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Featuring work by David Grossman, Qainat Khan and many others. And artwork by Gregory Muenzen.

MAY 2013 Volume 1 ♌ Issue 2

Somersault Magazine Volume 1, Issue 2 May 2013 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


•Is "Where Are We Now?" a Song about the Euro Crisis? Evan Fleischer page 6 •Music and the Culture Wars in Mali Corinne Grinapol page 9 •The Indomitable Hustle of Guitaro 5000: A Day in the Life of New York City's Best Street Musician David Grossman page 14 •Notes from Below: Classical Music in New York City's Subways Qainat Khan page 20 •"We're The Kominas. Hi." Torie Rose DeGhett page 26 •Sea Lion Evan Fleischer page 30 •La Cigale Alexia Chandon­Piazza page 33 •Artwork by Gregory Muenzen on pages 5, 8, 19, 29, 32.

Cover: "Clarinet Musician in the 42nd St. Subway" by Gregory Muenzen

This is Somersault's second issue -- in our first, published in December of 2012, we gave you articles of all shapes and approaches on arts and politics. Now, we're returning (an encore performance of a one-shot magazine) with a spring issue that's all about music and music's relationship with politics. The following essays are contemplations on pop culture, international politics, subway musicians and everything in between. Our mission is, as always, to turn things on their heads, or end over end, like a somersault, and the pieces we have about David Bowie, subway buskers, Pakistani-American punk rockers, choral music, and music and extremism in Mali flip perspectives and reinvent interpretations. We can be found online at and on Twitter @somersaultmag. You will be able to find all of these articles there, as well as our previous issue.


Torie Rose DeGhett writes freelance about politics and music, and is a contributing arts writer at Aslan Media.

Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn't editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writer-at-large.


A jazz sax musician in Broadway, NYC. By Gregory Muenzen.


To be in Berlin then meant -- per Tony Visconti, a long time producer of Señor David Bowie -"we could see the Wall [from the control room] and we could see over the wall and over the barbed wire to the Red Guards in their gun turrets ... We asked the engineer one day whether he felt uncomfortable with the guards staring at him all day. They could have easily shot us from the East, it was that close. With a good telescopic sight, they could have put us out. He said you get used to it after a while and then he turned, took an overhead light and pointed it at the guards, sticking his tongue out and jumping up and down [and] generally hassling them. David and I just dived right under the recording desk. 'Don't do that,' we said, because we were scared to death!" To be in Berlin today means something else altogether, but -- in the spirit of Leonard Cohen saying in his Prince of Asturias speech that "No country is just a credit rating" -- I think it's fair to say that Bowie's "Where Are We Now?" isn't necessarily about just about Berlin -- even though it’s riddled with lines like, “Sitting in the Dschungel / On Nürnberger Strasse” -- but Europe, too. To be in Berlin then meant Hauptstraße 155 and Kreuzberg; it meant -- per Deutsche Welle -- that fans, “rather than hassle Bowie on the street, instead loitered outside record stores, waiting until the musician had departed and then going in to buy the same albums Bowie himself had bought”; it eventually meant the switch from vinyl to digital; it eventually meant songs like, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ the album World Clique, Achtung Baby (where they began recording on the day of reunification), Wenders’s wandering angels, endless episodes of Das Literarische Quartett, and the ghostly memories of airplanes and the RIAS and oranges on trucks trailing through the clouds above Tempelhof. I pose the question as to whether or not the song and the moment are suited for each other, mindful of the involuntary response that comes upon us every time a moment strikes us in the figurative knee. You can kind of see it in the compulsion to review books like Capital by John Lanchester or when anyone gets a whiff of anything Michael Lewis happens to pen. (It’s one reason why writers like Simenon and Wodehouse are such good fun -- it’s the literary equivalent of Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ no matter what’s afoot.) So there is no reason to assume that “Where Are We Now?” is about the Euro Crisis, or, rather, the eurobävning, as some Swedes call it. It nevertheless remains an interesting thing in the air to fishbook and hang upon. It definitely isn’t about ‘being heroes,’ “if only for five minutes,” as Sasha Frere-Jones suggests in The New Yorker. It’s about finding grounding amongst a level of displacement that almost seems to echo. People are kicked out of their homes in Spain. 111,000 Greek companies went bankrupt in 2011. George Osborne cuts budgets and then pretends to say it’s all working. Over four million Italians will be living in poverty by the end Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn't editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writer­at­large.

of 2013. This has tangible, in-the-air social consequences, and that’s something narratives frequently have trouble grasping. A mother of an unemployed son in Portugal told the BBC in October of last year that “This week he sent out 140 job applications and ... nothing." So -- if “Nothing” is a scene and an answer repeated across Europe -- why not ask, “Where are we now?” Why not seek grounding and a pathway through or out of it? If Germany let a “manageable run against Greece [...] become an existential threat against the Eurozone …” and then let everyone sign off on an attempt to raid the everyday citizens of Cyprus (and then change plans thirty times with the IMF and the ECB over the course of a week), why not say, ‘Where are we now?’ so someone can start thinking about where they want all this to lead? Bowie answers the question in the song by saying -As long as there's sun As long as there's sun As long as there's rain As long as there's rain As long as there's fire As long as there's fire As long as there's me As long as there's you -- and that ends up not so bad insofar as all this goes. Nothing doesn’t come of nothing. As long as there’s a rainy day, as long as there’s a bit of sun, well, there’s still the two of us, and that’s not so bad, is it? Whether you’re talking with the owner of a pizza place in North London who gives you a free glass of wine as you wait for the cooks in the back to make you your pizza so you can talk about the Hammers, whether you’re hugging someone you’re meeting for the first time, whether you’re watching movies in the catacombs of Paris and leaving before anyone can find you -- life doesn’t give up the ‘Yes’ without an incredible fight. Oh, and -- Drum kick. Guitar. We can be heroes. Etcetera.

A jazz musician performs in Central Park. By Gregory Muenzen.


Around the turn of the 12th Century, a group of nomads belonging to the Imakcharen Tuareg tribe were roaming with their camels through the southern fringe of the Sahara desert in West Africa. When they reached the Niger River—in the semi-arid land at the intersection of the Sahara and Savannah now called the Sahel— they stopped, setting up a camp so their animals could graze. The Tuaregs would return to their home in the north, but not before leaving the place in the care of an old woman named Buktu. The site would eventually become a permanent city, and to this day, the city still bears the old woman’s name: the place of Buktu, or Timbuktu. This, at least, is one of Timbuktu’s creation myths. The geographical reach of the Tuareg’s land extended well past Timbuktu, and today the Tuareg are spread across Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso. With many Tuareg maintaining their nomadic lifestyle through to the modern era, certain sites in the Sahel serve as annual gathering points for the Tuareg to reconnect, share and exchange news, gossip and ideas. The soundtracks to these meetings are the live musical performances that are a part of Tuareg life. In 2001 the Tuareg opened this tradition to the rest of the world, hosting the first annual Festival au Désert in Tin Essako, a small village in Mali’s northeastern Kidal region. The festival’s name sounds romantic, but it’s quite literal. In Essakane, the small village west of Timbuktu that has been the festival’s permanent home since 2003, the festival stage stands in a clearing of flat sand, surrounded by the soft rolls of the Sahara’s sand dunes. Westerners mingle with indigo-veiled Tuareg men and visitors from around the rest of the region—onstage and off. Both Bono and Manu Chao have performed in the lineup, which is mostly made up of more local acts from Mali, Senegal, Niger, and Mauritania. Some of Mali’s most legendary performers, including the late bluesman Ali Farka Touré and Khaira Arby, nicknamed the Queen of Desert Blues, have taken to this desert stage. Around 2007, the festival began to attract visitors of an entirely different sort. Residents began to notice Islamists from outside Mali’s borders on the fringes of the festival. At first they were silent onlookers, then slowly began to voice their disapproval of the revelry and the Western visitors the festival attracted. These Islamists were more specifically Salafists, followers of a severe interpretation of Islam, who seek to return the entire Islamic world to their vision of a puritanical version of the religion, one they believe existed during the Prophet Mohammed’s time, supposedly before scholarship, diversification of the religion and the spread and interaction of Islam with other cultures. During the 15th and 16th centuries Timbuktu itself became a magnet for such Islamic scholarship, and a place from which to spread knowledge of the religion throughout the region. Scholars came to study at its university and document the spiritual and cultural life of the city. Their work is now preserved in the manuscripts they left behind – at least 300,000 manuscripts are in existence today. Another physical vestige of that period remains, a monument to the influence of Corinne Grinapol is a writer born, raised, and currently living in Brooklyn. She tweets at @corinneavital.

