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Music & Dance

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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Musical Inspirations: Punk & Post-Punk

Friday, December 13th, 2013: Arts, Music & Dance.

Calendar collage by Max and Mark, 1980

Calendar collage by Max and Mark, 1980

A Golden Age

My generation was too young to play an active role in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, but we had our own moment of glory in the aftermath of punk music, as part of an urban youth culture more creative and energetic than anything I’ve seen since.

Punk embodied a cultural, political, and economic rebellion: against mainstream commercialized music and lifestyles, against government and authority figures, and in protest of working-class poverty and hopelessness. Post-punk took its rebellious, do-it-yourself ethic from punk, but post-punk music was less a genre than the musical component of a continuous, open-ended underground arts scene committed to exploration and experimentation.

It was a time of economic hopelessness in the cities and disillusionment in society, a few years before personal computers and the digital revolution, bookended between the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and the regressive Reagan presidency, when young people felt betrayed rather than empowered by technology, and the media were relentlessly promoting a shallow, meaningless consumer lifestyle. So urban young people, instead of focusing on their careers, focused on their “free time” when they could collectively create or participate in their own alternative culture.

It was a unique, magical time resulting from a rare combination of factors: disaffected youth, cheap urban rents, and the late-70s vanguard of punk music as a unifying inspiration. It may seem paradoxical to some, but poverty and mind-numbing jobs, rather than affluence and economic opportunity, inspired creativity, because we were forced to create our own culture with much more limited resources than the youth of today, and without access to the infinite interwebs, we had to work hard to discover and share new ideas.

My experience was limited to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but our local scenes were connected to the distant cities like New York, London and Berlin via friendships, record shops (like our SF outpost of London’s Rough Trade), zines, artist tours and festivals. All of this occurred “under the radar” of mainstream media, so that it was a true underground phenomenon, and unlike today’s urban art scene, it was the only game in town for young people, the only challenging and meaningful way to spend your time, and unlike the rave scene of the late 90s it was participatory, with more creators and fewer spectators.

For a few short years in San Francisco, my fellow artists and I opened and maintained dozens of underground venues which hosted a continuous lineup of shows, salons, parties and large-scale events eagerly supported and attended by our crowd of thousands of roving cultural explorers, so that any night of the week it was hard to choose, and groups of us ranged deliriously back and forth from the Mission to scary South of Market tenements, finally stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning.

Our culture, documented in forgotten zines like San Francisco’s Search & DestroyDamage and Re/Search, was open-endedly eclectic, embracing minimal rock, African music, industrial noise, electronic experimentation and sampling, video and performance art, free jazz and chamber folk. We were passionate about anything that wasn’t mainstream.

Cover of Damage, December 1980

Cover of Damage, December 1980


Cover of Re/Search, first issue, featuring The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and Sun Ra

Cover of Re/Search, first issue, featuring The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and Sun Ra

Rotten to the Core

My own coming-of-age began in 1978. I was living in a group house south of the city, where I had been playing and listening to nothing but bluegrass, convinced that popular music was a wasteland. But my roommate James, an older anti-war rebel and environmental activist from the hippie generation, suddenly started playing the records of the Modern Lovers, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols nonstop, all day long, and my mind was blown.

The following year, I moved to CalArts in Valencia, north of Los Angeles, where I squatted in an art studio, living on welfare and food stamps, wrote punk songs, played in my friend Mark’s punk-inspired new wave group, and saw the LA band X performing in a small classroom. Newscasts were bludgeoning us with the Three Mile Island apocalypse, the Iranian revolution, the mass suicide of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple cult, the assassination of gay activist Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and the unfolding, gruesome stories of serial killers in the U.S., when the first recordings of the definitive British post-punk bands, Public Image Ltd and Joy Division, appeared and became the soundtracks of our nihilistic parties and road trips and the main inspirations for our own music.

Max's drawing of Los Angeles band X performing in a CalArts classroom, 1979

Max’s drawing of Los Angeles band X performing in a CalArts classroom, 1979

One of Max’s early punk lyrics, set to music in 2010:

Tracks like PIL’s Swan Lake and Poptones, and Joy Division’s Transmission and Love Will Tear Us Apart, were our anthems, simultaneously angry, cynical, and energizing. Our society was rotten to the core, and as PIL’s John Lydon sang, “anger is an energy.”

