A place called Grândola: Part II

This is the second part of an in-depth history of Portugal’s touchstone protest song, “Grândola, Vila Morena”. (Click here for Part I)

A graffiti portrait of Zeca Afonso, with lyrics from "Grândola".

In the late 1960s, Zeca Afonso began to become more curious about different musical aesthetics. While seeking out the traditional sounds and poetic forms of Portugal, he also approached the music of Africa and the Brazilian wave of protest songs. He believed that Portuguese musicians should be inspired by the examples of Brazilian dissenters like Chico Buarque and Geraldo Vandré.

Indeed Portuguese musicians were becoming more engaged on a global level in the late ’60s and early ’70s. First there was Luís Cília, composing during his exile in France. Talking about the colonial war and the dictatorship, Cília channeled the melancholy strains of his home country’s music in songs such as “O guerrilheiro” (1974), set to a marching tempo. Others appeared on the scene, including José Mário Branco (who would help produce one of Zeca’s albums), Sérgio Godinho, Fausto (Carlos Fausto Bordalo Dias), and even the priest Francisco Fanhais. It was a heterogeneous group of artists, but each had a connection to Portuguese folk music as well as being lyrically nourished by the wave of neo-realist poets that emerged in the 1950s.

In 1971, Zeca recorded the album Cantigas do Maio, one of the most important records of his career, and a great innovation in the musical landscape. On it we don’t hear just a guitar and a singer – there are also elements of percussion, piano, accordion, and flute. It was also on this album that “Grândola, Vila Morena” first appeared, although Zeca had composed the song in 1964.

A year before writing this masterpiece of protest music, Zeca had just finished his thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre. He then traveled to Grândola in the Alentejo region — an area where people suffered greatly during Estado Novo. Working from sunrise to sunset in the fields for a few bucks a month, their situation was reminiscent of the exploitation described in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Here Zeca played at the Sociedade Musical Fraternidade Operária Grandolense. Fraternidade (fraternity) is one of the words that found its way into a poem he wrote during those days in Grândola, a plea for the end of the dictatorship. Continue reading


A place called Grândola: Part I

José "Zeca" Afonso holding a carnation aloft.

April 25, 1974. At 12:20 am, Rádio Clube Português broadcasts the song “Grândola, Vila Morena” – the second secret signal to ignite the Carnation Revolution. Later that day the Portuguese people would celebrate their freedom. A dictatorship that had lasted over 40 years had finally met its end.

March 2, 2013. All over Portugal, people sing “Grândola, Vila Morena”, protesting against government austerity measures and International Monetary Fund impositions. Across the country, in protests that reportedly involved tens of thousands of people, the old and young joined together in a tight-knit choir with one powerful voice.

“Within your walls, oh city / It is the people who lead”, sang musician José “Zeca” Afonso in the song that remains a symbol of the protest music genre that emerged in Portugal in the early 1970s. Zeca’s role as a protest songwriter and singer began back in 1953, but it was towards the end of the ’60s, with the rise of the opposition, that he attracted more attention. People were fed up with the dictatorship, and more and more voices were gathering against “Estado Novo”.

This political regime rose to power in 1933, seven years after a coup d’état by the military forces put an end to the Portuguese First Republic. The architect of “Estado Novo” was António Salazar, the prime minister from 1932 to 1968. His rule, known as “Salazarismo”, was anti-communist, anti-parliamentary, authoritarian, conservative and colonialist. Inspired by fascism and with strong ties to the Catholic power, Estado Novo was defined by “Deus, Pátria e Familia” (God, Fatherland and Family).

In the ’40s and ’50s, the regime held an iron grip over Portugal – at the time a country immersed in poverty, with resources already spread thin by empire-building. Almost half the population was illiterate, children routinely died of starvation, and agriculture was the major occupation. With an active system of censorship enforced by political police, paramilitary forces and youth organizations, it took decades for people to start protesting against Salazar and his regime. When they did, Afonso was at the forefront of the opposition.

The only live-recorded video of Zeca performing is from the Coliseu dos Recreios in Porto, 1983, and also features musicians Francisco Fanhais, Fausto, Janita Salomé and Júlio Pereira, among others.