Timbuktu’s golden era: three pyramid-style mosques constructed of mud and reinforced by wood, along with a complex of holy sites and 16 mausoleums built in honor of some of the area’s most revered leaders. The mosques—Djingareyber, Sankore, and Sidi Yahia—have served as an enduring draw for tourists to the city, as well as being designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built by two different men in one century, restored by the same man in another, exteriors remudded each year, the history of the mosques is a microcosm of Timbuktu’s shifting empires and cultural influences. The area’s tombs and mausoleums stand in tribute to the scholars and holy men who have shaped the cultural and spiritual life in this stretch of the Sahel. The structures don’t just exist as mere historic relics; people come weekly, usually on Fridays, to honor the dead. Under Mali’s predominant Islamic tradition, Sufism, praying at the graves of saints is standard practice, a way to ask for spiritual guidance and connect to God on an individual level. The resting places of Timbuktu’s saints were one the first things targeted for destruction by Islamists when they took over control of the north of the country this past year. Preserved culture like this holds power: the power to persuade, console, to unite, to create. It can reinforce our sense of belonging to a community and connect us to a shared history. In Mali, such culture has produced, among other things, a musical tradition that is the accompaniment and soundtrack to ritual, celebration, and life in the country. Just as easily as it can unite and create, culture can be used to manipulate, isolate, and divide. Autocrats often employ historic cultural traditions, and notions of cultural purity in order to play on the fears of their people and consolidate their own rule. Culture in service of power—this was in evidence in Mali, as Islamists sought to replace northern Mali’s strong cultural traditions with their own. In January 2012, Tuareg separatists in the north of Mali staged a revolt, their fifth attempted rebellion. This time, the Tuareg rebellion began with a precarious alliance between the ethno-separatist Tuareg group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and a fundamentalist, nationalist (or so it seemed) Islamist group, Ansar al-Dine. Like the rebellions that preceded it, it would leave the Tuaregs frustrated once again in their attempt to create a breakaway state, but this time, they would be thwarted by Ansar al-Dine and two other Islamist groups—Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)—that would enter the region following the MNLA and Ansar al-Dine’s takeover of three major northern cities in early April 2012. It didn’t take long for these groups to exploit the instability in the region to overpower the Tuareg separatists. To reinforce the strength and durability of their presence, the groups worked to exploit one of the most effective methods available to them: the imposition of Salafist principles, formed and deformed by the filter of violence and militancy these groups had adopted. It was their great cultural export. Rumors of the destruction of Timbuktu’s tombs began as early as May 2012. On May 4 2012 UNESCO reported that, according to sources, members of Ansar al-Dine had attacked the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, setting fire to the door of the monument. The groups targeted Timbuktu’s manuscripts for destruction as well, but managed to destroy only a tiny portion of the hundreds of thousands that exist; most were hidden or smuggled out of Timbuktu in anticipation of the groups’ intentions. In the next few months, reports of further destruction of tombs and holy sites crescendoed. Ansar al-Dine and MUJAO’s methods of attack varied, mud walls succumbing to axes, shovels, guns, fire, and bulldozers. A photo still taken from a video of Islamic militants smashing a tomb on July 1 shows a river of melon-sized pieces of rubble spilling down the walls as men with axes go to work on the deep black opening to the tomb. A total of 11 of Timbuktu’s 16 mausoleums were destroyed, along with at least four outside the city or in nearby cities.

Worshipping saints is haram, sinful, against god. Or so say the Islamists in their justifications for the destruction of these tombs. It is an ironic justification, given that these groups are destroying the region’s native Islamic inheritance, the same inheritance that helped create and spread Islam through Africa. Their attacks were an attempt to sever the ties between identity and place and replaced it with a creation of the Islamists’ own making. Unlike Sufism, popular in part because of the way it allowed West African communities to incorporate animist practices into Islam, the version of Salafism imposed by the Islamists allowed no room for innovation or syncretism. Other cultures were always a threat to be fought. Around the same time as the destruction of the tombs, an ocean and continent away, the Malian-Cuban musical hybrid band AfroCubism was on the Celebrate Brooklyn! Stage, on leg two of its four-city tour of North America in June. On that breezy night, the band excited the crowd with its synthesis of musical instruments and traditions and addictive, celebratory beats. By the end of the night, practically the entire audience, from the front rows all the way back to the fence on the hill that delineates the borders of Celebrate Brooklyn!, was up and dancing, and had been for some time. This collaboration between big name musicians from both countries—Cuba’s Eliades Ochoa, Mali’s Toumani Diabaté and Bessekou Kouyate, among others—began in 2010 with the debut of their eponymous album. From the early measures of any song on AfroCubism, it becomes clear how the elements of one culture can merge seamlessly with those of another: balafon with trumpets, kora with guitar, percussion with more percussion, Spanish with Bambara, creating something new while retaining the integrity and uniqueness of each tradition. While the Malian Empire traded gold, salt, and Islamic scholarship, music is perhaps modern day Mali’s greatest export. The rich, deep domestic tradition is paired with albums and artists that sell internationally—creating new audiences for the nation’s music, traditional and contemporary. In recent years, artists from Mali have represented well at the Grammys, picking up five awards in world music categories since 1994. A look through the names of the winners and nominees tells a story about the tendency of music to embrace, rather than merely bridge, cultural differences. From the legendary Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, to traditional griot singer Mamadou Diabaté, all have at some point, to varying extents, introduced elements into their work that have come from outside their culture, outside their country. The name of the 2012 winners and Festival of the Desert headliners, Tinariwen, means “open spaces” in English, fitting for a group of Tuaregs from northern Mali whose songs reflect the sounds of the desert, and the struggles—political and environmental—of the people who live there. They started as fighters, attending the same Libyan training camp deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi hosted for Tuareg insurgents, and participating in the Tuareg rebellion of the ‘90s. Their music is rooted in a tradition known as ichumar, a form of protest music intended to energize Tuareg resistance to cultural and political encroachment by outside forces. Like Tinariwen, whose members eventually put down their weapons in favor of their guitars, the genre itself has evolved, moving from music that encourages resistance to music that calls for peace and reconciliation. It’s not a seamless transition, and many groups performing in the genre are still conflicted about the role of their music and the place of the Tuareg people within Mali’s nationalist framework, but there remains a capacity for adaptation and progress. Even for a band like Tinariwen, whose music is so central to their Tuareg heritage, the sound they produce is not insular. Traditional styles are inflected with blues and reggae, and unusual partnerships result, like the band’s work with the American indie band TV On The Radio. In the early years of the band’s existence, during the Tuareg rebellion of the 90s, Tinariwen’s music was banned by the government. Their music was once again banned during the Islamist takeover, for entirely different reasons. When the fundamentalist groups declared

Sharia law in northern Mali, it was as strict and violent a version as their interpretation of Salafist principles, centered around medieval-style retribution for offenses, like whippings for drunkenness, public stoning for adultery, and hand and leg amputations following accusations of theft and highway robbery. Gender segregations, forced veiling and prohibitions on alcohol, cigarettes and secular music accompanied the harsh regime of punishment. The ban on music was enforced with particular weight, with some musicians receiving personalized warnings. Islamists reportedly marched into the Timbuktu home of Khaira Arby and destroyed all her musical instruments. They did not find her home, but they made sure to pass on a message for her to her neighbors: if they found her, they would cut out her tongue. Many musicians in the north had similar experiences, leading to a large migration of musicians southward. A community of musicians-inexile became centered in Bamako, Mali’s capital. The story of the Islamists taking over the Sahara is often considered under the framework

