelan Instruments with Ensamble Liminar, Mexico City, 2016. Photo by the Author
As Jenny and I began to immerse ourselves in Mexico’s avant-garde music community, and form friendships within it, I found myself shocked – not only by its scale, diversity, ambition, and substantial audience, but by its character, and the fact that something like this could exist without the world beyond being aware of it. Of course avant-garde and experimental music is reasonably obscure. It rarely draws much attention, but those who count themselves members of its community are passionate and well informed. It’s small. Staying abreast of its international extensions is reasonably easy. Despite this, the remarkable sounds issuing from Mexico remain largely unknown – lost in one sided isolation. Practitioners and fans are well informed, possessing a wide reaching understanding of the history of the avant-garde practice, with its contemporary realities, forced into conjunction with cultural specificity, individual expression, and distilled in a land hidden from view. The results are remarkable and unique, operating with a mechanism of internal support with few parallels. No idiom is favored. Shows take place in a wide range of venues (from institution, to living room, and everywhere in between) almost nightly. Unlike most international contexts, generally operating with an even spit between recordings and concerts, there are almost no documents creeping from the city. It is live, and next to nothing else. On one evening you might encounter a group of individuals improvising under equal billing, and the next the same group coming together to help realize the score of a friend. There are few prominent names or inflated egos. It is a world of collective support. Those looking to draw attention to themselves, or find personal gain, are usually viewed with suspicion, if not outright disdain. The music comes first.
Alexander Bruck Performing James Tenney ‘s Koan, For Malcolm Goldstein, Oaxaca, 2016. Photo by the Author
This is where we found our Mexico, our community, friendship, support, and inspiration. I resolved to find a way to draw attention to this incredible scene and its sounds through my writing – to explore the forgotten and unknown histories of Mexican avant-garde music, and do my best to bring them into the light. As time past my research turned up droves of information and an acute sense that I had not scratched the surface. Jenny and my love for the country, and for the community to which we now belonged, grew with every passing day. One month became three, three became six. It became clear that almost nothing could compel us to leave.
Anne La Berge, Aimee Theriot, and Carlos Iturralde Performing in Mexico City, 2016. Photo by the Author
As our first six months in Mexico came to a close, I had the good fortune to be asked to participate in a series of performances being staged by the artist Tarek Atoui at the Tate Modern in London. I was reluctant to leave our new home. Memory couldn’t locate a period of my life where I had been as happy or productive. I was walking on air, and though I bristled at the thought of a disruption. It was only three weeks. What could go wrong?
Fernando Vigueras Performing in Mexico City, 2016. Photo by the Author
I am a dual national. I have American and British citizenship, and with this comes a deep concern for the social and political realities of both countries. When you are as far Left as I am, it is hard to see much good coming from the architectures of mainstream politics, but I have long drawn a sense of hope and pride from the cultural make up of Britain. It is a country which embraces diversity and social equity in a way that America purports to, but never has. London particularly is a multicultural center like none I have experienced – a true melting pot. People and cultures from around the world live side by side in respect, harmony, and struggle, constantly contributing to evolving patchwork of cultural meaning which defines Britain itself. Of course the sins of class and economic inequity exist, but unlike America these divisions do not enjoy a near mutual exclusivity to race – you are as likely to be rich or poor if Black, White, Asian, or any other. Everyone has access to free healthcare, a reasonable quality of education, and social housing or income support when needed. I have always been proud to pay my taxes into such a system.
When the Tories rose to power in 2010 much of what I love about Britain came under almost immediate attack – social protections, the National Health Service, arts funding, etc, while a system of economic austerity (a strategy to shift the national dept away from government responsibility, and onto the population at large) was placed into action. Life became harder (if not unmanageable) for almost everyone in the country who was not wealthy – including everyone I knew. Rents rose at astronomical rates, wages and employment opportunities stagnated or dropped, social housing was sold into the hands of corrupt developers, communities shattered, homelessness skyrocketed. Most of my friends began leaving for more the sympathetic pastures of Europe, while others found themselves forced into neighborhoods on the outskirts of London where they knew no one. Fear and pain permeated the nation. In the end, faced with economic uncertainty, and the evaporation of my community of friends, I chose to return to NY in 2013, following my heart toward Jenny.