José Manuel Cerqueira Afonso dos Santos was born in 1929 and lived in the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique as a kid. However it was in the Portuguese village of Belmonte that he had his first brush with Salazarismo when his uncle, the town’s mayor, made him wear the uniform of the Mocidade Portuguesa, a youth organization that supported the regime Continue reading


“Di Fayer Korbunes” and “Mameniu”: Yiddish Triangle Fire Ballads

Guest post by Eve Sicular

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory near Manhattan's Washington Square, after the 1911 fire

The 1911 Yiddish ballad “Di Fayer Korbunes” (The Fire’s Sacrifices), an almost immediate response to the Triangle Fire tragedy, is a complex and contradictory piece: earnestly poignant yet bitterly ironic; barbed with references to an ancient Jewish cultural-religious past as well as to dystopic modern immigrant times; and critiquing the catastrophic results of exploitative capitalism from within its own competitive commercial sheet-music packaging. The song’s powerful title and final refrain have an alternate translation, with biblical undertones: the word korbones (plural of korbn) is used in the Torah specifically to describe those animal sacrifices roasted at the Temple altar. Hence the song’s terrible, none-too-implicit political meaning superimposed on liturgical understanding: those who died at Washington Place were burnt offerings, sacrificed in a land worshipping the Dollar.

The sheet music for "Di Fayer Korbunes"

“Di Fayer Korbunes” and its apparent rival “Mameniu” (Mama Dear) were two contemporary Yiddish-language examples of the widespread “disaster ballad” genre, as heard for centuries in far-flung cultures. This type of song, chronicling gripping topical events, is found in Yiddish music certainly going back to Eastern European minstrel traditions. But mass print publication of such Yiddish material was primarily a New World phenomenon, and New York’s Lower East Side was its hub in the early 20th century. The sheet music industry of this place and time usually centered on selling current hits from lively, contentious downtown Yiddish theaters, as well as nostalgic and novelty songs and laments, all to be played and sung by the buying public. So speedy production, as well as certain promotional styles, were already ingrained in the business. “Di Fayer Korbunes” shows tension between these standard forms designed for profit and the cultural expression of grief, horror and fascination surrounding a most stark, massive and local tragedy. The song’s lyrics are full of Yiddish/English vocabulary (“pey/pay,” “fektori/factory,” “fayer/fire,” etc.), reflecting the transitional language of a fast-paced immigrant generation adapting to American ways.

Metropolitan Klezmer performs “Di Fayer Korbunes” at the March 2011 Memorial held by the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

The melody for "Di Fayer Korbunes" came from an older piece of music, "Boir Choro Wiachperehu"

“Di Fayer Korbunes” was an entirely original text written by lyricist Louis Gilrod (1879-1930) and set to a 1905 melody composed by David Meyrowitz (1867-1943). This earlier song, entitled “Boir Choro Wiachperehu” (quoting Psalms 7:16), was published with piano and vocal arrangements credited to Jac. Kamenetzky (later known as Jack Kammen, whose instrumental folios of klezmer and international music became perennials). Gilrod and Meyrowitz had already jointly created such songs as “Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht” (God & His Judgments Are Just) for famed actor/producer Jacob P. Adler’s 1903 play Tsebrokhene Hertser (Broken Hearts) and 1904’s “Yisrolik kim aheym” (Yisrolik Come Home) for star Boris Thomashefsky. Gilrod was himself an immigrant who had arrived from Eastern Europe at age 12, and by 17 he was an actor founding a dramatic club in Newark. His 334 Broome St. letterhead from the 1910s reads, in English: “Character Comedian & Song Writer.” While we do not know whether the notion of a ballad addressing the Triangle Fire originated with Gilrod, clearly the rights to the earlier melody were already owned by Theodore Lohr Publishers, who issued “Di Fayer Korbunes” in print as well. The enterprising Mr. Lohr also operated a music storefront at the same business address, 286 Grand Street, purveying not only sheet music but also violins, bows, strings, cases, instrument repairs, and lessons of all kinds: “All the latest Yiddish Music always in stock. Music Teachers and Students will always find our prices the lowest.” Continue reading


Stealing the show: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

I saw Macklemore & Ryan Lewis perform for the first time at the end of last May. The day was already shaping up to be one of the most exciting musical encounters of my life — a friend and I had driven some 20 hours from Calgary to Minneapolis to catch the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Big K.R.I.T., Danny Brown and the Wu-Tang duo of Ghostface Killah and Raekwon at Rhymesayer’s annual Soundset Festival.

I’d listened through The VS. EP by the now-famous duo a handful of times before Soundset, and was certainly digging Macklemore’s intelligent rhymes and Lewis’ textured beats. But I was by no means prepared for their phenomenal 30-minute, live-band assisted set, which might have been the top showing of the day (perhaps tied with the magnificent Lamar). The music was outrageously good and we even got a taste of “Thrift Shop” a few months before it took over mainstream radio.