Tinariwen. Credit: PR. Photo via The Guardian

of terrorism, of groups versed in Salafist ideology looking for new places to set up shop, expand their network of gun, drug, and cigarette smuggling, kidnapping and human trafficking—the businesses in service to their main business, the spread of their ideology throughout the globe and their fight against the west. The implications of their actions are examined similarly, with news, congressional, organizational reports asking the same kinds of questions: will AQIM attack the West? When? How? Phrases like “breeding ground for terrorists” pop up, creating an image of gun-wielding, bomb-strapping fighters spreading secretly around the globe, waiting for a nod to spring them into action. The cultural element of the spread of this extremism in the Sahara is often forgotten and unmentioned. If music can be a cultural salve, the politics of culture is a powerful weapon. In northern Mali, AQIM, Ansar al-Dine, and MUJAO wielded it as effectively as their guns. It was culture they were trying to create, but to implement their own, they had to first destroy what came before. This is what the Islamists had gone after: the shrines and temples where people pray to saints whose deeds and stories have contributed to northern Mali’s sense of identity; the writing that documents the region’s historical and religious development; the music that accompanies festivals and important ceremonies, that is used as a form of storytelling that allows legends and founding myths to survive. The Islamists sought to impose a radical interpretation of Islam that clashed and superimposed itself over the religious and cultural traditions of syncretic Sufism. The Islamists sought to break down the norms, practices and cultural output those in northern Mali used to maintain identity, overriding it with a regional

pan-Islamic cultural construction that upended a millennium of tradition and history. This is how social control is achieved through the manipulation of culture. Once the bonds of identity are broken, it becomes easier to buy into the culture of fundamentalist Islam. Even now that the French military campaign has forced Islamists out of the north’s major cities, traces of influence linger. Before the blanket imposition of fundamentalist ideals, members of fundamentalist groups had peddled their ideology in cities like Timbuktu for years. They spent time patiently gaining followers, letting the ideals and morals of an outside culture settle in against a backdrop of powerlessness, instability, poverty, and political isolation. Against this kind of reality, this version of religion appeals to some as an alternative path to agency. If we allow ourselves to be more optimistic for a moment, though, perhaps a gathering of musicians in January is indicative of the shape of things to be. Malian singer Fatoumata Diaware brought together musicians from all parts of the country to record “Mali-Ko,” a call for peace. The performance is a remarkable projection of that wish, evinced by its synthesis of languages, styles and genres. Its lyrics underscore this desire: “In harmony, our country can develop. Nobody can destabilize us, our children will have a future.”

As my bus pulls up on the corner of Prospect and Dodd in East Orange, New Jersey, I see Guitaro 5000 through the window, walking out of his house. I bolt out of my seat, ready to jump on him. It’s a few minutes past 11 AM on a Sunday, and I’m late to our meeting. I’m a nervous wreck as I run out of the bus, and yell “GUITARO,” which gets him to turn around. He’s about six foot with a beefy body that comes from weightlifting, and is perfect size for, say, a running back. He’s the best street musician in New York, which puts him in the running for the best street musician in the world. I was convinced I’d ruined his day by being late, and he’s kind enough to let me know nothing could be further from the truth—he had trouble finding his jacket, he couldn’t give me better directions because he hates texting with a touchscreen, and so on. I first encountered Guitaro (née Reginald Guillame) on the L train at least half a year ago, and I haven’t been able to get him out of my mind since. He was playing my car -- my car! -- and performed an amazing version of “Billie Jean.” He wears a mini-Fender amp on his hip, and his hands fly between the strings and the top of the guitar, turning the electronics on and off. He sings adequately, but more than makes up the ground by his earnestness. On the L, he seemed so into Michael Jackson’s message of equality—“if you wanna be my baby, it don’t matter if you’re black or white!”—that it was impossible not to catch his enthusiasm. And if that doesn’t get you, the bag he takes in donations in will — it details in a friendly yet meticulous manner how this money will go towards his nursing school education -- heck, it even encourages you to ask for his transcript. His biggest problem for a while now has been figuring how to parlay busking into gigs — playing restaurants, weddings, sessions, concerts, whatever will pay. He has a rotation of three or four songs that he knows get him money from passersby, but that doesn’t show his versatility. He’s compiled a list of 100 songs, over two-pages, that he has memorized. He knows “400, 500 songs really well” but needs his HP tablet for most of them -- to remind himself of tabs and lyrics. These are a mix of old and new, fast and slow, everything from Sam Cooke to The Lumineers. After we hit up Staples, it’s off to the bus to Newark to catch the a train out to the Long Island Railroad stop at Penn Station, which we’ll go out to Far Rockaway in Queens, where -- wait for it, you’re almost there -- he’s got a recording session. Guitaro is twenty-five, and like everyone else who is twenty-five or thereabouts these days, there’s one question that preoccupies his thoughts — how can anyone make money doing anything? He’s been talking to me almost nonstop since we me about the business side of his music—wondering if he should sign officially with David Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter is @davidgross_man, his Tumblr is He thinks the best albums of 2013 so far are Kasey Musgraves' Same Trailer, Different Park and Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap.

his manager, singing the praises of his assistant, and why passion is bullshit. “I don’t know if you want to print this, but certain musicians describe themselves as passionate. I could never do that, because I do this as my living. It’s, like, you don’t tell your wife you love her everyday. But you do!” On the bus, he asks again and again about journalism, what my goals are and how I think I can make it work for myself, and how I could use technology to improve my career. Guitaro 5000 is one of those people who become obsessed with an idea and followed it through. He listened to a lot of radio rock when he was in his mid-teens, bands like Hoobastank and Creed, and wanted to do what they did. And so he did. He wanted to learn guitar. He did. His first venture into subway performance – sometime in his late teens – scared him off, but since age 21 he’s been doing this consistently ever since. Music is his job, he reminds me several times. Making money is ingrained into the Guitaro 5000 experience — the ‘5000’ comes from the $5,000 he owed his nursing school at the time. He’s clearly dedicated to nursing school — during travel breaks, when we’re not talking he’s often studying for a final on his phone — but there’s no future in it. Not his future, at least. Music is going to pay for school, yes, but if Guitaro has his way it’ll also pay for everything else. And on good nights, it can — Guitaro estimates that on good nights, he’ll make thirty dollars an hour playing in the subway, and – on great nights – fifty. Playing on a subway platform is protected by the First Amendment, but entertaining in a subway car falls under direct violation of the MTA Rules of Conduct, Section 1050.6, Subsection 3(A), and Guitaro’s run afoul of it enough to know it’s fully enforced — he’s been arrested twice for playing subway cars, and that’s more trouble than its worth. Thinking about this makes him shake his head. Rockaway and Queens beckon, and while we're standing around checking train times Guitaro notices a singer nearby. It doesn't take long for him to start critiquing her style. Her sound is kind of tinny, he says, but what really antagonizes him is her spot -- the busking game is all about spot-finding and mobility, and the spot she’s in is gold. Guitaro points out that her key spot — main corridor near the entrance to the 1, 2, and 3 lines, next to McDonald's — has been bequeathed to her by Music Under New York, or MUNY, the MTA’s official musician-handlers. Not that all their spots are money-makers, but they can give you security — the MTA is God down here, and if they reserve you a spot it’s yours, no questions asked. Guitaro’s getting his permit next month, and can already envision what he’ll do with the spot — a big amp, maybe even a drummer and a backup singer. He doesn’t need them — he’s gone through around “twenty, thirty” subway partners through the years, and none have made a substantial difference in what he’s earned. But it could work. Today he’ll be doing a studio session an aspiring singer named Debra Church. She’ll also be coming out to subway with us — she’s new to the subway, but Guitaro tells me she got addicted to it. He’s already taught her a few tricks, like how to only sing directly ahead to reach the greatest possible number of people. And she’s got perfect pitch, which never hurts. We get to the studio, which is in the basement of a sad-looking house whose upstairs seems to be mostly devoid of furniture and life. Downstairs there’s a bed, a vocal booth, computers, keyboards, guitars, a few gold records, Debra and the guy who owns all this stuff, Darrin “Piano Man” Whittington (no one call him Piano Man while I’m there, but it’s on his business card), who welcomes us with a self-mocking, “Welcome to ‘The Hit Factory.’” The song everyone’s working is called “Love Off.” Everyone is giving it their all —Darrin’s enthusiastically playing with rhythm on the computer, Debra really does have perfect pitch, as it turns out, an enthusiastically powerful voice that can wring emotion out of the simplest thing, Guitaro’s being Guitaro. If only the song were any good. A few hours pass. Tinkering is done. Nothing comes of “Love Off,” which sounds something that 90’s R&B left on the cutting room floor, and for good reason. We head back. We finally get to 42nd-Port Authority Bus Terminal, a magic stop. Magic

stops come in and out of vogue for Guitaro—once word gets around, the spots get flooded with competitors. This is why Guitaro’s not keen on the idea of a busking community. He’s friendly with some people, but ultimately they just eat into his profits. As Guitaro pulls out his guitar, its clear to see how live music is this magical thing that we all share with each other. With the instrument out, people sneak glances at Guitaro wherever he walks in the station. It’s a look of curiosity, many people smile. As he’s setting up, a little girl, no older then five, yells out “Nice guitar!” He smiles back and offers a hearty thank you. Guitaro’s mood shifts when he’s interacting with anyone on the street, just like anyone in the service industry: smiles for everyone, appreciative nods at whatever people want to tell him. Not that he’s a bitter person in his real life, but Reginald Guillame, like anyone else, gets annoyed at people, wonders if he should sign a legal contract with his manager, is curious about where Google is taking Android next, and doesn’t mind not having any personal time but wishes he got paid more. Guitaro 5000 just wants to play your favorite song. Earlier Guitaro actually used the words “living the dream” to describe his life, even though none of the elements usually seen in musical success are present—original songs, for instance (Guitaro calls songwriting “what I’m worst at”), or albums, merch, touring, a modicum of recognition, Twitter followers in five digits (although he’s big on Facebook.) The money speaks for itself – kinda. “Everything is good right now, except for the money. I want to be making four times what I’m making right now … People tell me, ‘I wish I made $300 a night, and I’m like, I wish I did too!” he tells me walking through the station. He plays, re-invests (his assistant, food, travel, the occasional partner, new guitar strings all add up), saves, and then plays some more. But questions about the feasibility of the music industry are purely theoretical to Guitaro. No matter how many iPods there are in the world, people will always want to hear a popular song performed live and well while they are waiting for their train, and will pay for it. Guitaro offers a simple lesson for creative types living in the endless recession: never take your fingers off the strings.

