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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 1

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Arts, Music & Dance.

Do you dance? Does your family dance? Does your community dance?

Last year, when I was interviewed by a music industry marketing consultant, I mentioned that most of my music is dance music, and he laughed sarcastically. I knew exactly what he meant. In the contemporary youth-dominated music industry, dance music means club music, otherwise known as electronic dance music (EDM), and nothing else.

But I’ve grown up with dance music and I know better.

The stress of my adolescence was mitigated by social dancing at a teen canteen called The Peppermint Cave, where we danced to The Beach Boys and The Kingsmen, just like the kids in the Beach Party movies. Unbeknownst to us, all of our dances, like The Twist and The Watusi, had roots in West Africa. We also partner-danced to slow tunes with girls, but the important dances were detached movements that could be done individually, in partnership, or with a group. Those were the dances that physically manifested our social relationships and allowed us to actively negotiate our own roles.

After that, I was deprived of social dancing for more than a decade, and suffered without knowing I was suffering. This was the era of Joni Mitchell, The Eagles and Steely Dan. Dancing meant disco and was the culture of poor ethnic urbanites. It wasn’t until the advent of punk music that I had an opportunity to dance again with my friends, and it was like salvation on the brink of cultural death.

Dancing to punk music was largely a boy’s club, and looked like a riot. We bounced up and down and shoved and slammed into each other, and sometimes the lead singer or audience member took a dive from the stage into the crowd. But the girls could dance to the new wave and post-punk music that emerged shortly after punk. From then on, almost all the music we liked was dance music – Psychedelic Furs in the mix at CalArts parties, X live at LA’s Whisky-A-Go-Go (where a tiny butch dyke worked her way through the surging mass of guys, punching each of them in the groin), Jello Biafra shirtless and drenched in sweat shouting out a punk version of the Rawhide TV theme song to a throbbing packed crowd in San Francisco’s Valencia Tool & Die art space, the same Jello Biafra pogoing to the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen with me and friends afterward in the notorious after-hours club the A-Hole. Within a couple of years, post-punk and disco had merged in the club scene, where my girlfriend and I made up our own stylish moves to both Michael Jackson and Gang of Four, literally dancing ’til dawn in New York’s multi-level Danceteria.

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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 2

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Arts, Music & Dance.

The 80s was when, in the industry, dance music came to mean club music, and electronic instruments and samples began to dominate it. But because the post-punk scene also embraced world music, my friends and I began dancing to African music at the same time. And at home, in my San Francisco loft, my artist roommates and I danced to everything, at any time – The Smiths, The Replacements, U2, REM, UB40, Black Uhuru. Again, not partner dancing, but African-style dancing, creative, free-form movements that were rhythmic but integrated with domestic chores like cooking and cleaning house. We had massive parties where musicians from North and West Africa jammed with players from South America. And we repeatedly went together as a group to touring shows by Nigerian juju superstar King Sunny Ade, who provided the best dance music any of us had experienced, music you could literally dance to all night and still feel energized.

In Oakland one year, I took a new girlfriend to a Nigerian Afro-Beat New Year’s party headlined by my friend Orlando Julius Ekemode. I always loved to watch the Nigerians dance, especially the backup singers in the band, who alternated comic pranks with restrained, elegant traditional movements. My girlfriend interrupted me with an “Oh my god, look at her!” pointing to a Nigerian woman in the crowd dancing with her black leather purse on her head, in perfect balance. It was the first thing that night that really impressed my girl.

The same girlfriend later took me to a hip-hop show where I had fun dancing until she told me I was embarrassing her because I was dancing like an African, and I was facing her instead of facing the stage in the accepted way like everyone else.

We were lucky in the Bay Area to have a wonderful all-ages dance club called Ashkenaz, a wood-frame building with high arched ceiling, a beautiful wood dance floor, and a clear, balanced sound system. My band played there once, but I also got to dance there to the father of modern juju music, accordionist I. K. Dairo, during his final tour. The crowd was a great mix of hippies, yuppies, Berkeley High students, black professionals, European, Middle Eastern and African expatriates, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, professional artists and musicians, university professors – typical Bay Area!

In its most successful incarnation, my 80s band Terra Incognita incorporated rhythms inspired by Nigerian music. But we were an electric string trio, what would later be called chamber folk – the absolute last thing my marketing expert would ever accept as dance music. But our most devoted fans first showed up dancing happily in front of the stage.

