Bringing It To The Streets
Since coming up from New York’s avant downtown scene in the 1970s, guitarist Marc Ribot has played a wildly iconoclastic mix of free jazz, post-punk rock, Afro-Cuban dance music, and Americana roots. Over the course of 25 albums these kinds of sounds have not won wide commercial appeal, but Ribot’s unusual and hard-edged guitar work has made him a favored session player on albums by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Diane Krall, Laurie Anderson and Rosanne Cash.
On the recently released Songs of Resistance 1942-2018, however, Ribot steps forward to forge a broad multicultural musical heritage into fiery and poignant backdrops for accessible in-the-moment protests crossing boundaries of history, race, class, and gender in the era of Trump. As an unapologetic musician-activist, Ribot aims to feed the fire of popular front opposition by reimagining and reconnecting protest songs past and present. Accomplices in this ambitious project include a talented array of writer-performers including Steve Earle, Fay Victor, Tom Waits, Tift Merritt, Syd Straw, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ohene Cornellius, Sam Amidon, and Justin Vivian Bond. But the power and vision of this inspirational challenge to rise up stand up derives from Ribot’s historical research, writing, and arranging.
Appropriately the album’s opener, “We Are Soldiers In The Army,” defines the task at hand as Fay Victor calls out rebels to “hold up our blood stained banner, hold it up until we die,” against a slow rising gust of dissonant saxophone screams. Tom Wait’s follows rendering the Italian anti-fascist tune “Bella Ciao (Goodbye Beautiful),” as a mournful farewell to freedom. From here things turn more topical as Steve Earle and Tift Merritt cover Ribot’s “Srinivas,” an account of the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotia, a Sikh immigrant misidentified as a Muslim and killed in a Kansas barroom by a white man protecting the purity of “his” nation. As this country flavored ballad moves toward its end the acoustic arrangement swells into rock orchestra noise as the grim reality of the New Jim Crow is underscored with shoutouts to a host of other victims including Eric Garner, Heather Heir, Freddy Gray, and Michael Brown. This sort of surprising blend of history and musical cultures proves to be a powerful rallying strategy throughout Ribot’s tunes of protest.
On “Rato de Dos Patas,” Mexican mariachi mixes up with hip hop to defy and insult the immigration policies of Trump—the rat on two legs. “The Big Fool,” Ribot’s hard driving outcry against ecological doom slices in lyrics from Pete Seeger’s “Waste Deep In The Big Muddy,” poetry from W.B. Yeats and Allen Ginsberg, and a few science facts from the “The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.” Elsewhere on “John Brown” revisionist history gets fused to funk and free jazz, Rosa Parks and Emma Goldman teach us “How To Walk In Freedom,” and Meshell Ndegeocello transforms the anti-fascist protest “Fishchia II Vento” into “The Militant Ecologist,” a prayerful ballad for the earth’s survival. For the finale, Ribot again draws from the deep well of Civil Rights protests for Bertha Gober’s “We’ll Never Turn Back,” here delivered with quiet dignity and resolution by Justin Vivian Bond: “We been ‘buked and we been scorned / but we’re never turning back/we’re never turning back / until we all been freed.”
Inspiration from the past still breathing in the present on one of the most essential and stirring albums of the year.