Published on Friday, July 6 2012
May 1st, 2012. Strange things coinciding, convulsing.
Terry Riley – 20th Century Avant-Classical composer – is speaking, along side a panel of others, at Vanderbilt University in conjunction with the premier by the Nashville Symphony of his newly commissioned piece.
Bombino is playing their initial – and presumed by some (although proven wrong) to be their lone, ever – show at the VFW Post 1970 in West Nashville.
May Day is happening. At once an ancient, cross-quarter pagan holiday, relatively neutered by Christianity, and (more popularly known as) the International Workers’ Day after the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago. A fine, lost-but-resurfacing memory of police brutality if there ever was one.
I decided to set out on all 3 of these events, all together in my life by happenstance, and to see if I couldn’t make something out of them. I don’t know if I did, but recount is worth explication.
The May Day event took place internally. A re-membering of mine and many others’ lives and stories to a Grand-Narrative scale, one that would serve true posturing, inward disposition, and personal politic.
Most likely, Terry Riley does not need an introduction. If you do, it’s relatively easy to sink into, and will probably be given by someone far more adequate than me. I am fairly familiar with his corpus of work – mainly from my brother – but I was also familiar with his thoughts and musings, spiritual or otherwise. I expected a sagacious old man; what my friends and I got was so much more – and so much smaller – than that.
As Riley spoke (he is who I will primarily focus on, although most everyone else on the panel had not only great insight, but convivial tales of running around New York with their buds as well) I got the more than slight impression of a reflective life. Not only because he was the oldest among the group speaking (77, the others 40-50), no, his internal pace was different. Unhurried and unsullied. When he talked about taking the “improvisational moments and composing from them to allow the architectural possibilities to get seen,” I didn’t hear pious or heady nonsense; I heard a light-gravity from a man who was (and still is) desperately seeking to convey beauty, and who seemed to know that to do that sifting through of life took a long, slow time, and was on nobody’s schedule but its own’s. He was truly insightful and quite the regular human being. Riley didn’t get classically trained players when he premiered (what would turn out to be) his monumental piece, “In C”: he had regular players because he felt that amateurs “get it”. (Of course when some of those amateurs happens to be John Cage and John Gibson, well…) He said he wanted to make consciousness music, not in melody, but in the sound of it all. He wants people who were open to that.
The crowd was sparse, tame (save when an impromptu jam session happened between violinist Tracy Silverman, which was electric), white and (probably) educated. The atmosphere was proper, clean and very conducive to thoughtful conversation and questioning. That’s not to say it always happened, but it was most certainly ready for it.
The sun was setting at the VFW as we arrived, full of fun thoughts and discussion. In this turn, the VFW was to become a hybrid for the evening. There were the regulars, presumably (always) there for the fried chicken and would soon – again, presumably – leave once the show began (spoiler alert: not so! entirely).
The Cherry Blossoms and William Tyler opened for Bombino, but again, my recounting will focus on the one.
Bombino might need an introduction. In brief: The GROUP is called Bombino, which consists of 4 players, but the MAN in question is Omara “Bombino” Moctar, a member of the pseudo-nomadic desert people, the Tuareg. The Tuareg have traversed the Sahara desert since time immemorial, allowing IT to provide for THEM. In some ways, they have kept their nomadic ways, and have settled in some. They are also a very matriarchal society. The fantastic musical group Tinariwen is also Tuareg. Their peoples’ movements (or lack there of) has caused rifts with the made-up borders that now exist (i.e., Niger, Mali, etc.) and have led to two uprisings of the Tuareg people. It is my understanding that after the first one, Bombino started writing songs for his people, both to encourage and educate, as well as help them remember their past (there’s that consciousness thing again). To say the least, they took to them quite nicely. As the second Tuareg rebellion, the government of Niger executed two of his fellow musicians/band mates and sent him into exile. After the “peace” (and Bombino’s rise in popularity) he was allowed back and…here we are? In short: I felt an immense respect to get to hear the music.
The scene was wild, sweaty, and fun. The usual walls were gone – or were at least not apparent within the crowd. The usual “cool” was gone; the new sincerity was gone; the irony was gone. The vibe felt cohesive. Something, in a crowd that diverse, I hadn’t felt in a long time. There were older people from poor to affluent amounts of money and culture. There were people who had their ear to the ground as far as music in Nashville. I never thought I’d see weed smoked in a VFW, which struck me as ironic at first, but later on not so much. There were people who had fought in wars, some which were just fine relegating themselves to the back bar.
Bombino struck a chord with a bunch of Nashvillians. So did Riley. (I later saw the premier of his piece via the Nashville Symphony, which I thought was ok.) It was very apparent that they were both after a third thing, on “the cusp of magic” if you will. The thing that happens apart from the self and creation of something. The thing that can change things. Both were equally as gracious to us as we were to them, and it seems fitting to me that on May Day I got to experience these workers in the field. The events themselves were very different in some ways, but were strikingly similar in others. It was nice having some sort of Classical Avant-Garde world sit nicely next to desert rock and roll AND have people enjoying themselves (we were not the only ones at both).
Alchemy by other means.