I later attended the wedding of one of those fans, and attempted a polka with his mother. She laughed harshly in contempt, shoving me off the floor, when I could neither lead nor follow. I admit that I’ve never mastered European-style partner dancing. I took a couple of salsa lessons after I moved to Silver City, and encountered the same snobbery. My partner barked at me and tried impatiently to jerk me into shape. Partner dancing is like horseback riding for me – something I like to watch but have never enjoyed doing. It’s a European tradition – I’m more comfortable with African and Native American dance traditions.

In North American and European urban society, insecure young men who want to be considered “hipsters” are notoriously reluctant to be seen dancing in public. Hence they typically wait to be drawn into the dance by young women. While living in Seattle a few years ago, I went to see a North-African-influenced San Francisco band at the world-music club Nectar. The crowd consisted mostly of young single men, and after the first few tunes, no one was dancing – so I went out there and got things started myself!

In the late 80s, my old friend and collaborator Cheb i Sabbah started doing DJ nights in popular SF clubs. He became one of the world’s premier “world music” DJs, and in between his national and European tours, he turned me on to Mali’s Salif Keita and Kasse Mady, Cuba’s Los Van Van, and the Gnawa music of Morocco. But whenever he played North African music, the local Moroccans converged in their robes, arms waving ecstatically above their heads, fingers snapping in unison to the beat.


Are You Dancing Yet? Part 3

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Arts, Music & Dance.

Over a 30-year period, I spent hundreds and hundreds of nights dancing in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but only a minority of those nights were spent dancing to what the industry calls dance music. I did discover house music at the beginning of the 90s, but the dominant sub-audible bass literally wore me out after a couple of hours, whereas I could easily dance to Cheb’s world music all night.

In the early 90s, my younger girlfriend was an avid Deadhead. I never actually attended a Grateful Dead show because during the 80s my crowd had looked on the Dead and their following with disdain and disgust. It was my own form of music snobbery, and my friends and I always looked down on “Dead dancers” or “hippie dancers” at clubs and events. But now, at a distance, I realize that the Dead provided a safe space for social dancing in a time of rapid technological change and uncertainty.

By the 2000s, the Dead were gone and club culture had spread to “raves,” which were often unofficial, underground parties using techno music. I was asked to DJ a party at my new girlfriend’s house, and I brought a huge library of CDs that I considered the world’s best contemporary dance music, everything from surf dance to Cuban and African big band music. The crowd consisted mostly of her young European friends, and they stood dejectedly around the edges of the room as I kept changing the program in hopes of getting them moving. Finally, one of her ex-boyfriends showed up with his own library of techno music and took over. The crowd instantly came to life, in within minutes they were moving in a trance to the only music they had ever been able to dance to.

Ironically, it was only after moving to New Mexico that I fell in love with techno. Artists like Underworld incorporated West African beats into their club tracks, along with hints of post-punk.

Cities are fragmented into ethnic subcultures and peer groups based on age and background. I was part of a small subculture of artists and musicians that enjoyed dancing at parties, clubs and festivals, but I became aware that my professional peers did not dance, and seemed to associate social dancing with teenagers, the working class, and obsolete indigenous cultures. Social dancing was frivolous and embarrassing.

For many of them, this was an unconscious holdover from their Protestant upbringing. Protestantism or Calvinism has been death on dancing for centuries. I think in the beginning it was part of the rebellion against the Southern European dominance and oppression of the Catholic Church.

Since the days of the pioneers, rural families in the American West have joined together weekly for a Saturday night dance. Initially that was a self-conscious way of binding together a precarious community in an unfamiliar land, far from their eastern roots.

Like all rural traditions, that one has been eroded by mass media and the consumer economy, but when I moved to Grant County, New Mexico, I immediately became a dance activist and began learning from the locals. At my first harvest festival dance, Anglo and Hispanic ranch families mingled on the floor with hippies, and mothers danced with babies in their arms. In the downtown bar and grill on Saturday night, a happy crowd of Latino miners and Anglo hospital workers danced together to a live local band playing cumbias, country rock, and the occasional 80s radio hit from Paul Simon or Talking Heads.

In Nigerian social dance, the singers praise members of the audience by name and use evocative metaphors and proverbs to reinforce traditional moral values. But, as in the days of the pioneers, social dance has implicit social, physical, mental and emotional benefits. Dancing actually makes you smarter! A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that dancing was far more effective in preventing age-related dementia than any other activity, including the commonly-prescribed crossword puzzles.

