The musical side of social protest

Jan 5, 2012

The sound of the Occupy movement, from Wall Street to the West Coast, has been captured in angry chants. But give a listen to protests of the past, and you’ll find musicians making themselves heard in many different ways. KALW’s Martina Castro spoke with Latin jazz percussionist John Santos about the role of music in social protest and the Occupy movement.

JOHN SANTOS: Well, the role of the music, going back to say, for example the African roots, has always been at the center of the community. The music is how, in African tradition, the history and the identity of the clan and the identity of the families and of certain nations, is in oral history. It’s the musicians who preserve that. Poets and musicians – and in dance, as well.

That aspect of the music representing the sentiment of the people, whether that’s social commentary (which has always been a big part of it) – also, documenting our existence and the social conditions under which we live in any point of time – is documented with the music. So that aspect of the music, being part of the movement, has always been there.

We can look probably most clearly at the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s and see how much jazz was such an important voice in that. When we look at the great artists like John Coltrane, and Max Roach, and Abbey Lincoln, people who dealt with it directly and dealt with the civil rights movement and knew that jazz was the voice and part of this movement of freedom, of justice, and of equality… A little bit after that the movement that Bob Dylan was a big part of, and Pete Seeger and folks songs…

And the songs going back to the African tradition are intended to call the presence of the ancestors into the room. There’s a style of Afro-Cuban Congolese music called Palo, and the entire intent of it is to gather our spiritual strength and gather the strength of our ancestors because it comes from a time when the thing that people had to deal with was slavery, so the entire focus was the abolition of slavery. The dance and the rhythm is very aggressive. It’s pounding on the floor with the feet; it’s passionate, strong, and it’s done with sticks, these palos, these long sticks like a weapon. The dance is meant to gather your physical strength and the strength of your ancestors and to bring them into the room and to talk to your ancestors directly and come with all of that rage.

That is at the root of the Haitian revolution and why Haiti was able to be the first sovereign state in the Americas – by gathering that type of strength and ousting the colonial oppressors and making a state. That’s something that we still have, that tradition.

So to bring it up to date with the Occupy movement, it’s a continuation of all of that but yet as a movement itself, it’s new so it hasn’t had a chance. I’m sure that with time there’ll be some great songs. I’m sure some great songs have already come out. I can’t say that I’m on top of that. I don’t know about them – although, I have to say I did a gig a couple of days ago with a wonderful composer and trumpet player named Eric Jacobson here in the Bay Area and he pulls out a tune called “Occupy.” And he says, “You know, it just came to me when I was writing.” He wrote this beautiful composition – it has no lyrics; it’s an instrumental jazz piece. But it’s a powerful piece and it reminds me of that tradition of jazz players writing jazz compositions that don’t necessarily have lyrics [but] that are meant just to gather the strength again – similar to this scenario that I just described.

It’s proven over the millennium that song is a powerful tool for revolution, for change, for rallying people and gathering our ancestral and physical strength. The songs are a big part of that.  There always are going to be artists, there always have been artists in every field, musicians, dancers, choreographers, sculptors, painters, who have always been and who will continue to be inspired by the movement.

I know that I speak for a lot of artists in saying that it’s super encouraging and exciting to see a movement and see people in the street, finally, in this country where we’ve been so defanged by the system. The failed system that on so many levels economically, socially, has just abandoned the 99% of us. And finally, people in all walks of life, all ages and all countries are in the street. And we see it all over Europe, all over Africa, we see it in the Middle East, and we can see it through the television through the news.

So it’s wonderful to see this movement. It’s also interesting to see all the efforts to defuse the movement. All the people who are saying, on both sides, “Oh no, it needs this, it needs that. It doesn’t have this, it doesn’t have that.” The bottom line is that what’s going on in this country is a crime and a shame. It’s been going on for so long and it’s so blatant and so over the top now.

People finally have been [awakened]. You know it’s only a matter of time where you step on somebody’s neck for enough time and eventually they’re going to get up and fight. Finally, you see the beginning of that kind of movement now. I’m very excited to see that. I love to see that it’s people of all ages – and people have different agendas – people are in the streets and it needs to be known and it needs to be publicized and it needs to be seen around the world, and I think it’s a positive movement. 

[Audio for this story will be available after 5pm]