Guitaro and Debra perform. Photo by David Grossman.

A good spot is found, on a platform for the A, C, and E lines. The Port Authority stop is especially choice as it connects to 42nd St-Times Square, one of the key transfer junctions in the city. There’s plenty of foot traffic around here. “This spot may dry up in an hour or two,” he warns Debra. He strums a little, finding a rhythm, and then, at around 7:30, he and Debra launch into their first song of the night, Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” It’s a strong, attention-grabbing cover, and a few minutes in a big black guy with glasses drops some change in Guitaro’s bag. More change follows from a girl he’s with who’s wearing a pink tunic, then a buck from a white guy in a salmon-colored shirt. They’ve already made more than Rihanna would when someone buys the “Umbrella” video on iTunes for $1.99. Next up is Alicia Keys’s “Fallin.’” Debra and Guitaro have a nice, friendly chemistry, helped by Debra’s fantastic voice and constant movement. Guitaro and Debra are the side event for this crowd — there are around thirty people waiting for the subway, around half are even paying attention. And none of them are watching that closely. A few are into it, sure—“that was better than the original!” yells one woman as she gets onto the train. But she doesn’t even pay. The ratio of people who listen to people who pay is infinitesimally small, but that’s not important -- what’s important is consistency: fifty cents here, twenty cents there, two bucks, a buck, thirty more cents, and then you start again. This is how it goes for the next three hours. Going through my notes, I count five more plays of “Umbrella,” four more of “Diamonds,” a few “Fallins’” and “Black and Whites” here and there. Debra hands a card with a link to a MP3 download to everyone who gives money until she runs out. They each announce their websites after a few songs. It’d be easy to phone these in, but they’re not. As far as I can tell at least—Debra is able to find some new part of “Umbrella” to focus on each time, and Guitaro never lets up. They break a few times, never for longer than five minutes. The money keeps coming. 10:30 rolls around, and it’s time to for Debra to count up her money and leave. She’s got work tomorrow, but Guitaro makes it clear after she leaves that she wanted to stay longer, but he knew from the beginning that’d he would be sending her away. He’s frustrated that he had to split the money with her when she didn’t know the words to the songs on his list. We’re heading to Union Square to transfer to the L to get to Bedford Ave on the off chance that no other musician has claimed the hipster capital of Williamsburg, Brooklyn at midnight on a Saturday night. Guitaro is able to predict with a shocking accuracy what Union Square will look like — a former magic spot now infested with far too many acts: we see act after act get shut down by trolling drunks who fake stealing money out of guitar cases, Russian violinists with no respect for other musicians playing space, and just a general sense of anarchy. Guitaro eats sardines and chills. We finally get to Bedford at around 11:45 and everyone’s drunk there, too, but it’s calmer. People nod appreciatively at Guitaro as they walk past. A drunk bro in his thirties requests “anything by Lady Gaga” and “Bad Romance” starts up. Bro and fellow bros start dancing, and a crowd gathers. A train comes. The bros depart. There’s no continuous foot traffic here, but waves of people rushing in and out. Guitaro spots a Red Sox hat, and just days after the Boston Marathon bombing, says to no one in particular, “How about a sing-a-along?” and launches into “Sweet Caroline.” The crowd loves it -- hands wrap around shoulders that sway, Good times never felt so good, so good, so good. Money’s dropped. They leave. No one’s there to replace them. A few black skater teens are left, and Guitaro tries to win them over with rap beats — “Niggas in Paris,” DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.” They dig it for a second, rap over it, but get quickly distracted. After watching him play for around five hours now, this is the closest I’ve seen Guitaro get to being frustrated — no one passing by would notice, but the lack of attention is driving him a bit crazy. So I decide to help out a little, walk over to the list of songs at his feet,

and loudly pick Miguel’s “Adorn.” Guitaro nails it. He’s able to capture the beat perfectly, and I fill in on the parts he’s shed from the song. It’s a lot of fun—the strength of his music is that you’re able to feel as connected to it on the 50th time you’ve heard it as it is the first. He plays a few more songs to a few more waves, and then it’s 1:30 and he’s got to head back to East Orange. He wishes he could stay out for longer, 3 or 4, but he’s not feeling his best and he’s got that final tomorrow, after all. He rushes into the L train back towards Penn Station for the journey back home. He made $87 at Port Authority, $50 at Bedford, which comes to $137 for hours of work, which comes to $34.25 per hour. He’ll be back tomorrow night.

Subway musician in watercolor. By Gregory Muenzen.


The underground system of tunnels and platforms at New York City’s Times Square station is vast, stretching for city blocks. More than 58 million people passed through this particular stop in 2011, making it the busiest transit point in the entire Metropolitan Transit Authority system. It is not a pleasant place to linger: moldering and drippy, and overrun with rats. But it is here that Nick Moyer, a mechanical engineering student at Columbia University, willingly spends his time.* He doesn’t descend into the subway for his studies. Moyer is a one-man band of accordion, trumpet, and improvised percussion — a busker. The tall and wiry 22-year-old balances the accordion on his lap and pushes its buttons with his left hand to make chords. With his right hand, he plays the melody on his trumpet, using his feet to beat out a rhythm on his suitcase. “I have to put in another dollar!” calls out a guy in a deerstalker hat one December afternoon as Moyer launches into the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” “That’s amazing!” adds the newly converted fan before boarding his train. There are 468 subway stations in New York City, and 1.6 billion people rode the trains. Nearly all of them, at one point or another, encountered a musician along the way. So while the subway system may be noisy and smelly—even, sometimes, frightening—it is also home to moments of unlikely spontaneity and beauty. Who would expect to find classical music—what many consider the highest of art forms—in the lowliest of places? Just across town from Times Square Station, Grand Central Terminal blesses its bored and frustrated commuters with a ceiling dotted with glittery constellations, marble halls lit by chandeliers, and, occasionally, tunnels echoing with classical music. On this particular afternoon, the strains of James Graseck’s violin mingle with the hurried footsteps and random chatter. Those with any knowledge of classical music will recognize the precise counterpoint of Bach. Dressed formally in black concert attire, Graseck is deep in conversation with a small blonde boy whose backpack is enormous on his tiny frame. The boy is telling the older man about the Paganini capriccio he’s in the process of learning with his private teacher. The two try to figure out just which of the master’s 24 caprices it might be, Graseck eventually playing the last note of the fugue with a flourish, then handing his instrument over to the boy. In a time where music has come to be mostly a solitary experience, recorded music heard via headphones, subway musicians remind us of the vital, spontaneous and participatory aspects of music making. For the art form isn’t just an aesthetic experience, it is a social one as well. And the social is where we learn how to be well-adjusted human beings—to engage with each other and our environment. According to anthropologist Susie Tanenbaum in Underground Harmonies, her 1995 ethnography of the city’s subway musicians, when New York opened its first subway in 1904, performers weren’t legally allowed to play inside (though many did it anyway). It wasn’t until the 1930s, under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, that the rules against underground performance began actually to be enforced. Much of the increased prosecution had to do with the conflation of street *The research for this piece was done between 2011 and 2012. Nick has since graduated. Qainat Khan works as a radio producer in Boston.

musicians and panhandlers. (Panhandling is illegal.) People continued to play despite the rules against it, and over the decades, enforcement was haphazard at best. A series of cases in the 1980s finally codified and decriminalized the act of making music in the subways; artistic performance in public spaces, the court decided, was protected as speech under the First Amendment. To its credit, the subway has been a launching point for some commercially famous acts, including the indie band the Freelance Whales. In New York City, it’s legal for subway musicians to perform on any platform at any stop. There are certain caveats—musicians need to stop during announcements and they can’t sell CDs or play inside the subway cars. Lydia Bradshaw, who conducts the MTA’s MUNY program, says that musicians are expected, along with everyone else who rides the subway, to adhere to the MTA’s Rules of Conduct. The MTA, in fact, sponsors a program called Music Under New York (MUNY), in which artists audition to get access to some of the most-trafficked spots in the system—like specific platforms in Times Square and Grand Central. Those accepted into the program go through a scheduler to reserve times for the desirable locations. Otherwise, musicians are free to set up anywhere they like, though those without the banner that comes along with MUNY membership tend to get harassed from time to time by police officers who don’t always know the rules regarding freelancers, and may make arbitrary decisions about who can play where and when.