Social dancing is arguably the most important role of music. Dancing is not an option, it’s essential to a healthy life. Are you dancing yet?

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JR and Public Art

Saturday, April 21st, 2012: Arts, Visual Art.

Just finished reading the Juxtapoz interview with JR, the new international art star who empowers the anonymous by pasting their images across the urban landscape. And it again challenged my antipathy toward public art.

I live in a small rural town that’s mural-crazy. Murals tend to bug the shit out of me now, but in my younger days I was a public art repeat offender, and I still identify strongly with street art and graffiti. I absolutely love JR’s work – it’s clearly some of the most potent, socially conscious urban art ever made – but where does it really fit in the overall ecological, or ethical, landscape?

The first public art I can recall doing was the collaborative sculpture I made with my performance-art band the summer after I graduated high school. We made it out of salvaged junk in the barn lot of my grandma’s farm, along a country road. It was almost twenty feet tall, and I have no memory of what happened to it – I went away to college shortly after it was completed. All I know is that it was a lot of fun and we definitely intended it to surprise and puzzle people – that was the extent of our adolescent vision.

In college, in Chicago, I was surrounded by monumental public art both historical and modern – everything from heroic to humanistic to the abstractions of Picasso and Calder. The city was new to me and I took it for granted that cities had this stuff, for better or worse.

In the 1980s, after art school and in the wake of the punk rock revolution, I joined my peers in two divergent tracks of public art. The urban track consisted of guerilla performances and wheat-paste poster attacks, one of which ended up on the cover of the book Street Art. Still aiming to surprise and puzzle. In one of our performances, we did a maypole dance around a particularly ominous public sculpture.

The other track was even more rural than my high-school farm sculpture: ephemeral paintings and rock alignments in the remote wilderness of the Mojave Desert. Long before hearing of Andy Goldsworthy, I gradually discovered that other nature-loving artists like me were sporadically and spontaneously creating little zen-like, anonymous, short-lived interventions in nature, driven by our irrepressible creative urge and the liberation from the studio that was the art school legacy of the 60s and 70s.

As I became committed to a specific desert site that was becoming an ecological preserve, I did the usual urban artist thing – I put together a proposal for a large-scale project that would presumably add historicity to the site, foster ecological and cultural awareness, and otherwise jibe with the mission of the preserve. It would consist of enigmatic signage along trails and roadways, keyed to an educational subtext. That proposal was a turning point of sorts – as I went over it with the preserve director, I suddenly realized that the last thing I wanted to do was add more man-made shit to this place which was already littered with the detritus of ranching and mining. Instead, I stopped leaving my own marks on the landscape and started paying more attention to the ancient markings of others.

A long field study of Native American rock art transformed my stance toward visual art. I came to feel that the entire culture that my society had inherited from Europe was illegitimate. Nothing in our arts seemed as well-integrated with our environment as the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Indians. I continued to make visual art, but it stopped being pictures of things and became purely a series of enigmatic symbolic expressions, like the rock art panels I was finding in remote desert locations.

Then I fell into dire financial straits, and my only way out was by embracing the digital revolution. In the early days, my generation saw “new media” primarily as a way to increase the democratic and participatory nature of the screens that were already a pervasive part of our environment. Forgetting my ill-fated desert project, I proposed new site-specific works, this time a network of kiosks throughout the urban landscape that would serve as access points to the deep history and culture of each site.

But as the idealism of new media rapidly devolved into the big business of the internet, and as information overload became a cliche, I realized again that our landscape was already carrying a crushing burden of signs, text and images demanding our attention and becoming a level of background noise equivalent to the glare of public lighting, the blare of horns and sirens, the roar of traffic, the hiss and hum of plumbing, heating and air conditioning that form the urban sensory environment.

That’s one reason why I grew to hate murals and public sculptures and was ambivalent toward graffiti. I felt that there was already far too much man-made junk, far too many signs, an overload of images. The ethical thing for an artist to do would be to refrain from adding to it. I wanted to see those walls come down, not turned into more screens for our redundant likenesses.

Which brings me back to JR. They say some of his work can be seen from space, like the Great Wall of China. The message of these anonymous faces seems to be “Look at me! I’m here! I’m human too!” That’s an important message when people are downtrodden, but in a larger ecological context, do we really need more attention to the human? The European tradition was to literally put people up on a pedestal. Oppressed or not, hubris is not one of our healthier traits.