My departure from London was reluctant. It is the closest thing to home I have ever known. I love it as a city, and as a culture. Were economics not a factor I would return in a heartbeat – the reasons that I cannot, with the sinister realities that the Tories have unleashed, set my blood to boil.
Returning Home, London, 2016. Photo by the Author
When I landed at Heathrow during the second week of June there was hardly a trace of anxiety in the air. The referendum vote on Britain’s place in the European Union was just over a week away. No one seemed to be taking it seriously, presuming Brexit would never pass. I felt less certain, but spent the week catching up with friends, recounting stories of our wonderful life in Mexico, and performed with Tarek and his merry band during The Tate’s grand opening of its new wing. I was still walking on air.
The Author Performing with Tarek Atoui at the opening of the Tate Modern’s New Wing, 2016. Photo: Jamie Quantrill
I woke on the morning of the 24th with a text message from Jenny – “What the hell is going on with the referendum? I’m scared.” I sat up with a jolt, opened my computer, and checked the news. The sky collapsed.
It’s impossible to distill the fallout of the Brexit vote. It has yet to be realized. Everything indicates that no one in the country expected it to pass, even those pursuing and voting for it. It was our era’s great political folly, one of selfish maneuvering and opportunism, rather than avocation of legitimate policy – in other words it is a window into the contemporary operation of “Liberal Democracy” rippling across the globe. Our era has come to be defined by a political class which is socially, economically, and ethically divided from those whose interests it is charged to protect. To understand the nature of contemporary politics, one must acknowledge that this political class operates within an entirely different architecture of values and belief than the rest of society. It is cynical and destructive – made up of the economic elite, the members of which will protect their own interests, and the interests of those like them, at any cost – even if this means the entire economic collapse of the country they call home, and the untold suffering of those who have placed them into power. In most cases their fortunes are fed by domestic economies, but are not bound to them, remaining free from risk in offshore holdings and Swiss accounts. More often than not they have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. To understand Brexit, both why it happened, and how it will play out across the foreseeable future, we must understand the political class (both inside Britain, and without) as a functionary of Late-Capitalism, and not part of Democracy as most people understand it.
After Brexit, London, 2016. Photo by the Author
For all the evil and absurdity embedded within the Brexit vote, it was not without its logic or reason. It is a consequence of the political reality outlined above. It is an intuitive, inarticulate reaction to pain and fear – a clamoring for control by a population which has been denied access to their own destinies. By very definition a Right-Wing political ideology is selfish, greedy, and duplicitous. It pursues its own interests at any expense, employing subterfuge (most often through fear) and misdirection to mask the source of the suffering it unleashes. The poor and middle classes in Britain are suffering. Their well being, and often their basic human rights, have been cast to the side, but the narrative of misfortune does not begin with the European Union, it begins with Margaret Thatcher, her hatred for the poor and working classes, attacks on worker protections and unions, and the privatization of Britain’s publicly owned assets. Her legacy was carried and furthered by New-Labor, and entered its endgame with David Cameron’s austerity policies in 2010. It is only lies, duplicity, and misdirection keeping those whom these policies harm the most from seeing the source of their pain.
There are two primary narratives issued by those who voted for Brexit. One is an assertion of public disobedience to the political class – born of pain, frustration, and lack of opportunity, all which are the consequence of conservative agendas and austerity. We can not lose sight of the fact that the two main parties opposed Britain’s exit from the European Union, and thus it was largely viewed as an extension of existing political agenda – something the population of Britain is increasingly losing faith in, if not directly suffering as the result of. In this light the referendum result should be partially understood as part of the same social and political context which has seen a massive up swell in grassroots support for figures like Jeremy Corbyn, as well as Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump in America. Though each represents a distinct social and political ideology, all three draw a great deal of their support from the simple fact that they remain largely untainted by the transparently self-serving interests of the parties to which they belong. This explains, despite overwhelming popular support, why all three have been met with so much resistance from the internal mechanisms of their respective parties. If these figures were allowed to represent the interests of the voting public (however virtuous or flawed), the agendas of the political class would be undermined. When a political organization denies, ignores, or attempts to suppress voice and will of the voting public, it no longer has a right to be defined as democratic. Brexit, Corbyn, Sanders, and Trump, as political phenomena, all represent a recognition of the loss of democracy within global politics by the voting public, and a demand for its reinstatement. We now live in a world where the political class and the general population are openly working against the other’s interests.