Burning Brightly

The following year, I got a boring day job in the tech industry that took me to San Francisco, where I immediately found myself in the midst of a cultural explosion. I was going to shows several nights a week at venues like Jetwave and Target Video that hadn’t existed the year before, and writing songs and putting together a band on the other nights, making new art and meeting dozens of kindred spirits and bursting with new ideas.

Ad in Damage for Max's first group art show, at Target Video in San Francisco, October 1980

Ad in Damage for Max’s first group art show, at Target Video in San Francisco, October 1980

New York experimental dance band Liquid Idiot playing an after-hours show in the basement of Valencia Tool & Die

New York experimental dance band Liquid Idiot playing an after-hours set in the basement of Valencia Tool & Die, August 1980

The tracks Nightcrawling and Too Close, sharing the dark visions of post-punk bands like Joy Division and PIL, were composed in 1980 by overdubbing repeatedly between stereo cassette decks, using primitive sound makers and ambient audio samples.

Our local scene peaked in October 1980 with the Western Front festival, which demonstrated the unity of punk, post-punk, street art, performance art, film and video art, supporting local artists and introducing us to exciting touring acts like New York’s DNA and England’s Delta 5. My new roommate and future bandmate Gary introduced me to the brilliant, totally unique Welsh chamber group Young Marble Giants, who became one of my biggest inspirations.

18" x 24" poster for the Western Front festival, San Francisco, October 1980

18″ x 24″ poster for the Western Front festival, San Francisco, October 1980

Max's drawing of the New York no-wave band DNA, 1980

Max’s drawing of the New York no-wave band DNA, 1980

Max's drawing of the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, 1980

Max’s drawing of the Welsh band Young Marble Giants, 1980

The Terra Incognita tracks Love Chant and Wireless took the minimalist aesthetic of Young Marble Giants in a more experimental direction.

Our local luminaries included electronic pioneers Rhythm & Noise, the chamber trio Minimal Man, the atmospheric trio Tuxedomoon, the politically offensive Dead Kennedys, and the perpetually fucked up Flipper. They were all inspiring in different ways, and we all hung out together at after-hours parties and neighborhood clubs like the Mission’s Valencia Tool & Die and South of Market’s notorious A-Hole Gallery, where you often stumbled over underage junkies nodding out as you climbed the four flights of dingy stairs to the illegal speakeasy.

Max's drawing of the San Francisco post-punk band Tuxedomoon, 1980

Max’s drawing of the San Francisco post-punk band Tuxedomoon, 1980

Within the next year, I got to see both New Order (the successor of Joy Division) and Public Image Ltd, but I had already organized my own band and performance art group, Terra Incognita, which was to last the rest of the decade, repeatedly morphing into completely different styles and lineups, all inspired in some way by that short-lived cultural revolution, which had all but faded away by 1983.

Max's poster for Terra Incognita's first show, 1981

Max’s poster for Terra Incognita’s first show, 1981

Max onstage with his gear at a Terra Incognita show, 1981

Max onstage with his gear at a Terra Incognita show, 1981

Jon and Max performing in the Terra Incognita loft, 1982

Jon and Max performing in the Terra Incognita loft, 1982

It simply burned too brightly while it lasted, and it couldn’t be sustained. But from 1979 to 1982, it produced a major segment of my mature repertoire, from early songs like Nightcrawling and Hand Over Hand to the later Terra Incognita instrumentals Black Water and Plains of Abraham. And it continued to have repercussions in my creative work, as in 1985 I met Katie, a Los Angeles artist who introduced me to the music of the Arizona cowpunk band Meat Puppets, and 1986 we met Sebastian, a Portuguese artist who introduced us to the music of England’s Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which had started at the same time as the Sex Pistols, because he thought we sounded like them. Who would have thought that something as brutal as punk music could open the way to a genre as delicate as chamber folk?

Our friend Sebastian brought us a cassette of Penguin Cafe Orchestra after hearing us perform songs like The Sheep.