But the most powerful moment was halfway through the show: Macklemore took off his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that read “Legalize Gay Marriage.” I freaked out. The emotion I felt has been matched only when I read Frank Ocean’s beautiful Tumblr-published coming out letter. Both statements represent incredible bravery, considering the tragic levels of homophobia in hip hop and in America.

Most of us know the remainder of the story: The Impressions-esque song “Same Love” dropped in July, with an accompanying video in October. Ellen DeGeneres caught wind of the track and quickly brought Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on to her show to perform it. Then the duo exploded with the exuberant “Thrift Shop”. Now it’s headlining festivals around the North America and Europe, scheduled to play everywhere from Sasquatch to Oshega this summer.

For me, the ascent of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis is one of the more exciting stories in recent years. They make approachable hip hop, weaving together chill Pacific Northwest vibes — think the Blue Scholars or Shad — with the pop influences of Kanye West and Big Boi. They’ve worked for their success too; Macklemore independently released his first, phenomenal, mixtape Open Your Eyes way back in 2000 (under the name Professor Macklemore).

But more importantly than indie production or statement T-shirts, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are writing music that matters. Rap that expresses some form of real dissent doesn’t tend to make it to the top of the charts — the last well-executed protest song I recall getting plenty of airtime was the Jay-Z-assisted remix of Kanye’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” And that was almost eight years ago. Continue reading


Jay-Z making waves in Cuba

Jay-Z and Beyoncé in Cuba, April 2013

As it was only slightly more widely reported than your average presidential trip abroad, you might not have heard about Jay-Z’s recent vacation to Cuba with his wife Beyoncé. While virtually any outing the power couple takes inevitably makes it to some media outlet or the other, this late-March visit was plastered across the mainstream news because of its particular destination: nominally a no-fly zone for American tourists. The trip ruffled some feathers, with conservative politicians and news pundits asking how such a high-profile couple could be allowed to openly flaunt one of the longstanding sanctions the US government has imposed on Cuba to deny that country the benefit of American tourist dollars.

Upon his return to the States, the hip hop magnate penned a new Timbaland-laced track responding to his critics called “Open Letter” and posted it to his YouTube account on April 11. In and amongst the boasting that he had somehow obtained personal clearance from President Obama (a charge that Obama himself, hilariously enough, felt called upon to deny), Jay-Z did manage to bury a couple of cool lines from a protest perspective:

This communist talk is so confusing
When it’s from China, the very mic that I’m using

Say what you will, that’s a pretty damn astute, concise critique of current US policy. Of course, the issues around Cuba are nuanced, and while both critics and supporters of Castro’s rule have their arguments, Jay-Z seems to take a fairly uncritical look at the regime (you can look forward to a thorough treatment of anti-Castro Cuban hip hop in a future article).

The track has since spawned a couple of responses — so far from Common, Wyclef, and Pitbull. As a Miami-born Cuban American himself, Pitbull’s version references Cuba’s history with the United States, and questions whether or not the outcry over Jay-Z (real name Shawn Carter) and Beyoncé’s trip was racist in nature:

Question of the night –
Would they have messed with Mr. Carter if he was white?

Although coming down much less favorably towards the Cuban government than the Jay-Z original (the Cuban community in Miami is overwhelmingly anti-Castro), Pitbull nonetheless makes some valid points. For example in the chorus, “C – U – B – A,  Hope to see you free one day,” the point stands that even among the increasing freedoms enjoyed by Cubans over the past couple of years, the Castro regime has yet to work out giving average citizens the simple freedom to leave the island. More remarkable than what’s in these lyrics, though, is what’s left out: for Pitbull to do anything even vaguely political, without once mentioning alcohol or the female anatomy, seems like a minor miracle in and of itself. Continue reading


Album Review: The Coup’s ‘Sorry To Bother You’

Album cover for The Coup's 'Sorry To Bother You'

Over the decades, political rap has fallen victim to a theme common to art forms battling oppression: excessive seriousness. This is unfortunate. While Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five ignited the sub-genre with heavy doses of funk-infused partying, more recent attempts (think Immortal Technique or Lupe Fiasco) tend more towards a “denial of life and joy,” as famed feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman put it in 1931, when fellow revolutionaries wanted her to stop dancing.

Thankfully, The Coup has proven yet again in Sorry To Bother You – released late last year — that they’ll never forget what made the combination of Chuck D (the political) and Flavor Flav (the party) so legendary. While Sorry… serves as easily the best and most experimental offering (complete with kazoos, accordions, and a sitar) of The Coup’s incredible two-decade-long career, it more importantly makes us reconsider exactly what kind of revolution we want to happen.