“I love playing Bach in the subway,” says James Graseck as he bows a few measures of a gigue. It’s early in January 2012, a couple of months after the encounter with the boy in Grand Central, and the Long Island native is standing at the edge of the platform in the Herald Square station. At his feet are his violin case, in which he displays his CDs for sale, a small boom box, and a little bag holding two thermoses, one with water, the other coffee. Now sixty, Graseck played for the first time in the subway in 1968. He has loved the violin for much longer. “I’ve been a dedicated violinist since Juilliard Preparatory in eighth grade,” he says. “I realized it was what I wanted to do. I practiced, and I was in love with it.” He went on to graduate in 1972 from the Juilliard Conservatory, where he served as the concertmaster of its orchestra. Five years later, while a violin instructor at the Manhattan School of Music’s preparatory school, he gave a debut recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The New York Times noted the “attractive, silvery quality” of his tone. These days, when Graseck finds a quiet moment amid the trains rushing past, he tends to select one of the more emotional pieces in his repertoire. “This is a classic,” he says to the scattered audience of commuters. “‘Meditation,’ by Massenet.” His version of the intermezzo, written for solo violin and orchestra, from the opera Thais, is undeniably moving. Graseck’s arrangement is for piano and violin; the piano accompaniment issues from his boom box, prerecorded with an accompanist. An older woman dressed in black fur and sitting on a nearby bench, closes her eyes, a smile playing across her face. She eventually gets up and, while Graseck is in mid-performance, places a dollar in his violin case. A tear follows the lines in her face. “It’s touching,” she says when asked whether the piece means a lot to her. “Music does that to you.” She’s still smiling as she boards her train. “[Commuters] are engaging with music in a very different way,” says Trevor Harvey, an ethnomusicologist based at the University of Iowa, “as a virtual, social experience that is counter to the otherwise rather static experience they have with recorded music they’re listening to on their iPod.” “There is a sense of immediacy, realness, authenticity when you encounter someone making music live,” agrees Mark Katz, a musicologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the author of Capturing Sound, which looks at the way our relationship to music has changed in response to technology. “I think the reason [live music is] more special is the

unexpectedness of it,” continues Katz. “You’re not planning to hear any music, [but] …you turn the corner and it’s right there.” Such immediacy and unexpectedness may partly be responsible for bringing people like Graseck’s listener to tears, and it’s just that closeness that keeps Graseck playing in the streets. An interactive performer, he often talks to his audience and on occasion singles out a member of the crowd. The one-on-one contact, he says, is a major part of his decision to eschew the traditional path of a conservatory-trained musician and opt for the subway platforms instead. “It’s such direct communication,” he says. “I can see that a person is listening by the way they are looking. I can see the way they are focused. There are other moments when people will come up close and look intense, and that makes me want to play my best.” Nick Moyer isn’t quite so sentimental about what he does underground. It doesn’t occur to the blue-eyed Washingtonian that he might be doing a public service. “The shared experience is something important,” he concedes, though he says he tries “not to glorify it too much. It feels good every now and then,” he says, seeing strangers talking to each other about his music. At least, “I assume they’re talking about me,” he adds with a laugh. Unlike Graseck, Moyer never singles out people in his audience. He remains politely aloof—he doesn’t want anyone to feel pressured into tipping, he says, though he does acknowledge it when people do tip, meeting their eyes and smiling when his mouth isn’t occupied by the trumpet. During Moyer’s set on the Times Square platform, a young man with a mohawk takes out one of his earbuds—the music so loud you can hear it standing next to him—and drops a dollar into the performer’s basket. He leans against one of the rusty metal columns—one earbud in, one out, still blaring music—and stares intensely at Moyer. “That was my first time,” he says in regard to the tip. “I often don’t have small bills or change, but I felt I should give him some.” He notes the novelty of seeing someone play multiple instruments simultaneously, before replacing both earbuds and boarding his train. For every mohawked person who takes out an earphone to listen to a live musician, though, there are legions of others who never unplug long enough to experience the noises of urban living. And that solitary listening, Katz believes, may come at a cost. People might “cocoon” themselves because it makes them feel safe or comfortable, he explains, “but you’re also closing yourself off to interesting possibilities. One is interesting sounds or conversation, or interesting accents or voices … you might also hear some interesting music.” As a young person, Moyer doesn’t understand the appeal of listening to music all the time. “It turns life into this weird music video,” he says. And, he adds, “You never know when something spontaneous might happen.” The American philosopher Charles Peirce coined the term “firstness” to describe this idea of possibility back in 1867. “The first,” he wrote, as “predominant in the ideas of measureless variety and multiplicity.” Firstness, in other words, has to do with the introduction of novelty into the universe—with that original, inchoate feeling that comes with the first glimpse or sound of something and with the idea of it, the possibility of it. And that “firstness,” the ability to encounter something novel, is infinite. “Certainly one of the values of live music,” echoes Harvey, the ethnomusicologist, is “the perception it allows for that music is indeed not an object but an activity… It becomes actualized only as we engage with it and hear it. It’s not this thing that sits on a shelf.” At the same time, Moyer is puzzled that so many of his tippers never bother to take their earbuds out at all. He imagines maybe they’re hearing his sound above their own music, or that they’ve perhaps pushed the pause button but neglected to remove their headphones. He probably hadn’t noticed, lost in his musical world as he was, but for the crowd gathered around him on the Times Square platform, Moyer was the center of attention, at least for a few seconds. Their eyes focused on him, their hands fumbled with iPods; some snapped visibly out of stupors, little kids demanded money from their parents to put in the musician’s basket. “It’s good, no?” offered a

tourist from Italy after dropping in a few bills.


The musicians have their own reasons for descending underground day after day. Though Moyer doesn’t come off as your typical hardened New Yorker—from his blonde hair and porcelain skin to his quiet voice, everything about him seems soft and wispy, as if he might float away — yet he is unapologetic about the fact that he plays for money. His student loans go toward the over $51,000 tuition and housing for the school year, and the music money—he generally makes about $35 an hour—is for everything else: food, nights on the town, subway fare, more equipment. It’s simply pragmatism, Moyer says, though he admits that he probably wouldn’t play it if people gave him money but were angry. “People have been nice,” he says. “I’m generally happier when I leave than when I go in.” Moyer takes the quality of his sound seriously, and holds himself to a high standard of performance—these days he’s working on improving his tone and tempo. He originally learned to play the trumpet in elementary school but gave it up for a short period when he started college. He taught himself the accordion at 19, when his sister brought one home from college. Moyer has adapted various musical genres to his instruments: the Brooklyn-based electronic band Ratatat is a particular favorite. Because of his instrumentation — the brassy trumpet combined with the melancholic accordion—passersby often imagine Moyer is playing Eastern European folk music. His sound recalls that of bands like Beirut and DeVotchka. He is actually from a rural hamlet in the Pacific Northwest called Conway, with a population of 91. Moyer likes the variability of live performance in the subway. He has set songs, but needs to find ways to make them interesting and new, both for his audience and for himself. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t write music down or record himself. “I’ll find something new three months later and it will be better,” he says of improvising. He adds if he did record, he would record separate tracks for each of his instruments, and then edit them together on an editing program, which would result in, “this physical thing that is more perfect than I could ever play.” For Graseck, the money is secondary. He mostly cares about bringing music to people. Right after Juilliard, he says, he tried soloing and freelancing with various orchestras, but he kept returning to public spaces. The subways and streets let him be his own boss, he says, play what

Nick Moyer performs at the 110th stop on the 1 train downtown platform. March 22nd, 2013. Photo by Qainat Khan.

he wants to play, and connect the way he wants to connect with his audience, without the mediation of the concert hall or the conductor’s baton. He still performs in a quartet and keeps a handful of students to supplement the tips. He tells the story of playing in front of Saks 5th Avenue early in his career, and making $15 in less than an hour; it was the first time he realized that performing in public might actually be a way to make a living. Graseck has had his moments in the spotlight—including steady coverage in the New York Times and the Daily News over the years, a 1984 spot on Johnny Carson’s show, and a 2005 WNYC radio documentary—but being a celebrity has never sat well with him. “It was a strange feeling that the same people who ignored me suddenly come up to me,” he says. “It took TV and newspaper notoriety [for them] to come out of the woodwork …. I love the people who’ve known me for years because they like what I do,” he continues. “These are the people who’ve given me the right reason for enjoying [performance].” He likes the street precisely because of its anonymity and democracy. He doesn’t have to be famous to touch someone with his music. He just has to be in the right place at the right time. “I can play for 10 minutes and it’s too noisy, no moment to perceive anything,” Graseck says of those times when there’s no spark of recognition at all. “I’m not upset by that. I don’t expect humanity to come flowing over me. I’m just waiting for the moment that something can happen.”


