Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Music is the answer for God’s Children

As the year winds down, I’m taking a minute to tell you about an archival release from 2018 I think you may be interested in knowing a bit more about if you come to this blog with any frequency.

God’s Children: Music is the Answer, The Complete Recordings, is recommended listening for anyone interested in the roots of Chicano Rock; the group’s studio sessions never saw the light of day in the ’60s for some of the usual reasons — corporate bungling, market considerations, and the strains on the lives of people whose work intersects with politics and race matters.

From left to right: Lil’ Ray, Little Willie G. & Lydia Amescua: God’s Children Cover design by Barb Bersche, photo  courtesy of Willie Garcia.

Part super-group, part side project, and part pipe dream, the band featured a young singer, Lydia Amescua, alongside Little Willie G. and Lil’ Ray, sprung from Thee Midniters, legends of LA’s Eastside music scene (primarily remembered for the hit, “Whittier Blvd.”). The music industry had big ideas (the first danger sign), for the Latino-led, multiracial and mixed gender group. But business deal delays and behind the scenes bull resulted in the act timing out, proving to be too mainstream for the hippie scene and a little confounding to their friends in the forming Chicano movement. On one hand, Willie G. was cutting sides like “Brown Baby” (“you’re brown and you’re beautiful”), performing at folk clubs and and doing political work supporting the United Farm Workers; on the other hand, the suits who ran the record labels and funded recordings were stuck in the mid-’60s. The entire story as I wrote it based on interviews with the band is contained in the liner notes to God’s Children, Music is the Answer: The Complete Collection, released this year by Minky Records on brown vinyl for Record Store Day (though the liner notes are only available with the CD).

Here’s where things get personal: Those liner notes I wrote in 2016 which accompany the package released this year were cribbed, caged and generally remixed for the album’s press launch (and every subsequent article that was published on the project). That would be ok in the name of “getting press” for a worthy project like God’s Children, however, rendering invisible my original research and writing of the liner notes is not. It was I who dug the archival information, interviewed the three original members of the group and drew the vital connections between the story of rockers of color in 1969, and what’s happening now. It was I who took liberties with Spanglish because I am a Californian, trying to be careful and stay conscious, living daily with the complications that go with living on stolen land. And had I known at the time when I wrote the piece in 2016 where the country was going, that there would be unmitigated hatred and horror waged on women and children at the border, I would’ve written that into the narrative too, but how could I know the future? I just try to report on it.  And while there’s not much I can do about the fact my work was mangled and plagiarized, I can call out those practices, along with the attempt to shame me for taking a stand. I’m not at all surprised: this is how we roll in America and the music business is just another arena where men like to take the shine away from the deep work and research we do as women and render it invisible. My situation is nothing new under the sun, these indignities are all too common, and yet the incident feels particularly egregious in a year when the country let us know how it really feels about justice for all.

By year’s end, the unearthed recordings of God’s Children suffered a  fate similar to their original project: The music went unheard. Though well-meaning folks tried to get the sounds to a wider audience, its message of unity, of peace and empowerment was completely lost in the morass of new releases, higher profile media campaigns, and the neverending spectacle.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to have been part of the God’s Children: Music is the Answer project: it’s an important part of California’s musical history and I wouldn’t have spent a minute with it or on this post if I didn’t believe in the power of the music and its message. It was a great privilege and honor to be asked to do the writing that created the opportunity for me to speak to the gracious musicians, pillars of our state’s contribution to rock and roll.  I hope you’ll seek out more from God’s Children on your usual streaming and vinyl channels or wherever you listen to music; this alternate take was all I could find to share with you.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, Latina, Latino culture, Latinx culture, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, vinyl, Women in Rock, Women's issues, Women's rights, , , , ,

Music for Change: Cambio

Cambio’s album title, I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to a broadcast by Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO San Francisco about a year ago. With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte, the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja, committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him. Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album, Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work: One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s a remix “I Need A Dollar” featuring Bocafloja originally from I, Too, Sing America.

This Saturday afternoon, Cambio and I will be making a presentation on music with a message and music  for change at the Oakland Museum of California. If you are interested in hearing more from Cambio, check his Bandcamp page and the archived broadcast of the show I heard. Please support his work and the work of other musicians for change: Positive hip hop is still marginalized but Cambio’s voice, if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land: He, too, sings America.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, San Francisco News, video, vinyl, , , , ,

Cyndi Lauper: She’s Still So Unusual

Photo1 - (courtesy WeTV and Kinky Boots)Though I never owned  She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper in the ’80s (it was what we called “too commercial” for my taste), I was certainly happy to revisit it in its 30th anniversary vinyl edition, and hear it as the watershed in women’s recording it was.

By the time Cyndi Lauper made her solo debut in the fall of 1983, the year had already delivered some of ‘80s culture’s greatest hits: Michael Jackson had performed the moonwalk on the Motown 25 TV special; Sally Ride was the first woman to fly into outer space, and a black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned for the first time ever. Madonna was still a yet to be, in the process of defining herself on a debut that just skimmed the radar. Lauper however was fully formed, comfortable in her own skin and clothes, wrote her own songs and had enough chutzpah to take others’ songs and make them her own. She was also an extraordinary singer, then and now, her voice an expression of pure joy and an assertion of her freeness…

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AT BLURT ONLINE: 

Filed under: Reviews, vinyl, What Makes A Legend, Women in Rock, Women's rights, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Gil Scott-Heron

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry history, specifically where the two forms meet and get real. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. Truth was, there were echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves, though if ever you go and seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find discs there. Come April 19, Record Store Day, there will actually be a new slab of wax in the stacks by Scott-Heron: Nothing New is a collection of stripped down tracks, recorded in 2005.  This sample cut, “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams),” was originally released on the 1980 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, 1980. Amazing how timely the song and its sentiments remain, though that is of course the nature of visionary poetry–and jazz. 

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Gil Scott-Heron, Immigration Reform, Poetry, Protest Songs, vinyl, , , , , , ,

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