The Occupy-commentary of “We only a fetus, we are modeling the shape/We gon’ make a masterpiece out of all the mistakes” from the track “Long Island Ice Tea, Neat” summarizes the gist of the album well: Rather than dwell for years in cynicism, rapper Boots Riley has chosen to weave a fabulous narrative of social upheaval grounded in hope. That’s not to say he’s softened his politics or lost his anger. He’s just directed it to something more substantially rounded out. It’s a fantastic thing to listen to.

The outfit’s sonic presence has shifted a touch in the six years since their last release, Pick a Bigger Weapon. Until now, it’s been pretty simple to describe The Coup’s sound as an agitprop version of OutKast, which was certainly never a bad thing (I’m still bumping Party Music on the regular for that very reason). But the latest record has seen them expand and solidify their sound, combining their old inclinations to funky rap with some incredible live instrumentation.

A variety in artists featured on the album also suggest a different direction for the group — while Killer Mike and Das Racist (R.I.P.) both make excellent appearances on the hilarious “WAVIP,” The Coup also brought in Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Anti-Flag’s Justin Sane and the Brooklyn duo Japanther. Such decisions only broaden the base of listeners who will encounter Sorry…, which is a super exciting prospect.

After all, if there was ever an album to serve as the soundtrack to the Occupy (and yeah, I get why such a concept is problematic), Sorry to Bother You would be an excellent contender. It’s got the fury, the hope, the funk, the nuance, and the party. This album is protest music at its finest.


Rhyme and Reason: Science Genius

Flyer from December 2012's 'Science Genius' event

Legendary rapper and high school drop-out GZA might seem like the least likely person to be advocating on behalf of science education for New York City youth. Nevertheless, on December 12, 2012, I found myself attending a panel that brought GZA, the “Genius” of the Wu-Tang Clan, together with a panel of experts from fields like astrophysics and biology.

The panel at Columbia’s Teachers College had convened for the launch of Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., an urban science initiative. Besides the panel discussion, the launch included speeches from the project’s masterminds: GZA and Columbia professor Christopher Emdin. This semester, ten New York City public schools are learning about science through music and constructing science-based rap lyrics; the best rhymes will go up on Rap Genius, a popular hip hop lyrics site.

The project grows out of GZA’s love for both hip hop and science, and aims at using rhymes to engage students within the classroom and to attract under-represented African American and Latino students to the sciences.

GZA, a New York native, has recently been educating himself too, meeting with scientists from universities like MIT and Harvard to gather inspiration for his new album Dark Matter, which will focus on the cosmos and is slated for release this fall (here’s an interview with Fader and another with The Wall Street Journal about the album). A day after the Columbia event, GZA appeared on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk to discuss the album and the project:

At the launch of Science Genius at Columbia, GZA elaborated on the project in his speech, saying that “I am here — not as a teacher, nor expert, nor genius — but rather as a science enthusiast who wants to inspire New York City public high school students to get excited about biology, chemistry, and physics.” He described his motivation for the project: “I wish there had been a more compelling way to captivate my imagination about science when I was in school.” You can read more about the project and the full text of his speech here. To read more about how hip hop can help battle inequality in the sciences, check out Dr. Emdin’s book – “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation”. And while Science Genius, which concludes at the end of this school semester, is only for students, PBS has organized a related YouTube science rap contest for the general public as well. The rules are up online, and entries are open until May 3, 2012.

I may not be a Science Genius, but these meaningful rhymes are something I want to photosynthesize.


South by Southwest: Unofficially for the People

I stood in line in the searing midday sun at Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, swapping a street taco for sunscreen with my neighbor, awaiting Talib Kweli’s set at Rainey Street’s the Lustre Pearl, a house-turned-bar-turned-tented stage. The hour-long wait was more than worth it — as the crowd poured in, the acclaimed politically conscious rapper took the stage and got the people rolling to favorites such as “Get By” (from Quality, his first solo album released in 2002) and a cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.

Kweli recently appeared in the documentary #ReGENERATION, a film that examines the galvanizing forces behind the Occupy movement and the challenges facing American youth, but he wasn’t the only musician with a political bent at SXSW. The festival was created in 1987, with the aim of fostering new ideas and bringing creative types together; the latest edition of SXSW’s music week alone brought over 2,200 acts to Austin this March. The SXSW festival draws thousands of registered participants each year for its astonishing number of films, musical acts and interactive events. Yet, with official music “badges” costing as much as $600 for the week, many music-lovers have learned to enjoy the unofficial SXSW scene, where one can indulge in food, drink, and artists the likes of Kweli for free. Even though this side of SXSW can be mired in long lines and uncertain schedules, it fosters an amazing community feeling between crowds of hardcore fans and musicians — both local bands and those who’ve come from far and wide for SXSW but play unofficial gigs while in town.

