By Eddie Wong.
2021 – the bummer summer. It was what it was – a maddening shitstorm of anti-science, anti-vaxxers driving us back into a fearful state of anxiety plus the ravages of heat storms and floods across the planet as carbon emissions rose up to pre-pandemic levels. The smoke is thick, the hour late, but our only choice is to move forward.
I’ve listened to music throughout my life. Rock and soul pouring out of the radio was a welcome distraction when I was growing up in a noisy laundry. Through good times or bad, music lifts me up and makes me think deeper about what’s goin’ on (thank you, Marvin) and makes me appreciate the happiness that life squirrels away in tiny crevices of the quotidian. So, here’s a soundtrack for my summer of 2021, a pairing of memories and music.
Joy – Back to the Good Ol’ Days
My autistic daughter Sara has struggled mightily through the pandemic. Desperately craving a return to her normal routines, she has begrudgingly masked up and observed periods of isolation from fellow members of her Camphill community. It pained me greatly to watch her so sad and bereft of that peaceful center she had found pre-pandemic. But Sara learned to be resilient and showed me that if she can get through this, so can the rest of us.
Her big reward this summer was an outing to see “Black Widow” in a huge movie theater. There were only eight people in the theater, so it felt both safe and weird. Nonetheless, we had a great time enjoying the thrilling action leavened with jokes and a message about family unity, i.e., the family that slays together, stays together. Sara’s fondest wish is to “go back to the good ol’ days.
The swift roll out of the vaccinations which led to the opening up of restaurants, gym, museums and other public facilities made us feel at least for a few short months that life was getting back on track. The virus had other ideas and the Delta variant has found happy, deadly homes among the unvaccinated.
Before the Delta variant descended upon us, my wife Donna and I joined our “Chopped” group for an in-person, pot-luck dinner. For over a year, the group (Dianne Fukami, Gerry Nakano, Lia Shigemura, Helen Zia, Brian Budds, Ted Yamasaki, Myron Okada, Lynne Ogawa, Teresa Ono, Minna Tao, Cynthia Pino, Donna Kotake and I) met weekly via zoom and challenged each other to create a dish based on a theme, e.g., appetizers, garlic, fruit, etc. and presented the dish. But we spent most of the hour talking about how our families were coping with the pandemic, laughing at the creative ways we tried to break free of shelter-in-place, and commiserating, kvetching, and farting around. I think all of us appreciated the challenge of making some creative dishes each week and these weekly zoom session brought us closer together. When we finally gathered on June 30, 2021 at Dianne and Gerry’s house, there was an explosion of smiles, hugs, and laughter. And the food was incredible too.
The perfect musical pairing for this joyous summertime memory is Japanese Breakfast’s new album, “Jubilee.” After basing much of her last two albums on grief and sorrow as leader/songwriter Michelle Zauner dealt with her Korean mother’s illness and death, she decided to make “Jubilee” a blast of pop sunshine with her indie rock sound augmented with strings and horns. This 20-minute video features “Be Sweet,” “Slide Tackle” and “Kokomo, IN”, three of the most melodic tunes from the new album plus Zauner’s comments on how writing her New York Times bestseller Crying at H Mart influenced this new work.
Global Meltdown or WTF Happened to Summer Vacation
Summer was always my favorite season growing up in Los Angeles. The days began with a few chores at the laundry and then we were free to walk a mile to the tennis courts at Poinsettia Park or spend the afternoon at the Hollywood Pool. Best of all, as we got older our parents let us take the city bus out to Santa Monica beach. Sure, it took two transfers and two hours to get to the ocean, but time passed quickly with our ears glued to the transistor radio listening to KFWB or KHJ, Boss Radio, with the Big Kahuna.
This summer, one had to check the air quality index to see if it was safe to go out walking. Smoke from the multiple fires in northern California have hung around for weeks. This summer was dominated by wild weather attributed to our super-heated planet choked by high levels of carbon emissions. Unprecedented flooding in Germany and China, raging forest fires in the American West and Siberia, flash flooding in New York and Boston from tropical storm Elsa, drought in Central America and Africa – all happening at once shows a planet in peril. In the face of likely starvation in the global South, heatstroke deaths in many parts Europe and the United States, and other calamities visited on animals and plants, we must act NOW!
