Feature: Jazz and politics

By KEN FRANCKLING, United Press International  |  June 24, 2003 at 6:35 PM
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Jazz as protest music goes back to Billie Holiday's anti-lynching recording "Strange Fruit" in the 1940s, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins' "Freedom Suite," the Max Roach-Abbey Lincoln "Freedom Now Suite" and singer Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam," which in their own way took on segregation and advanced the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Dave and Iola Brubeck's "The Real Ambassadors" project, featuring Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, gave a less than gentle jab to the U.S. State Department's jazz goodwill tours overseas. It was first presented at California's Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962.

Now, saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli expatriate living in England, is making political jazz built around his Middle Eastern heritage and the continuing bloodshed and destruction that divide his homeland.

His seventh and newest CD, "Exile, is on the enja record label. Its U.S. release matches the publication of his first book, "A Guide to the Perplexed."

In both projects, Atzmon raises questions with elusive answers.

In the liner notes accompanying the CD he asks, "How is it that people who have suffered so much and for so long (as Jews have) can inflict pain on the other?"

While it is a question without an easy or simple answer, Atzmon said it still must be asked. He said his personal mission is "to emphasize the similarity between two peoples who lived in perfect harmony for hundreds of years. This album is a call for attention to Palestinian suffering."

The project leader, who plays alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and flute, is best known in England as a soloist with Ian Drury's Blockheads. He has also recorded with Paul McCartney, Sinead O'Connor and Robbie Williams.

The recording by an expanded version of his Orient House Ensemble is a blend of jazz, Middle Eastern melodies and political musical statements. His sound is a rather Middle Eastern John Coltrane. The project is expanded with the inclusion of Palestinian singer Reem Kelani and singer-oud player Dhafer Youssef.

Atzmon was born in 1963 and raised in a Zionist family in occupied territory in Israel. His mandatory National Service experience and outrage over Israel's attitude toward Palestine prompted a move to England eight years ago. A chance meeting with drummer Asaf Sirkis, a fellow Israeli musician who joined him in the Orient House Ensemble, prompted an exploration of the diverse music of the Middle East.

"This album is made by musicians who live in exile," Atzmon said. "We try to tell a story of Palestine, a beautiful and historically ecumenical land that was suddenly stormed by radical Zionist zealots. It is an image of harmony shattered by bloodshed and destruction.

"Zionism draws its force from the vivid fantasy of return," he said. "How can Zionists, who are motivated by a 'genuine desire to return,' be so blind when it comes to the very similar Palestinian desires?"

The music on "Exile" draws from both musical traditions and celebrates their intersection. In some cases, Atzmon deconstructs traditional Jewish songs and Israeli nationalistic melodies and reconstructs them with Arab vocals and global rhythms that look beyond nationalistic boundaries.

"Al Quds," an Arabic interpretation of an Israeli 1967 war anthem, has a hopeful, call-to-prayer feel. "Ouz" offers rambunctious dance rhythms. The title track has a dirge-like somberness.

Atzmon said "Jenin" was inspired by the 2002 devastation of the Jenin refugee camp by the Israeli army. (Editor's note: The extent of the "devastation" is disputed, with initial reports discredited.) The tune was based on an old Jewish ballad about a city burned in a pogrom.

"Exile" was released this spring at the same time as Atzmon's first book, published by Serpent's Tail.

His Jonathan Swift-like satire "A Guide to the Perplexed" is described by the publisher as "a darkly comic futuristic story that dares to imagine the journal of a mid-21st century archivist when the state of Israel has been dismantled and a new Jewish diaspora has begun."

Readers of the futuristic farce can listen to Atzmon's strident political music as aural accompaniment.

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