Looking at photos of his work makes me so glad I don’t live in one of those landscapes of concrete, glass and steel. It also gives me more respect for the Islamic proscription against representational images – images of people. Traditional societies used representational images carefully and with restraint, recognizing their power. In Orthodox Christianity, representation was restricted to religious icons, often sequestered in cavern-like sanctuaries. And of course, there are the famous painted caves of southern Europe, where the magic of representational images was buried deep underground.

I think maybe we need to tone down those walls and public spaces, attract less attention to them and to the human presence which is already overwhelming. Then, maybe we can focus more on the changing seasons and get back to learning from our non-human partners in this risky dance of life.


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Memories, Dreams, Art & Friendship

Saturday, March 16th, 2013: Artists, Arts.

I feel both blessed and challenged that, as an artist, I move through life as if poised on a wave, with strange and beautiful dreams in front of me, drawing me forward, and rich memories, delightful or painful, at my back, informing everything I do.

The title of this post is a variation on Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” which my mother gave me to read as an adolescent. It was a touchstone of my youth, and I recently re-read it and reflected on the similarities and contrasts between his quest for a synthesis of art, life and history and my own.

Like Jung, I’ve been both inspired by and obsessed with dreams and memories, which since the late 19th century in our culture have been largely the subject matter of psychology and psychoanalysis. And, whereas I’ve always treasured my memories and dreams, both good and bad, as raw material for my art, I’ve also become aware that they’re much more problematic for some of my friends.

Art and artists come in many forms. Many people hold fast to the idea of pretty pictures for the wall, like you see in cafes and bistros. My mother, channeling my grandma, sometimes wonders why I don’t paint horses running on flowering hillsides. Some artists are overtly political; others think of themselves as “shamans” and make visionary work. In the ethnographic literature on traditional societies, the shaman or medicine man or woman was a misfit outsider living on the fringes of the community, a troubled soul the community turned to when beset by traumatic mysteries, someone who had little to do with routine sustenance – definitely not someone who made pretty pictures.

My own large, evolving community of artist friends has proved to be seriously dysfunctional. Many of them have been lost to me, some from suicide, some from a breakdown in health or fitness that they never learned to value and maintain, many from alcoholism or drug addiction as they struggled to self-medicate the conditions of their emotional or social dysfunctions, the inner flame that was also an inner demon. How I loved them and how I miss them!

Others have been lost to me when, rather than facing their demons in their work, they tried to tame them by joining cults or “recovery” programs which taught them to “photoshop” their memories and abandon everything which might remind them of their past, including old friends. Years ago, when “recovered memory” was a trendy topic in the new-age self-help community, I had a couple of artist friends who claimed to uncover lost memories of childhood abuse, which then became a defining element of their new personas.

Some friends became exquisitely brittle, so hyper-sensitive that a single conversation, or a single taboo word, could cut them off from me forever as they struggled to defend their precarious emotional balance. And I’ll admit that my own sensitivity, which, as an expressive artist, I treasure, can be a liability as I over-react to perceived threats and criticism.

Another troubled artist friend tried on and cast off new solutions and relationships like suits of clothes, rejecting and abandoning whole episodes of his past, including most of his identity as an artist.

When I speak of my dreams with peers in my own age group, I often encounter sarcasm, cynicism, or resignation. So many of us have been beaten down by stress, life’s constraints and setbacks, declining health and fitness – I know because it happened to me! I was beaten down by living in California, a place where I could never escape the affluence of others, my own relative poverty, the peer pressure to consume, the feeling that I was continually falling behind in the race of life, and the real, absolute limitations on what I could do in a place where health and sustenance – not to mention the arts – had become luxuries of the rich.

On several occasions, and at the prompting of artist friends, I had tried professional therapy or counseling, but I could never find – or perhaps afford – a professional who even remotely understood my issues and feelings. The last couple of counselors I tried concluded that my issues – situational depression, anxiety, loneliness – were minor and didn’t really justify treatment. Lucky me!

It was only when I moved to a sparsely populated place with a depressed economy that I was able to recover my memories, my dreams, and my art – and to gradually recover my health and fitness, after all those years of abuse in the rat race.

The loneliness is a different story. I still miss those artist friends who are lost to me, and I struggle to find kindred spirits, artists in good health despite their outsider status, who embrace the darkness as well as the light, who honor and learn from their memories while chasing their dreams.

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