The festival can feel corporatized and overwhelming at times, but it is these unofficial events and the multitude of lesser-known musicians and artists with a message that keep SXSW vibrant. Besides attending free shows, like the one Kweli played, we rounded up some of the politically conscious highlights from this year’s “South by” official scene — most of which had unofficial gigs in Austin as well.

The film Pete and Toshi Get a Camera world premiered at the Paramount Theater. The documentary used historic footage filmed by Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi, beginning around the time the folk singer and activist was appealing a 10-year prison sentence for noncooperation with the McCarthy hearings. Over the years, Seeger and his wife traveled the world, filming musicians with an old 16mm camera. Director William Eigen (he’s also produced Sing Your Song, about Harry Belafonte) intercut this tape with current interviews of the Seeger family, to produce what the festival website aptly describes as a film that is “Part travelogue, part musical odyssey, part ethnocentric dream”.  Continue reading


The YWCA and “We Shall Not Be Moved”

"We Shall Not Be Moved" — from page 79 of 1951's YWCA Songbook, 'Sing Along the Way'

I came across a little book a couple days ago from the Young Women’s Christian Association, already in its fifth printing… in 1951. Sold under the title Sing Along The Way, the book cost 40 cents and contains music and lyrics to no fewer than 160 tunes. One of the five sections is called “Social Justice,” and after flipping through I noticed a handful of pretty amazing protest songs. So far it’s turned me on to a couple I had never heard, like “Same Boat, Brother” — sung here by Leadbelly — and “Bread and Roses” — a piece associated with the largely women-led 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and later made popular by folksingers such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins. The song even inspired Baez’s younger sister, musician and activist Mimi Fariña, to found in 1974 a nonprofit organization of the same name.

The book also included a few traditional labor songs, such as “Joe Hill” by Earl Robinson, “Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chaplin, and the ever-popular “We Shall Not Be Moved”. This latter tune I had always associated with the US Civil Rights movement, but as I’ve come to learn, was actually first adapted with labor in mind. Claiming roots that stretch perhaps as far back as the dark days of American slavery, the song is an ever-so-slight manipulation of the African American spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved” — which itself has seen some pretty amazing renditions throughout the years (Charley Patton; Mississippi John Hurt; the so-called Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins; New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band; the list goes on). The phrase, as I possibly should have intuited, is biblical in origin, appearing at the very least in Psalms 16:8 and 62:6, and quite likely elsewhere as well.

But at some point in the early 1900s people started changing the ‘I’ to ‘We’ and using it as a protest song. Its first documented appearance was during the New York City shirtwaist strike of 1909, where it was sung by the young, mainly immigrant women making up the oppressed workforce of the Lower East Side’s shirtwaist factories. The song was featured in Soundtrack for a Revolution, a documentary film about music during the Civil Rights movement that I profiled in the first piece I wrote for this site back in January 2011. This live version of the song on SoundCloud, from 1980′s Singalong at Sanders Theater, features Pete Seeger, in his inimitable style, with an entire audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts singing verses of social inclusion and against nuclear weapons:

(Chorus), Young and old together, Women and men together, The city and country together, (Chorus), Black and white together, Straight and gay together, (Chorus), No nukes is good nukes, Split wood not atoms, (Chorus 2x)

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A four-leaf clover of Irish protest songs

Happy St. Patrick's Day!Well it’s March 17th once again, and once again this Irish lad will be drinking no Irish stout, no Irish whisky, nor even any Irish cream. So how am I celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year? I thought I’d take a quick minute and post four Irish protest songs you may not have ever heard.

Bain sult as an lá!

A Nation Once Again

Written in the 1840s by Thomas Osborne Davis, a revolutionary Irish writer who preached unity between Catholics and Protestants, and went on to lead the Young Ireland movement for the island’s independence… all before dying at age 30. A classic freedom song in the finest tradition of nationalistic lore, it remains one of the most popular folk songs in Ireland. Read the lyrics here as you check out a version by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, off their 1966 album The Irish Uprising.

The Fields of Athenry

This track is less explicitly political, but is set during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s, during which time my own ancestors came to Boston. It’s about a father who gets caught stealing Trevelyan’s corn, and is sent to a prison colony in Australia. The reference is ironic, as British civil servant Charles Edward Trevelyan became known for his out-of-touch recommendation to the starving Irish that they simply start growing corn. Written in the 1970s by Pete St. John, here’s a version by The Dubliners. For the lyrics, click here.

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