Concert review by Dawoud Kringle Photos courtesy of Michelle Shocked
To say that Michelle Shocked is an iconoclast in the service of fairness and righteousness is an understatement. Her music and artistic vision was born of a constant struggle to remain true to herself and her vision. From the beginning of her musical career in 1984, she has explored a great variety of styles, and has been difficult to pin down. Her music has explored folk, rock, big band, and Latin. Throughout, she has remained true to a core belief in fairness, justice, and balance in a world either subtly or directly opposed to this. She has released 13 albums as a leader, was awarded Folk Album of the Year at the CMJ New Music Awards ceremony in 1989, and is a current member of Musicians for Musicians (MFM).
The fact is, her biography is so interesting that an online music journalist once declared it must be fiction. Perhaps such things are best left for Ms. Shocked to explain in her own words (http://michelleshocked.com/hat/bio/bio-choice-5/).
On a cold February evening, City Vineyard at Pier 26 in Manhattan hosted Shocked and a new ensemble of Cuban American musicians she had recently begun working with. This night’s performance was titled Musical Chairs: A Comparsa for Artist Rights (a comparsa is a group of singers, musicians and dancers that take part in carnivals and other festivities in Spain and Latin America). The night’s music concentrated on the Cuban musical tradition. The band consisted of Bobby Sanabria (bandleader / musical director), Silvano Monasterios (keyboard). Andy Eulau (bass), Bryan Vargas (tresero), Oreste Abrantes (percussion), and vocalists / dancers Max Pollak and Livya Howard-Yashar.
The band began with a piece titled “Como Lo Digo Yo” (a coro de clave / guaguanco: a popular 19th century style, and a subgenre of Cuban rumba). This got the audience clapping and aroused. While the band was doing their thing, Shocked made an entrance on a scooter, with Pollak and Howard-Yashar dancing behind her. Removing her crash helmet and donning a black derby, she began singing in Spanish. She introduced a poem about the moral rights of authors, the Berne Convention protocols (which were adopted in 1886, and provides authors, musicians, poets, painters etc. with the means to control how their works are used, by whom, and on what terms.), and Wikipedia’s reputation for intellectual property exploitation. with the band keeping the lively Latin groove behind her.
It was clear from the dramatic entrance and politically charged poem that Shocked was intent upon making a statement of some depth.
They continued with “Bootleg This, Bitch.” It started with a Mozambique (a Cuban style developed in the early 60s by Pedro Izquierdo), and the two dancers taking center stage. Shocked began a narrative about Amazon & Google’s copyright infringement and counterfeit trafficking, while the dancers offered a visual interpretation of the story. Her narrative also described how people often misinterpret the evidence of their own senses and experiences.
The next song, “Magic Thingy,” was about Wall Street’s incessant theft of intellectual property. The keyboard started a jazzy Son Cubano (a Cuban style of music which gained popularity in the 1930s) vamp, over which Shocked sang of the inherent criminality of our corporate and political leaders. After a beautiful keyboard solo by Monasterios, Pollak offered a dance, which added an interesting augmentation of the percussion parts.
Video here: https://youtu.be/Yr4VigjLwbU
Shocked and company, continued with “Nunca Jodas Con Compositores,” a song about the outdated 1909 laws about compulsory songwriting regulation. This happy, dancy Boogaloo ripped the outdated and oppressive law to shreds, as well as taking a swipe at the Music Modernization Act.
In “Yo Respecto la Musica,” Shocked stuck a knife in Spotify’s founder and CEO Daniel Elk and twisted the blade while a Yambu (a variation on Cuban rumba) filled the room. This darker mood contrasted the happy warfare Shocked and company waged before. Her vocals were rougher and more in the form of a slightly angry chant. The band responded to her half sung spoken word, as she told off the corporate heads of Spotify, their ridiculous mechanical rates, and unsustainable business model. Then the music took a turn for the brighter, as Shocked’s discourse veered toward answers to the problems she was describing.
Between songs, Shocked confessed to the audience that the set was a work in progress. The smoothness and flawless musical communication between the musicians, and Shocked’s ease as a front woman made this revelation a but of a shock (no pun intended). No one would have noticed this.
The next piece was a Changüí (a 19th century Cuban style) called “Musical Chairs.” The band vamped on a salsa groove while Shocked sang about the problems facing music with NOI’s (Notice Of Intention) with “address unknown,” filed with the Copyright Office under a loophole in the Copyright Act (Sec. 115).
Between songs, she asked if anyone in the audience ever sent a DMCA Takedown Notice to YouTube. This set the tone for “Wack-A-Mole,” a song in the guaracha style (a style of Cuban popular music dating back to the 18th century). The issue of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), torrent/P2P (Peer-to-peer) – piracy non-enforcement and how this makes musical piracy profitable was explored.
The Cuban troubadour tradition was evoked with a soft ballad serving as an incongruous vehicle for a viscous attack against those who would infringe upon the rights of musicians.
Google’s abuse of the DMCA’s Sec 115 “safe harbor & fair use” was pilloried in “Take Down, Stay Down.” Suffice it to say that I truly pity anyone who pisses this woman off.
The final song, “Artists’s Rights Now” was prefaced by a declaration that she is hesitant to release her own music, because as soon as it’s made public, it will be stolen by the powers that be. The song, performed in compares style, dealt with the C.A.S.E. Act (Copyright Alternative Small-Case Enforcement Act) which allows for small claims remedies for monopsony abuse. The audience was asked to join in a simple dance step (which few actually participated in, and fewer got right).
Michelle Shocked shared a piece from a poem by Emily Dickinson, and told the audience that they have more power than they realize. She said that we are spiritual beings, and the technology that is misused to oppress all of us does not define us. After urging the audience to fight the good fight, she turned the stage over to the band, and made a graceful exit. They left us with a jam that was impossible not to dance to.
The band was magnificent. Each musician held his own beautifully, and played the music as if they’d been with Shocked for years.
Michelle Shocked held a notebook in her hand the whole time, often reading or singing from it. Her whole persona was that of a poet / activist of the leftist school of artistry for whom music and performance art is a vehicle for her artistic and political ideas and activism. Yet she did not give the impression of lecturing or proselytizing. It’s clear that, to Shocked, political and artistic activism were synonymous with joy and partying; the revolution must have lots of dancing.
At the core of it all, is a woman in a business in which women have it tough even when they play by “their” rules. Yet her heart is unquestionably filled with a sincere desire to live a good life, help others to accomplish the same. This, and an instinctual drive to stand with courage and consistency against the lies, corruption, and hypocrisy of the time and place we live in. Shocked is, reportedly, a Christian, and clearly embodies the finest qualities of the Christian tradition and spirituality. 33 years into her career, Shocked has walked the walk, fought the good fight, and never sold her soul in the process.