The second primary rationalization by those who voted for Brexit is easier to lay bare. It is racism and xenophobia – once again political functionaries of the Right-Wing. Any investigation of an era in which a conservative government is in power will almost always reveal a calculated political attack on some “other” – usually an ethnic or religious minority, but in some cases, as in those of McCarthyism, Reaganism, and Thatcherism, those whose political or economic aims appose their own. Though it goes without saying that it is important to acknowledge the individual character of the bigotry held by political figures (be it Hitler’s, Nixon’s, or any other dark specter of the past), it is more important to focus on their use and dissemination of that bigotry as a means for political gain. The political Right need a tangible enemy, not as a matter of policy, but as a method to undermine legitimate political discourse and as a mechanism of slight of hand – to draw attentions away from their own actions. There is a simple fact. During the period in which the Tories have been in power documented instances of hate-crimes, racism, and xenophobia have increased exponentially. Though they denounce these acts publicly, their policies are the direct source of the conditions which promote this bigotry, and their party directly benefits from it – thus they must be held responsible, particularly when so much of their rhetoric focuses on immigration. Conservative political strategy is hyper-segmented. It reaches its aims by fracturing the tangible connection between its actions and their consequences. In nearly every historical instance, or geographic concentration, of racism and xenophobia – be that interwar Germany, the American South, Apartheid South Africa, or any other, there is an economic aggregator, and that aggregator is tied to conservative economic policy. Rather than being held responsible for the suffering that these policies unleash, the blame is leveled on some externality – the “other”.
If we look at the conditions in Britain over the period in which the Tories have been in power, and the narrative of xenophobia which surrounded the Brexit vote against the presumed economic operation of immigration versus its actuality, things become slightly more clear. There are two functionaries within the system of Capitalism which must be understood – growth, and access to upward economic mobility. For an economy to be viewed as salient within our current paradigm, it must grow at a faster rate than inflation. For this to operate, the production and consumption of a said commodity (anything from which profit can be gained), and the economy to which it contributes, must increase over the period in which it is evaluated. If population growth is static (or shrinking in the case of many countries in the developed world) then there is a logical maximized point of production and consumption (unless wages and spending increase rapidly) – thus at some point inflation will outpace the growth of profit, and the economy will “collapse.” There are two standard strategies to staying ahead of this condition – one is the production of an economy around abstract values which are not tied to the standard production model (stocks, bonds, equities, and real estate), the other is through population growth. The more people there are, the more producers and consumers there are – thus growth is realized (as long as the rate of population growth stays ahead of inflation). Immigration (because it promotes growth in economies naturally disposed to stasis) is a necessity within our current economic paradigm. Every politician and economist knows this, but I am yet to hear it explained to the voting public. In an era where so much political rhetoric dwells on immigration, a simple explanation might go a long way. The fact that this model is not complex and widely known, implies that its omission from public discourse is political duplicity. The condition of access to upward economic mobility is tied to this. The standard model of immigration (in economic terms) presumes its connection to a labor economy. It fills the lowest paying jobs which demand the least education and training. This model presumes that the static population in a geographic economy will have had access to education and thus can move up the economic ladder toward more skilled labor (thus becoming economically mobile). In America and Britain this model has been broken by two forces – both the result of conservative policy in conjunction with basic flaws in our economic system. At its best, and when operating fairly, Capitalism presumes a reasonable exchange of payment for a workers time and labor. A minimum wage (which is determined by political legislation) is intended to guarantee a worker’s access the necessities for a reasonable quality of life – food, shelter, healthcare, transportation etc. In a logical (and ethical) system, one would presume that as production and consumption are obligated to outpace inflation, so too should the rate of increase that wages are distributed at. We all know this no longer happens. In Britain particularly, this can be illustrated by the fact that those who are supplied a basic quality of life by the state through income support and rent relief, have a greater level of economic prosperity than those operating within the workforce at minimum wage. This is an economic condition within which profit is the only motive, enabled by policies pursued the political class working in service of this ideal. Labor is outsourced to countries with lower wages (through trade agreements and deregulation), while within domestic economies profit is extracted from workers by keeping their wages below the rate of inflation. This means economic inequity is promoted by the political class. Dealing abstractly (against the actual cost within people’s lives) this promotes a paradox which lays bare the nature of the political class. If wages contract against the rate of inflation, it means that the spending power of those effected is reduced. If people spend less money then the growth contracts and economy moves toward collapse. Again their are two simple ways to combat this. The first is by promoting a condition in which more people are spending (less) money – thus population growth, meaning immigration. The second is by changing the economic philosophy, meaning the nature of Capitalism itself. This is something that was pursued by Reagan and Thatcher. They both worked toward an economic model created by The Chicago School, know colloquially as Trickle Down Economics. Like all conservative thinking, it is self-serving and based on lies and manipulation. Though impossible to sum up here, these ideas revolve around the idea that economies work best when wealth is consolidated at the top and subsequently moves downward. They were deemed the laughing stock of economists when they were first tabled in the 1950’s, but gained “legitimacy” as a mechanism of both Reagan and Thatcher’s attacks on the poor, while they worked entirely in the interests of economic elite. In the years that have followed, the entire nature of our economic model has been rewritten – to the point that it now has greater resemblance to pre-industrial feudal architecture of landed gentry and serfs, than it does to the model of post-war Capitalism (which was drafted to prevent economic collapse and ensure a more even distribution of wealth and equity). Upward economic mobility is now actively suppressed because it undermines the consolidation of wealth at the top of the model. When David Cameron took office he almost immediately paid homage to Margaret Thatcher. This should have been understood as a signaling of his direct participation with the economic aims she enacted. Within a very short period of time his administration cut educational funding, made efforts to privatize it, university costs skyrocketed, and immigration legislation was passed which favored skilled labor exclusively and limited the possibility for new populations to contribute to the labor economy (and thus enable economic mobility within the existing British population). Britain’s new population of immigrants enter the work force with more education and mobility than natives. The only free-radical in this equation is the European Union, the movement of whose citizens cannot be constrained by economic terms – thus can enter the economy in any position, and subsequently are capable of activating the expectation of mobility – something the political and economic elite are attempting to suppress. For Trickle Down Economics to be sustained, the population of a given economy must resign themselves to their “lot” or be actively held their by force (something the militarization of police forces in American might be seen to foreshadow). In this light we can begin to understand the cyclical nature of the Brexit referendum. On one hand we have a government promoting the idea of immigration as the source of the economic problems within Britain, on the other we have a population who is aware enough to know they are being denied access to economic mobility, and desire it, yet who do not have the tools to deconstruct the true source of their stasis. When looking for something to blame, they reach for the answer that they have been given – those who are capable of jumping ahead of them on the economic ladder, and thus denying them mobility – immigrants. To digress slightly further, if we look at the argument made by many Brexit supporters focusing on the fact that immigrants take their jobs by offering to work longer hours for lower wages, further legacies of Right-Wing policies begin to appear. Only a few decades ago it would have been nearly impossible for these conditions to exist. Strong unions protected workers from such circumstances. Their jobs would have been secure, and no worker would be allowed to work longer hours for lower wages, no matter where they came from. Thus the threat of the “other”, and the subsequent rise in xenophobia we are witnessing today, is a direct legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on unions and workers protections.
Keeping in mind that every politician and economist understands the nature of capitalism and its necessity for growth, and that immigration is a fundamental component in the sustaining of growth, against the fact that the conservative policy historically employ misdirection (focusing on an externality – the “other”) to draw attention away from its self-serving and destructive nature, we are faced with a conditional paradox. This is why I stated earlier the political elite will pursue their own gain to the point of entire economic collapse of the country they call home, and the untold suffering of those who have placed them into power. If conservative economic policy understands growth and immigration as necessary functions of stability, yet attacks immigration as a central diversion from the policies it pursues (in service of the economic elite) then one must presume that economic stability is not a Right-Wing objective. The conservative objective is the consolidation of wealth among their own class. If the immigration enabled by free movement within the European Union was reversed, meaning British nationals were forced to come home and EU citizens were forced to leave, it would mean that the population would fall, and thus so too would growth, sending the British economy into free-fall. The only people who would be insulated from this are economic elites whose holdings are protected outside the British economy – something we know most of Britain’s economics elites possess.