Lasting Legacy

The post-punk scene introduced African music to Western audiences. In early 1981, my new bandmate Jon gave me a cassette of West African highlife music, so that when a few months later Talking Heads came out with their African-inspired Remain in Light album, I was already on the path to learning and absorbing African styles, which I learned directly from West African luminaries OJ Ekemode, Joni Haastrup and Malonga Casquelourd in jams and performances at my loft in early 1982.

Some post-punk bands, like New Order and Gang of Four, joined mainstream artists like Michael Jackson and new wave acts like Eurythmics in the club scene, which for us survivors of the dying cultural revolution was one way to keep some of that energy going – we still loved to dance!

Punk and post-punk music established the DIY paradigm for all the “alternative” and “indie” artists to follow, from the 80s until now. The early electronic experimentation of artists like Rhythm & Noise and Cabaret Voltaire, nurtured by the post-punk scene, evolved into the vast, diverse electronic music and dance culture of today.

Although the tight-knit post-punk youth culture collapsed in the early 80s, its ripples continued to inspire new music throughout the decade, so that in Terra Incognita’s most visible phase, from 1986-1990, we always had plenty of good company in a vibrant local music scene, from hard-core experimentalists like Bardo and the Invertebrates, to our friends American Music Club, who gained a worldwide audience.

The Meat Puppets are still around, after polishing their sound and surviving various traumas, and in the 90s they became my favorite rock band, inspiring my songs Yellow Mud and Drivin’ Round Loaded. And New Order evolved into pillars of the urban club scene during the late 80s and early 90s, releasing classic-sounding tracks like Waiting for the Siren’s Call and Krafty well into the aughts.

Although Yellow Mud may not sound anything like the Meat Puppets, the lyrics were inspired by Curt Kirkwood’s mystical, childlike style of writing.

The main riff in Go to Them was inspired by the simple, catchy rhythmic phrases in New Order’s classic songs.

Three decades after the post-punk era, we live in an era of widespread complacency. Unlike my generation, young people in the affluent cities of the First World seem happy to immerse themselves in their careers, media, and technology, trusting that they can solve the world’s problems just by making those wonderful, “democratic” gadgets and apps available to everyone, with Google wifi balloons hanging over every African village. Gone are the hopelessness, anger and cynicism that drove the creativity of the early 80s, to be replaced by the boundless optimism of the tech industry and the thrill of making lots of money. Those of us who still perceive cycles in nature and society, including my ecologist friends, wonder when it will all come full circle, with technology again exposing its dark side, and the easy money fading away. I see a society that’s still rotten to the core, and more destructive than ever. Anger is an energy.

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Listening Outside Your Comfort Zone

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014: Arts, Music & Dance.

I was brought up on eclectic music, but I have had my obsessions, like the early 70s when I only listened to classical, or the 80s when I only chose to listen to African music. Yet even during those times, my girlfriends and roommates played other kinds of music constantly all around me; music listening had not yet been privatized via iPods and earbuds.

Obsessions were part of my youth, when I was more worried about rebelling or establishing my identity. Later I gave that up. I’d much rather learn and evolve than get stuck with an “identity.”

Now that private listening has become the norm, my younger friends are migrating to streaming services. As others have noted, even when it’s “curated,” streaming music delivers primarily that which is already familiar to you. Pandora creates “radio” based on your favorite artists. I’m sorry, but that’s no way to discover new music.

As an artist committed to, or rather, dependent on, lifelong learning and unlimited exploration, I have only limited interest in listening to the kind of music I already know and like. That’s one reason why I still listen to terrestrial radio with live DJs. While I’m working at home, I stream a handful of stations that play eclectic music that often surprises me and turns me onto something I didn’t know and like before, including one internet-only station that happens to play my music. I’ve discovered these terrestrial stations during my travels, by actually being in the places where they’re located, places I developed a connection with, and having them available online is the icing on the cake.

In this context, I regularly listen to shows featuring styles of music I don’t like, because sometimes a single track will stand out and teach me something.

Still, I know a lot of older musicians who should know better, who only listen to the one or two kinds of music they’ve identified with: folk, country, rock, jazz, world, etc. Musicians who revere jazz or traditional music and make sweeping judgements against rock, electronic or punk. And of course the nostalgic baby boomers with their classic rock addiction. That’s a great way to stagnate, dudes.

Or you could try listening outside your comfort zone – you might learn something and have some unexpected fun!

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