Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not Zen 196: World Music

The Skatalites at Brooklyn Bowl November 2015 by All-Nite Images
The Skatalites by All-Nite Images
The smell of the club overwhelmed her for a moment. It felt as if the air had been brushed with the sweat of close bodies and mixed with the breeze. Laura let the door swing closed behind her.

Loud music made the place feel stuffed although it was about half full. The club's walls bore the scent of after-smoke. Shadows adorned black-light posters, tabletops, and recessed lights in the ceiling. The bulbs above were dim, some of them colored orange or yellow. The floor throbbed with a reggae beat or at least that's what she'd thought from outside. As Laura drew closer, she could feel a ska rhythm on top of everything. Then the song changed. The beat drove faster.

"Weird looking band," said her friend, Patty.

"I guess." Laura rubbed her hand stamp and turned. She could barely see the musicians on stage. Dancers in the mosh pit bounced in front of the sound system. Only the heads and sometimes the upper bodies of the players were visible beyond.

There was red hair on the guitarist, far left, kinky and wild. On the far right of the stage, she noticed a rainbow beanie and a set of oily, black dreadlocks that seemed to belong to the bassist. Behind them, the drummer showed as a barely-visible denim beret. Off center, the keyboard player sported a puffy afro. Up front, the lead singer danced and shook himself. He swung his beaded dreadlocks.

The band hustled and twisted. The bassist and drummer were really good, she thought. They carried the rest of the band. Patty skittered into the mosh pit. Laura decided to follow. She wasn't comfortable with the scene, though. Patty had to grab her by the wrist and pull her in.

They danced as a straight-girl couple in a way that Patty was good at. She could keep people guessing. Both of them used their elbows to keep the men away. Laura was glad for Patty's mood. Sometimes her friend got too crazy, she thought. This evening, they hung out at the edge of the dance floor for no more than an hour of the show.

"Okay, come on." Patty grabbed Laura's hand as soon as the music ended. Naturally, her friend had a backstage pass. Patty had seen hundreds of bands and she'd interviewed about half.

They paused at the backstage bouncer's table. Laura spared a glance at the young men and women, mostly women, who were lining up to beg their way in. She felt a twinge of guilt about how some of the girls seemed so open to trading favors for entrance to the party, pulling their shirts open down to the bra line, adding more makeup while waiting, some of them looking bored like they'd been through this hundreds of times.

Patty had worn her usual black fashion ensemble, expensive jeans with pre-cut rips, leather jacket with tassels, studded leather belt, and boots. Only her t-shirt was plain and white.

Laura's jacket was brown, her best one. Patty had rolled her eyes at it but she approved of Laura's style on most nights. This evening, Laura's black shirt and blue jeans had escaped comment.

"You're on the list," said the stagehand. He nodded approval. Patty didn't wait for the big fellow to step aside. She parted the divider curtain herself. The bouncer called, "Enjoy."

Patty told Laura to get them free drinks at the bar while she cornered someone she'd spotted from a record company. Fortunately, the conversation was finished before Laura got back. The man in his suit jacket retreated to a beaten-up, olive couch for a conference with someone else. Patty seized the opportunity to approach a member of the band. She took a tumbler glass from Laura as she stepped up to the red-haired guitar player.

"So," she said. She was as tall as the guitarist was. That caught his eye. "Why reggae? Why do you play that style of music?"

"Uh," he began. The way the paused, Laura could tell he wasn't much of a talker. He'd changed shirts after the concert, she noticed. He was already growing sweat stains on this one. "Because it's fun?"

"I mean, you didn't grow up in Jamaica or anything. You didn't grow up playing this type of music." It wasn't a question. Patty seemed to have something in mind.

"No. I listened to Marley and UB40, I guess." There was that long pause again while he thought. He stared at his half-empty drink glass. It looked like draft beer. It could have been ginger ale if he were going sober. "Everyone does that. Nothing special one way or another. But Winston, our singer, he's Jamaican."

He turned his head toward the band leader, who was approaching with a woman on each arm. Who did that? Laura wondered. But here he was, the tall Jamaican with dreadlocks and he had an older blonde on his left elbow. She seemed slightly drunk and tired but perhaps that was just in comparison to the to the woman on his right, who was younger. Her hair was bleached, not natural, and she was definitely one of the girls who Laura and Patty had passed in the line to the backstage curtain.

"Why doesn't he hire a Jamaican guitarist?" Patty continued. She meant to be overheard.