On Aug. 9, 2021, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Aug. 9 report issued its strongest warning yet, citing the irreversible destruction if we do not keep global warming to 1.5 Celsius. Read this short press release and take some deep breaths. Prepare to be horrified: Climate change widespread, rapid and intensifying – IPCC
Every election from this moment forward needs to put climate change front and center and only a mass upsurge can put progressives in office to prevent disaster. I wish I had a happy tune like “We Are the World” to give us the lift we need to face this bleak bummer, but I don’t. Instead, I was drawn to “Blackened Cities” by Belgium singer/flautist Melanie De Biasio, who wrote the piece with her band in 2016 after a tour to Detroit, MI, Manchester, England and Charleroi, Belgium (her hometown).
In each of these cities, she witnessed the hulking remains of steel mills, coal plants, and factories. The song is nearly 25 minutes and fuses pop, jazz, soul, and electronica into a trance/mantra with cautionary lyrics such as “As I walk from place to place, my long shadow won’t leave a trace. Greed and power may prevail, No, you won’t find me trapped in this jail.” Take it as an allegory, the new blackened cities blighted by climate change will be underwater mausoleums or desiccated metropolises fried by unbearable heat. I edited the following four-minute excerpt of “Blackened Cities” with photos from abandoned mills in Charleroi by photographer Kristof Pattou. You can buy the “Blackened Cities” EP at https://melaniedebiasio.bandcamp.com/album/blackened-cities.
Black Lives Still Matters Cuz Black Folk Are Still Being Murdered
One year after the massive national and international protests over the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, smaller protests broke out in 2021 following police killings: Duante Wright in Minneapolis on April 11, 2021; Adam Toledo, a 13-year old Mexican American, in Chicago on April 15, 2021; Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year old African American in Columbus, OH on April 20, 2021 and others. Some of the anger from the 2020 and current protests are being channeled to the movement for Black reparations as the House considers passage of HR 40, a bill to create a commission to study forms and procedures to create compensatory remedies for the effects of African American enslavement and Jim Crow discrimination.
Black artists continue to produce poignant and urgent music that address the oppression of African people. Works by Leon Bridges and Sons Of Kemet, a British jazz group, offer strong affirmation of Black resilience and affirm the power of Black consciousness. I’ll start by sharing a live version of Leon Bridge’s “Sweeter,” which was released in 2020 during the George Floyd protests and featured on his new album “Gold-Digger’s Sound.” The song appears as a lamentation, but it is undergirded with quiet determination:
“Hoping for a life more sweeter. Instead I’m just a story repeating. Why do I fear with skins dark as night? Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes. I thought we move on from the darker days. Did the words of the King disappear in the air like a butterfly? Somebody should hand you a felony because you stole from me my chance to be.”
The following video features a stripped-down rendition of the song with Leon Bridges on guitar and vocals and Terrance Martin on saxophone. The unadorned presentation makes the lyrics stand out and Leon Bridges just sings the hell out of the song. Other selections such as “Motorbike” on “Gold-Digger’s Sound” delve in summertime joys of riding on the open road with a loved ones and “Steam” is a sultry invitation to “come on over” for an evening of canoodling.
One of the things I love to do is rummage through the CD bins at the San Francisco Public Library and finally the library opened its doors this summer. There, I found “Black to the Future” by Sons Of Kemet, a British jazz group. I had heard of them but never listened to their work. Thanks to Pitchfork, I knew and enjoyed much of the new Brit jazz/soul scene populated with artists such as Alpha Mist, Ezra Collective, Tom Misch, Emmavie and many others. “Black to the Future” just blew me away. It’s an ambitious, sprawling work that touches on many musical traditions to present a historical overview of Black music. The songs are tight, springing forth with power and purpose. The song titles actually form a statement of the album’s purpose.
I’ll let this video of the album’s lead single, “Hustle” introduce you to the music of Sons Of Kemet. The song, written by the group and rapper Kojey Radical, addresses Black pride:
“I was born from the mud with the hustle inside me. Born from the mud with the hustle inside me. I’m feeding my soul. I go make nothing something. Show you my lows. I don’t feeling nothing, nothing. We’re all here for show. Now watch me go show you something. Feeding my soul. I go make nothing something.”
The video is directed by Ashleigh Jadee and features Kojey Radical with singer Lianne La Havas providing a feathery contrast on the chorus. The terrific dance performance is by the Jaiy Twins. The dialectic woven into the song and video illustrate the struggle between oppression and freedom externally and internally from powerlessness to purpose. Shabaka Hutchings, leader of Sons of Kemet, said the album is “a sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing. It depicts a movement to redefine and reaffirm what it means to strive for black power.” It is a bold and vibrant work.