The history of the last century and a half is peppered by Left-Wing political revolutions. These have almost always been spawned by the point at which a population’s lack of economic prosperity (being denied by a Right-Wing government or dictatorship) reaches a breaking point – when suffering becomes too great and action is the only means for survival. Though this point has been passed in some communities within the global economy, the persuasive subterfuge of Late-Capitalism has thus far managed to stave off outright revolt – either by diverting attention elsewhere, or maintaining the illusion of access to mobility. The Brexit result is an articulation of both sides of this coin and its slow dissolution – a movement toward some secondary stage where a form of action is being realized. As I have outline, there were two primary aggregators for those who voted for Brexit – both consequences of Right-Wing policy. One was direct (all be childlike) disobedience to the aims of both primary political parties who were fighting to remain in the EU. Though most voters did not deconstruct the character of their revolt (or the potential consequences), they intuitively understand that mainstream political bodies are actively working against their well being, and thus any objective of those two parties must be fought. The second is racism and xenophobia, promoted by the Right-Wing as an enabler of their economic objective- the consolidation of wealth, and ironically carried by those who these policies effect the most negatively. In the period that followed the referendum result, as we all struggled to understand what had happened, and what was to come, there was a third consequence to the long standing conservative attack on the population – one far closer to home. A recognition of our complicity.
As the dust from the referendum settled, it become glaringly obvious that the political class had no idea how to deal with it. As it descended into a chaotic fury of infighting and opportunism, fear, uncertainty, and depression filled my life and the lives of my friends. No one had expected the result, and as such, we had failed to understand the social and political reality of our country. A previously silenced majority had expressed their pain, fear, and anger. The Right-Wing had grown far larger than we recognized, the policies of the political elite far more effective. Part of this horrible truth brought with it the recognition that I belong to a fairly self-involved generation. As children we watched our parents distance themselves from the ideals embraced during the 1960’s, favoring economic security and prosperity. We grew in an era which denounced the practicalities of direct political action, while many of us benefited greatly from the choices made by our parents. It allowed us to go to art schools without doubt, to become musicians and writers, “creatives,” and the luxury to believe that those things had worth, meaning, and contributed positively to society – that they were part of some abstract system of trickle down Leftism, that by doing what we wanted, we were doing enough. This position seems to have been echoed and amplified by those short generations which have followed my own – Millennials etc. We might read Post-Marxist theory, we certainly have thoughts and ideals about the state of politics, most of us vote, sometimes we’ll join a demonstration as a mater of principle (while acknowledging that it probably won’t do any good), but for the most part we have left politics to others – “professionals” who know what they are doing, and allow us the luxury to think on loftier subjects, and pursue the lives we wanted. In the days following the referendum, as the Left joined the Right in fear, I saw this illusion slowly lift from the eyes of my social circle. A realization that we had been lazy, apathetic, and self-indulgent – that our lack of engagement had allowed this to happen, that others had taken control of our destinies, our security, and our well being – that the worst was yet to come.
Steve, Ute, Keiko, and Gerry Practicing at The Tate Following Brexit. Photo by the Author
The week I remained in London following the referendum was one of the darkest of my life. There were the obvious personal questions of how the outcome might effect Jenny and my plans to return to Europe one day, but these weren’t at the front of my mind. Every conversation I had was filled with sentiments of shock, anger, anxiety, and fear. We all felt the same way, but being more politically active and conscious than most, as well being a citizen of two countries, I felt more susceptible. As it was hard for me to not see the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders by their respective parties (two of the only political figures I have ever found it ethically possible to endorse) as part of same global condition, it was impossible for me to divorce the growing specter of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy from Brexit. Both were presumed unfathomable, the referendum result told a different truth. Being part of the same condition, and the consequence of very similar social, economic, and political realities, any logic implies that Trump has the same shot at the Presidency as Brexit had at passing. During that week there was an even greater cloud growing on the horizon. Reports of a terrifying spike in hate crimes echoed through the country. Racist graffiti sprang up across Britain and through-out East London where I was staying – tellingly these instances and words were largely directed, not at people from Europe, but at those of non-white ethnicity and from cultures whose presence in Britain is in no way effected by the Brexit result – particularity because most were British citizens and came from families who had been such for multiple generations. The country I love for its diversity and tolerance was descending into something close to Fascist racism and hatred.