Back at Herald Square, Graseck is several songs into his set when he begins picking Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” originally written for cello and piano as part of the multimovement suite “Carnival of the Animals.” An MTA janitor hums along as he sweeps and empties trashcans. He’s obviously heard the song before. “We go back a long time,” says the janitor, who declines to give his name. “He’s a master. For this kinda music, you gotta go to Lincoln Center.” It’s just that ability to democratize that Graseck prizes. So invested is he in the idea that he went so far as to rent out Carnegie Hall. Over his many years of playing on the streets and subway platforms, the violinist has acquired a broad following; some of his fans have even approached him for private performances at weddings and office parties. He recognizes many of his admirers by sight and considers them an extended network of friends. Back in 1993, one of those fans, a woman then in her 80s, helped engineer his Carnegie Hall debut. At her urging and with some financial support, he rented out the famous concert venue and filled it with people he’d met underground. He paid for the space with the money he’d collected over the years from tips, and charged between $10 and $25 for seats, depending on the section. All told, it cost him around $25,000 to put the concert on—$8,500 for the hall and the rest for ushers, stage crew, accompanists, and promotional expenses. Some 2,500 people came out on that snowy March night in 1993 to hear him play. He broke even, and was able to pay back his fan. “He was doing the same thing he does in the subway,” says Susie Tanenbaum, who wrote about the performance. “He had just democratized Carnegie Hall.” In the cultural imagination, the hall, and classical music in general, epitomize the idea of the ivory tower, associated with talent and consumers of that talent—mainly rich people. “What takes place in the concert hall is a narrow range of impersonal encounters among people of more or less the same social class,” writes the musicologist Christopher Small in his 1998 book Musicking, “where each goes his or her own private way without being impinged on to any significant extent by others.” Concert hall protocol tends to be fairly “anti-community,” agrees Harvey, the ethnomusicologist. “When you think of the rules—don’t clap between movements, don’t open up a cough lozenge wrapper—especially in a classical setting, where audience members want to have a solitary experience … it’s just them and the music.” But the platforms are the precise opposite, and Graseck loves the idea that anyone who passes by can encounter classical music, without any of the regulations—or intimidations—so often associated with it.


The life of a busker isn’t easy. Moyer’s set under Times Square ends abruptly when two officers approach him and write up a summons for obstructing the platform. (He’d set up against the benches parallel to the tracks.) He boards the next uptown train and stares despondently at the pink slip for a couple of stops. Laden with his equipment—his accordion case alone weighs some 40 pounds—and distracted by the day’s events, he nearly backs right into a baby stroller. Earlier in the day, he’d had a run-in with another officer at the 103rd Street stop. He often plays at stops along the Number 1 train, as it enables him to easily jump on and head quickly back to his dorm. He had been on the 103rd Street platform for all of 10 minutes when a cop approached him and demanded he move “south of 96th Street.” The soft-spoken Westerner isn’t one to argue with police officers, even if he does believe them completely in the wrong. So he packed up his motley assemblage of instruments and rode sixty blocks south to Times Square, stowing his accordion under his seat and pulling out a battered copy of Studs Terkels’ Hard Times. Since then, Moyer has begun holding his own against the cops, producing a printed copy of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Rules of Conduct regarding artistic performances, whenever a confrontation ensues. After the summons (which a judge subsequently threw out), he’s been kicked out of stations four times, despite his new resolve. Still, though he graduated this May, Moyer has no plans to pursue engineering just yet; he’s back in the tunnels, jamming. Graseck has not had it easy, either. “I used to be handsome,” he says, inhaling deeply on his Pall Mall cigarette. He’s standing in the cold near Greeley Park, at the intersection of Broadway and 32nd, as cabs rush past. He isn’t bad-looking, though age and smoking have taken their toll. He stands on the shorter side of average, and he still has a thick head of hair, although it’s begun to gray. A gregarious man, he talks and talks, pointing out the Chelsea building where he lives with his wife and daughter, and offering a stream of anecdotes that reveal his ongoing love affair with this city and its people. After graduating from Juilliard, he says, he went along the prescribed path of freelancing in orchestras and playing recitals, but also began to sneak in a few street music performances. He kept them a secret from the girl he was dating. “She abhorred it,” he says. One day she came across an article about him and his street playing and smacked it down in front of him on the breakfast table. That was the end of the relationship. His first wife hated New York, and soon after they wed, he took a job teaching at a university in Georgia and toured the region on the side. “I missed New York,” he says. The two divorced, and Graseck returned the city. He met his current wife while playing in the subway—they’ve been together 35 years—and she’s never had any problem with his routine. Though Graseck has no plans to retire, he does think the free time would let him spend more time with his family. He appears to run on coffee and cigarettes. It seems he is always on the move, with an engagement to perform somewhere. When he finishes here at Herald Square, for example, he needs to go uptown to give a lesson. He still plays recitals in the city and neighboring states, and he practices diligently. “It’s a mix of a vagabond life and a disciplined life,” he says between drags on his cigarette. Graseck descends back into the subway—he has time for one quick set before heading uptown—and ends the day just as he started it: with “Meditation.” There are no tears this time, but the smiles on the passersby suggest that something profound is happening here. Music isn’t an object, their smiles say, but a vital social activity. And sometimes, sharing music with strangers is the closest to transcendence you can get when in the course of daily life.

"Sharia laaaawwww..." The opening track on The Kominas' debut album Wild Nights in GuantĂĄnamo Bay hits hard at anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, a surreal flash of satire that pounds through your ears. The Kominas pull off being both alienating and alluring at the same time. They have incredible musical talent and lyrics that are harsh and gleeful, but wellchosen. "Sharia Law in the U.S.A" mocks and ridicules profiling and institutional Islamophobia, jabbing at the radicalizing nature of security measures: Cops chased me out of my mother's womb My crib was in state pen before age two The cops had bugged my red toy phone So I devised a plan for heads to roll... Being Muslim in the US in the twenty-first century has meant an unrelenting scrutiny, a patchwork of stereotype and profiling including the ignorance of public assumption and the direct attack of authorities. Challenging Islamophobia is a core tenet of the band's musical purpose. They aim to overturn assumptions about Muslims, and impugn the legitimacy of institutional anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. Guitarist Sunny Ali says "We used the media's Islamophobia to get attention the same way they used us and continue to use Islam for their headlines. We are also tapping into people's stereotypes and turning it around on them for our own benefit. Turning a minus into a plus." Addressing the world's myriad minuses with a punchy, invasive musical style has been a theme of theirs since the band's beginning. (It should be noted that the current membership of the band has undergone lots of shifts since The Kominas started playing.) Among the songs on Wild Nights, their first full-length album, is "Rumi Was a Homo (But Wahhaj is a Fag)," written in response to homophobic comments by Imam Siraj Wahhaj. The logic of using such a slur to hit back at someone for being homophobic is an obvious question, but The Kominas (whose name roughly translates as "the bastards" or "the scumbags") often make their way on insults and contrarian juxtapositions. This is the same band that sings "I want a handjob" in virtually the same breath as "Subhanallah (Glorious is Allah)." The lyrics from "Rumi Was a Homo," "Conventional opinion is the ruin of souls/Bhai-jaan it's my prose I can't control," feels like one Torie Rose DeGhett writes freelance about politics and music, and is a contributing arts writer at Aslan Media.