Winston rose to the bait. He stepped toward her.

"He's the one I want." He shook off the women and put his hand on his guitarist's shoulder. "He's the best. Who's asking? Why are you asking?"

"I write about music," Patty said by way of an answer. "I'm curious. Don't you think it's cultural appropriation for white people to play reggae?"

"That's the new term, isn't it?" Winston nodded to himself. "I take it seriously. I've heard the critics. But I feel the opposite of that. I want to spread reggae and ska and zydeco all around. To shepherd all music to everyone. That is my mission."

The last two lines he delivered as if he were speaking through Patty to her readers. He might as well have been. Patty had a sharp memory and those were words she would remember.

"Zydeco," she mumbled to herself. She looked at Laura.

"He played accordion," said Laura. She hoped it was helpful. "I liked it. You said it was different."

"Right." She turned to the band leader. "Winston, where did you learn zydeco?"

"It's new to me. I like how it sounds with ska beats." He stepped back. He blinked, understanding. "What, now I can only play Jamaican music? No zydeco for me because I'm not French-American?"

The keyboard player, who Laura recognized by his hair, was attracted by the raised voices. He leaned his head forward, halfway across the room, and then he waved off the woman he'd been talking with. He nodded to a short, white man who had been sitting nearby. That fellow rose from a couch to join him.

They strolled over, the short guy half a step behind. It took Laura a moment to realize that he had to be the drummer. He had a pair of wooden drumsticks in his hand. His beard looked rough. His expression wasn't friendly even though he had no reason to be upset. Apparently, he was one of those men who is always on edge.

"I don't know," Patty said. She didn't look at anyone but Winston and she didn't seem much bothered by his question. "I'm wondering what's authentic and what's appropriated."

"Ugh," he said. "We just like what we like."

The keyboardist leaned over to the drummer. They had a side conversation for a minute while Patty talked with their band leader. Laura sipped her drink. It was too sweet. She'd ordered what Patty liked but Laura preferred plainer drinks. She'd rather have them with no alcohol at all, usually. The red-head guitarist glanced at Winston, then at Patty. He looked lost. After a minute, Laura touched his elbow. She was sure she'd rather be talking with him than anyone else. But she couldn't think of anything to say.

"Are you a music writer, too?" he asked. Even his eyebrows had red hairs.

"No, just a friend. I've known her since grade school."

That made him smile, for which she was grateful. She grinned back. But Patty and Winston returned to the subject of cultural appropriation. Patty took the side of her readers, which Laura recognized as not being exactly Patty's own side. But for a portion of music fans, being authentic was important.

"What about me?" The drummer stepped in. He was so much shorter than the others that Winston and Patty each backed up a step and created more space between them rather than look at the top of his head. He folded his arms. The drumsticks were still in his left hand. "My parents are fucking racists. Am I supposed to go back to them and be part of their culture?"

"Not that, probably." Patty looked slightly alarmed.

"Chill, Tommy," murmured the keyboardist. He stepped up behind the drummer.

"Well, then I've got to pick some other culture," the drummer continued. "Someone's going to complain. It might as well be these guys."

At that, the keyboard player laughed. Winston shook his head but he was smiling.

"What about the white folks that grew up in the inner city and act like American blacks?" Winston asked. Laura realized that he'd posed the question just before his drummer interrupted. He hadn't been heard so he'd asked again. "Are they authentic? Or not?"

"I suppose they're authentic. Not everyone would agree, though. And I'm not sure whether agreement or not should matter."

"I think it does matter," Winston said. He tapped two fingers on his chin as he thought. "People are upset about others pretending to be from different backgrounds, putting on ethnic clothes, listening to different music, watching their films, talking like them."

"Yes. I hear it a lot. It's on my mind."

"But in fact, that is how empathy is created," Winston said. "When you can see yourself as that Jew or that Jamaican down the street, then you can start to side with that view of the street, you know? The danger comes not from pretending to be someone else but from not being able to imagine yourself in someone else's place."

"What about the art critics? And the fashion critics? They're trying to protect cultures from appropriation."

Winston put his arm around the drummer's shoulder. The shorter man didn't seem moved by it one way or another, not shrugging it off, not relaxing.

"Maybe," said Winston. "They haven't imagined being someone who has to leave behind his native culture. Yet everyone has to do that. That's how it goes for each generation. We leave behind the bad parts. And that's progress."

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