Keiko Yamamototo, the Author, Steve Noble, Lia Mazzari, Dale Berning, Ute Kanngiesser, and Gerry Moore Performing at The Tate Modern with Tarek Atoui Photo: Jamie Quantrill
I did my best to keep my head above water and enjoy the company of friends who I would soon be leaving behind. Truthfully it was hard. Depression began to creep in. I was emotionally exhausted, and exasperated by how few people seemed to care (beyond my immediate circle of friends). Hipsters still drank their overpriced coffees and ate their artisanal treats while giggling in decadent glee. Shoppers went about their business as though the world was unchanged. For me part of it had died. I took part in three more performances at the Tate Modern with Tarek Atoui and an incredible group of collaborators, the final of which felt like a symbolic gesture of everything I loved about Britain – eight improvisors, from as many countries, coming together in conversation (Tarek Atoui – Lebanon, Steve Noble – England, Dale Berning – France / South Africa, Keiko Yamamototo – Japan, Ute Kanngiesser – Germany, Gerry Moore – Scotland, Lia Mazzari – Italy, and myself – US /UK). This took place on the day before my return to Mexico. It felt like a wonderful antidote to a world sinking into darkness, and an incredible high to end my trip. For a moment the world drifted away, and I felt joy as I listened and responded to the sounds of my friends.
Following the performance, most of us were joined by friends at a nearby pub to celebrate. Predictably the conversation was quickly overtaken by the dark cloud of Brexit. The gloom returned, but we enjoyed the company and conversation of like minds. As we said our goodbyes, my friend Clare and I jumped in a car to Peckham. Her boyfriend was DJing another of our friend’s birthday party. We looked forward to a night dancing and being greeted by smiling faces. As we rode south our conversation began drifting back toward the dark specter of the moment, but we caught ourselves and apologized to our driver for subjecting him to sentiments we were sure he had heard dozens of times in the past week. It turned out that he had his own story to tell. He explained to us that he and his wife were of Bangladeshi descent. His grandfather had fought for the British during the Second World War, and had been granted citizenship as a result of his service. The subsequent generations were raised in London. This driver was extremely intelligent, articulate, and clearly well educated. It turned out that he owned his own business and was only driving a car at night temporarily. He needed extra cash to help pay for some of the additional expenses. He and his wife – a university lecturer, had just purchased their first flat. He explained to us that he had been apposed to Brexit, but was sympathetic with many of the arguments for it. He understood that people in the country were suffering and angry, but had been shocked by some of the conversations he had overheard by Brexit supporters in his car following the referendum. Like many, the result had seemed to give them permission to pronounce the worst sides of themselves. This had become very real the day prior. His wife (who was born and raised in the UK) had been shopping at the Stratford Mall (in East London). As she went about her business other shoppers gathered, began making racist remarks, and ultimately throwing things at her in an effort to make her “go home”. Clare and I listened in shock. It’s one thing to hear about a hate crime on the news – to delegate its perpetrators to some extreme faction of society, located in some backward place, it’s another to hear it first hand, perpetrated by shoppers at a mall only a stone’s throw from your own home. Despite a week spent dwelling on it, this is where the true reality of the Brexit came crashing in. We did our best to express our sympathy, anger, and solidarity with this lovely man who had taken the time to tell us this tale, and stepped out of the cab into the night. My eyes filled with tears. My stomach knotted. I wanted to vomit in the street and scream. For the second time in a week the country I loved had died.
The Author, Steve Noble, and Keiko Yamamototo Performing at The Tate Modern with Tarek Atoui Photo: Jamie Quantrill
The next morning I woke with a throbbing hangover. It seems that I attempted to engage in alcohol induced catharsis. I was running late and moving slow. I rushed out the door to the airport as quickly as I could. By the time I made it to the gate, after what seemed like hours of running, most of the passengers had already boarded. I was exhausted, and happy to be returning to Mexico – to my friends, to the sunshine, to the beauty and the chaos, and most importantly to escape the gloom, fear, and anxiety of Brexit Britain. I was anxious to put it behind me for a while. To get back to writing.