of the best descriptions of the band itself and its members, using their witty, sarcastic lyrics to escape the ruination of conventionality. The punk-meets-bhangra mix of sound that The Kominas produce is a jumble, each song shifting up the pace and the tone. Soundwise, they have a great deal of unpredictability. The changes from album to album might come from the membership changes the band has gone through since they first got in people's faces by calling Rumi a homo, but from song to song they shift up, varying sounds and styles from jarring to smooth. When reached by email, Sunny Ali says that their musical influences are many and ever-changing, starting with a foundational mix of punk, hip-hop and Bollywood and moving on to the "endless crate" that is YouTube, which offers up everything from reggae to psychedelic African rock. It's the lyrics that make a song one by The Kominas. Sunny Ali notes that in the process of writing, "the lyrics are usually what turns it into an actual song." The punk rock, flag-burning irreverence of The Kominas is combined with flashes of solemnity and deep undertones of emotion. A quick run through some of their song titles is evidence enough of their willingness to wave at you as they blithely charge across boundaries but the lyrics get at the serious undertones of what The Kominas address. From "No One's Gonna Honor Kill My Baby (But Me)" to "Wal-Qaeda Superstore" and "Suicide Bomb The GAP," The Kominas embrace transgression. This isn't to mistake them for cheerfully ignoring cultural boundaries simply for the sake of getting in someone's face. It would be hard to call The Kominas subtle, but they undoubtedly have depth that takes more than one listen to discern. Sunny Ali says that punk is about brutal honesty, and lyrics that link the Patriot Act to

Sunny Ali. Photo Credit: Chris Sembrot. Via Stereogum.

sharia law in a way that former band member Shahjehan Khan told NPR was only half in jest, is a kind of punk honesty. They're also honest in their lyrics about what it feels like to be Desi in the US, singing "No time for 99 names amidst the noise and clamor/How did I get here from the land of long monsoons?" on the track "Par Desi," and "How can I swim 9000 miles/I'm 9000 miles away from home" on "9000 Miles." The Kominas are anger expressed outwards, that brutality of experience turned into resilience and witty rebellion. "They tried to stomp me out, but they only fueled the flames," they sing in "Par Desi," evoking the classic image of imperialist oppression: the giant boot. "Boots crushing my shoulders, where angels chose not to remain." Sunny Ali and The Kid, a separate musical project with a more country feel undertaken by two of the band members (Sunny Ali and, well, The Kid), puts similar angers to music. Their song "MUSLIM RAGE," puts a punk-meets-country spin on an anti-drone argument: ♌

They're runnin but there's drones up ahead, drones in your bed, drones in your home, drone give me head, drone give me dome. Preacher, preacher, leave them kids alone. The Kominas aren't a single narrative band. On their latest full-length album, Kominas, tracks like "Disco Uncle," "No One's Going to Honor Kill My Baby (But Me)," and "Doomsday" have an almost-sweetness to the vocals that sets them far apart from earlier tracks like "Sharia Law in the USA." They aren't always obviously punk, nor are they always obviously Muslim, but they are always a fascinating experience. They are particularly fascinating to a Western audience that revels in the perceived paradox of Muslim punk (known as taqwacore ever since the publication of the novel The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight), and they remain a talented musical act with an unending amount of substance and slice to their lyrics. Much of their public identity has been a push-and-pull act with media coverage. Bands want publicity, but The Kominas would rather have their music and their lyrics be the focus, rather than a Western incredulity at the irreverent, system-challenging musical identity of a punk band formed by Muslims. Taqwacore, the novel, the movie, the documentary and the fascination, have all accompanied the band closely and I asked Sunny Ali, the band's guitarist, whether or not taqwacore was the right way to think about the band, if there was a better word for what they are. "We've pretty much embraced it at this point," he told me, but ended by saying "Kominas is probably the best term to describe us. We're the Kominas. Hi." Some people may have trouble separating the band from the story, the fiction from reality (or failing to realize the band members featured in the documentary have by and large all been replaced). "People are watching a fiction movie and assuming they know everything there is to know about a real life band and their personal beliefs. They think they've seen the beginning middle and end . We were "Taqwacore" before the term existed and still are after they said it was dead." Sunny Ali notes pointedly that were people to listen to lots of their music without knowing the band members' ethnic and religious backgrounds, that they wouldn't be so easily labeled as "Muslim punk." As Sunny Ali says, "The real life story of The Kominas is still being written."


A jazz sax musician performs in NYC. By Gregory Muenzen.


Bodies. Can’t you see what everybody wants from you? Forgive the kids for they don’t know how to live. -- St. Vincent, “Cruel.” There are days when I wonder if the collective strength of St. Vincent, Feist, Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Esperanza Spalding have been overlooked -- not in terms of being an attempt to proactively ‘fix’ things the way Auden held up an affirming flame at the end of “September 1, 1939,” but just in terms of the bared teeth of it all -- that this is the levy of well-deserved and well-earned pride that holds some of the tide of indignity back, where the figurative waves crash up against the walls again and again in the form of Foster Fries making a crude penicillin joke, Dylan Byers needlessly flirting with a woman at The New Republic in the thoroughly elegant and compelling manner of a yuk-yuk 70’s cop show, and that -- even though it’s a world where -They could take you or leave you, so they took you -- and they left you. -- and even though there’s a cop who “roughed someone up” and the singer thinks it’s “the end of time” in “Northern Lights” and tries to find a way to help someone sleep in “Strange Mercy,” it’s nevertheless about defiantly saying, slowly and deliberately -- even though the narrator doesn’t know “what good it serves / pouring my purse in the dirt” -- but -- you know -- just in case you can’t hear it -I, I, I -I don’t want to be your cheerleader no more. Our focus here is St. Vincent and the album known as Strange Mercy. After a powerdraining experience -- or possibly something worse -- it’s no wonder the narrator seeks refuge in S&M in “Chloe in the Afternoon” by setting the terms that say there will be “no kisses and no real names.” It’s odd that we overlook this. It’s odd that some reviewers continued to focus on the “naivety of the fairytale strings” -as The Guardian did. It’s odd that Pitchfork wondered if the album was about “an almost-30 indie musician's lament” and claimed that the album “exists in its own universe” -- as if people don’t treat other people the way they do in the lyrics. It’s nowhere near as bad as the obsession the press seemed to have when they learned that Annie Clark listened to some Disney music while working on Actor -- though Wyndham Wallace returned to that form by complementing the “Disney-esque strings” in “Cruel” and ignoring its lyrical content (which -- let’s be clear -- is a Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. When he isn't editing Somersault Magazine, he is a writer­at­large.

song about taking a woman’s body by metaphor or literal force) over at the BBC -- but it’s pretty close. “This collection of Disney-inspired songs,” Vanity Fair once said. “It’s some Disney-quality vocal work,” says one outlet. “This explains the Disney sound of 'The Strangers,'” says another. “Annie Clark may look like an animated Disney heroine sprung to life,” says yet another. “The follow-up to her acclaimed debut is like a Disney soundtrack for the GarageBand age,” says another. And even though Annie said herself that some works by Disney went into the inspiration grinder in the lead-up to Actor, it’s an odd thing for some to fixate upon, isn’t it? It’s odd that no one noticed Feist subtly change the title of that Nina Simone song from “See Line” to “Sea Lion” and asked what that meant. It’s odd that we can glide past the selective vision called out by Cat Power when she sings, “abusive a stranger in bed / elusive forget everything you said.” (Though the narrator in the song says that -- despite the “monkey on the back” -- everything is “just fine.”) Which isn’t to say this should be the be-all-and-end-all for the audience. Just because we gently remind someone of a particular empathetic-to-cathartic waterwheel processing what comes its way in the figurative river doesn’t mean we should turn around and be just as narrowminded after the fact as we were before. (Sea Lion!) There is a lot to see and a lot to hear in this world. (Sea Lion!) Anyone who puts on an Esperanza Spalding album will become overjoyed at the push-and-pause funk of this bass line, the near “Peter-and-the-Wolf” styled-march she pulls off when she and her band do “Wild is the Wind,” the walk she lays down when they cover the beautiful Brazilian “Ponta de Areia” and so much more. The next time I read about someone trying to legislate away a woman’s rights, though, or treating them any less than they deserve to be treated, I’ll imagine them walking to their car, hearing a slowly building chant of -Sea Lion! Sea Lion! Sea Lion! -- and maybe the world will start to change for the better, and people like Nusreta Sivac won’t have to work for as long as they’ve worked to tilt the scales to a just balance.

Feist performs at Royal Albert Hall, London. March 2012. Credit: Simone Joyner/Redferns, via Getty Images and The Guardian.

A jazz bass player performs on the 42nd Street subway platform. By Gregory Muenzen.


It was a late afternoon on the 5th floor of a primary school in the city centre. I was seated in the tier reading a comic book. My mum had always wanted me to learn music. I didn’t want to play the violin or the piano, so she suggested I sing. I was 6, and said okay. After one year she was told I should audition for a bigger, high-level choir that was in my city. So here I am, on a sunny day of summer, a few days away from the grandes vacances, reading my book, waiting for my turn to sing. Everybody else has sung, my mother is pressing me to get up. I close my book and walk down to the piano. The choirmaster asks me my name. "Alexia Chandon-Piazza," I say, in the faintest voice. "WHAT?" she roars, putting her hand behind her ear.