Dale Berning, Keiko Yamamototo, Lia Mazzari, Ute Kanngiesser, and the Author Performing at The Tate Modern with Tarek Atoui Photo: Jamie Quantrill
I thought I could escape it. The first morning back in Mexico City proved me wrong. My conscience panged. Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty rushed in. I tried to push my thoughts toward The Hum – to the reviews I had promised to write, and the articles I had been anxious to let unfold. They seemed meaningless in the face of all that had come to pass, against what the dark cloud on the horizon foretold. I took a walk, returned home and succumbed to a cloud of depression that is only now beginning to break. Mexico didn’t seem the same. I felt the call of my friends in Europe, those who knew the pain I suffered, who these things effected the most, and with whom I could join the fight. I wondered endlessly, and without answer, about what we should do. Should we stay in Mexico and devote ourselves to this wonderful world, and to the community to which we now belong? Should I carry on with my research into the history of the Latin American avant-garde, trying to bring its neglected brilliance to light, or should we try and get back to a city in Europe before the curtain falls? The greatest struggle was the feeling that I had walked away. That evil was swelling into Europe and America in the form of a hideous Far-Right, that untold people were suffering, and the worst was yet to come. Was I was ducking my head, avoiding it all, absolving myself of direct action and responsibility by remaining where I am? I was filled with personal doubt. What use were my actions? What good could it do to champion the arts in the face of such horrors? Could a music blog really do any good? I drifted inward, played guitar, and started working on a series of small water colors. Unable to answer my questions, I let The Hum gather dust.
More than a month has passed and I still don’t have the answers. No one does. Europe is in chaos. The Tories and Labor vie for self-interested concerns, fighting among themselves, paying little regard to the suffering and fear that swells in their constituencies. The UN deemed the Tory austerity measures a human rights violation, but no one seemed to notice or mind. Bernie has lost the nomination, and Trump’s popularity grows. There has been an appalling swell of terrorist attacks, while fear, racism and xenophobia spreads by the day. The Right is gaining a foothold everywhere you look – fed by the legacies of their policies and making further attacks on human rights, the arts, and quality of life every chance they can.
Jenny and I don’t know what we will do, or what the future holds. We might stay in Mexico, we might do our best to make it back to Europe before it’s too late. What I do recognize is that I’ve been consumed by fear, and fear is a tool of the very thing I am most afraid of – Right-Wing political ideology. The Right wants us to be afraid, to be paralyzed, to lose sight of the power in our own action. As the clouds over my head began to part, I began remember why I started The Hum. In whatever small way, it is a means to combat these forces. It is founded on a belief that we belong to global community, and that music helps us navigate this. It undermines the forces in the world which seek to keep us divided. It collapses borders and divisions (be they racial, cultural, or economic), promotes empathy and understanding, and brings us into each other’s lives. It should be no mystery that Right-Wing governments attack arts funding first. It is not because they are a frivolous expenditure. It is because they undermine their objective to keep us separate, to keep us afraid. In this light I begin again. I apologize for my absence and my silence, and remind you of the power of your action. In the power of your ears. Perhaps these efforts are not enough. Perhaps I should do more and will. But for now I take back my life from the Far-Right and the evil is spawns. I reject it. I defy it. I fight. I carry on.
2 thoughts on “a sound in the face of fear”
An artist friend in Brooklyn forwarded the link to your blog. Terrific! I was married to a Mexican painter in the 70s and remember my first and later trips to Mexico and discovering the intense art scene there–which your blog brought back. I love your photographs, both those in color that reproduce the brilliance of Mexico and those in black and white of the musicians and performers. I want to hear the music!
Thank you so much for your thoughts and for the kind words. Mexico is a remarkable place – one I will forever be grateful for being allowed to know as well as I have. I’m currently considering ways to bring these sounds to listeners beyond the country’s borders, as well as further articles to try and bring understanding to what is happening here, and exposure to those involved. I hope you’ll check back in and that you enjoy all the things you find here as enjoyable.