Choral music has existed since Antiquity, transforming itself into Gregorian, Renaissance, Romantic music and the like, and it has often been associated with Christianity. Yet -- this choir was laic. Of course we sang many songs from different sacred repertoires, but there was no religious education around those pieces -- we sang it for the beauty of the music, not necessarily for the message it conveyed. At least that’s how I viewed things, not being a Christian myself. I discovered through music the gems, though, old and new, as well as secular pieces. I discovered Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, but also Fosco Corti, Arne Mellnas and many other composers. The first rehearsal. I’m on the left side of the tiers with the soprani, sitting between older singers -- they’re 14, 15. I am handed a score. I don’t know how to read it but I don’t want to tell anyone, so I pretend to follow along. I get lost. It is the Litanies à la Vierge Noire by Poulenc. Not exactly the kind of music I’m used to. The lyrics go "Dieu le Saint Esprit sanctificateur, ayez pitié de nous." I don’t understand anything. I leave the score on my lap and start listening. I am taken by surprise by the beauty, and while I cannot comprehend everything that is going on, I listen, open-mouthed. The choirmaster stops, adjusts the intention, the colour of a group of voice, the nuances. She sculpts the voice of the choir as if it were matter, hears the strand of voice that doesn’t go with the flow, adjusts, makes the choir repeat, again and again. Entering the choir allowed me to travel the world more than many adults ever will. I went on tours in France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, and China. I stayed at people’s place and ate the food they made for me. We talked even if we didn’t share the same language. I got to sing in Arabic, Japanese, French, English, Chinese, German, Spanish, Gaelic — even in invented languages with Joiku by Jukka Linkola — all of this with more or less accurate accents. My mother and I welcomed foreign choir singers in our home and shared a few days with them. I overcame my shyness, both with the contact of all the amazing persons I met, as well as through the audience. I got to sing in front of many, many people, both small audiences and large ones. I sang in tiny churches in the middle of the French countryside, as well as in the Forbidden City, where three thousands spectators sat in front of us and behind us. The chance to travel and to meet people from around the world is most definitely a great Alexia Chandon­Piazza used to sing with La Cigale de Lyon under the direction of Anne­Marie Cabut. Now she sings the way she does most things, that is, without direction and with great eagerness. She has a website (

lesson in humanity and respect. Once, during a tour in Czech Republic, we sang Teče, voda, Teče a Moravian folk song, apparently a favourite of the former President Masaryk. The family who was welcoming me in their home was of course in the audience. When the concert finished, I simply remember being lifted off the ground by the father of the family, and pressed against his heart while he tried to express how much the song had moved him. How could we, how could I, as small as I was, move a tall and strong adult man to tears, I wondered. I believe now that it was not simply the song or our probably clumsy interpretation that moved him. I think it’s the connection. To hear this song so dear to his heart, that reminded him of past struggle, of loss and joy, sang by children who had no idea of the struggle, the loss or the joy, who simply carried on the emotion contained in this song. I know it will sound way too sentimental, but in French, chœur (choir) and cœur (heart) are perfect homophones. I grew up with this choir, both literally and figuratively. Some of the friends I made during these years will stay with me for life for all the moments and firsts we experienced together. It taught me the importance of transmission, responsibility and fraternity. When I was a child, I didn’t get the French national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” The first two were simple and natural, but the latter I didn’t understand – fraternity was too complex a concept. Yet, with the choir I learned a lot about sorority. Young girls, young women taking care of each other, confiding in each other, creating and playing together. I remember the annual workshop in the countryside. We would meet in one of our dormitories, or sit on the bathroom’s floor, sharing sweets and stories. We would gather outside in the evenings, improvising music, sometimes experimental, sometimes rap, sometimes lyrical. On the last night we would chat all night long, whispering and lighting ourselves with the screens of our mobile phone, so as not to draw the adults attention to us. We would grow up, together. There is a political virtue taught by singing in a choir. The concept might seem the same has being part of a sport team -- that is, that unity makes strength. But in singing there is not much competition. Of course, there are international contests and we went to a few, because that’s how it should be, to keep a reputation, to listen to other choirs, but it never was the core of our practice. The lesson one draws from singing together is that not only unity makes strength, but that unity makes harmony, too. Unity makes beauty. The group is a force to express the reality, the most complex emotions. At the end of La lune est morte, written by Les Frères Jacques, there is a pianississississimo. At least that’s how the choirmaster wanted it. Forty children, from 9 to 18, singing in the thinnest, clearest voices:"Pleurez Pierrots, poètes et chats noirs, la lune est morte ce soir." In this moment, in Nevers, in 1999, we felt something going through the air. We felt the emotion going around the audience. And it wasn’t any of us that had produced this fleeting moment, it was all of us, the members of the choir, the master, the audience, all of us united in this place and moment. Singing together tangibly teaches Deleuze’s vision : "Être de gauche c'est d'abord penser le monde, son pays, puis ses proches puis soi." Which translates as "Being a leftist is to first think of the world, then of your country, then of your relatives, then of yourself." When you sing in a group, what is important is not your singular voice. It is the voice that is created through the addition of your voice plus the voice of someone else etc., and this common voice being brought to other people. You don’t sing for yourself to be heard, you put yourself to the service of the collective -- you sing for others. It is a lesson in humility, and in generosity. Another moment of sharing happens every three years in the antique theatre of Vaison-laRomaine. During summer a festival of choral singing regularly takes place, and every night before the concert begins, there is a moment called "les chants communs," or "the common songs." Each festival-goer is handed out a small book of scores, often these are folk songs, and they will learn and sing those in the antique theatre, under the direction of a choirmaster. Picture

2000 to 3000 persons singing together in polyphony. Whether you are in the audience or on stage, the emotion is powerful. The harmony isn’t only found in the singing, but also between each individual. I can’t think of a more radical praxis. To appreciate and experience the harmony that can exist between human beings, through the expression of each. When you sing together in harmony -- or disharmony, for that matter (because some work makes great use of discordant chords) -- you learn that you can produce greater beauty with other people than on your own. If I sing a single note alone it might be beautiful, but if someone else adds their own voice to it, the note will get more depth. If the other voice sings to the third, it’s a whole new world that opens in the vibration between the two voices. An interesting exercise was to watch our choirmaster choose the singer for the solo parts. When a solo part required a soprano, a mezzo and an alto, she would try and make groups of three. She knew our voices so well, she could hear in advance what the combination of the three voices would produce. She’d take one out and replace him with someone else, with a voice more acid, or more crystalline, depending on the effect she wanted and we’d listen to several mix and matches. But the truth is, when the trio was found, everybody knew it because anyone could hear it. There was an evidence found in the alchemy of the voices, this specific vibration that gets to the core of your body and shakes you. In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, R. Buckminster Fuller wrote, "[W]e have learned that from here on it is success for all or none, for it is experimentally proven by physics that “unity is plural and at minimum two” - the complementary but not mirror-imaged proton and neutron. You and I are inherently different and complementary. Together we average as zero - that is, as eternity." Singing together teaches you that while you may produce beautiful things alone, the united efforts of a group (of voices or instruments or both) can create this awe-inspiring feeling, this little spark that scientists might greet with a eurêka, that resembles the epiphany of the mystics, the emotion the artists and audience are after. Singing is a simple activity, it doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t require great mastery. It doesn’t even require to be part of a choir, although I’d recommend this experience to everyone. To this day, my friends from the choir and I can’t help but sing together when we meet. We sing broken bits of half forgotten songs. We invent and improvise. It’s not always pretty but it’s always filled with happiness. Last week I was staying at my best friend’s place. One of us started humming La Pêche à la baleine by Prévert and Kosma. We went through the song with some difficulties, but the joy of singing together was intact. When I sing to myself, the songs I learned in the choir have a different quality than those I learned on my own. I can’t help but try to sing every voice at the same time, I switch from one to the other for I have the memory of the group, of being together. Singing again those songs, even more than a decade later evokes the entirety of the choir, every single voice that formed into one, this bizarre and moving living organism.


I’m on holiday in the countryside, I’m 8, a few weeks ago I went to an audition but I have completely forgotten about it. It is a very hot day, and I went fishing on the riverfront earlier. I’m about to get in the shower of the small house — the bathroom is at the top of the crooked wooden stairs leading to the two bedrooms — but my mum yells for me from the outside, she says she has a surprise for me. I’m accepted into the choir.

Somersault Issue 2 -May 2013 (Music)  

This is Somersault's music issue! Featured here are seven essays on music+politics and beautiful artwork by Gregory Muenzen. Edited by Evan...

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