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Peace March to the UN
by Charles Keil
Got into the city yesterday (Sept. 19th) for the peace march to the U.N. Bush was speaking and United For Peace & Justice finally got a permit for a sidewalk procession a few days before the event. The turnout was a few thousand people I'd guess, could be way off; one of those demos where the police seemed to be way out of proportion to the protest.
Standing on the corner of 40th and 6th Ave. I tried to keep a variety of clave-calls going on a piercing little Ghanaian slotted bell, hoping that another drummer or a horn player might show up, hear it, come over to join in. Older women with the War Resister's League 20 feet away didn't appreciate the piercing bell, asked me to stop or move away so I did move around; "it's not musical" said one, and of course she was right; if no one responds to the calls, the best clave rhythm in the world could be just a bad smell in a high breeze.
As I was about to give up a young trombone player came along with his horn in a box all wrapped up with bungees and on wheels -- he was on his way to a bus and just happened to be coming by. I asked him if he wanted to play in the procession and he was interested, so we went over to the side of 6th Avenue. where the procession was going by, spotted Sean the bass drummer, and then tried to recruit someone from the passing procession to pull the trombone-box along behind us. Lots of people not interested in my pitch, "hey, we could have a trombone and some music in this parade if someone will pull this box along!" Finally a woman who knew the trombone player from somewhere agreed to be a caretaker for the box and we asked two women passing by, one with a dumbek the other with a bell, to join us and off we went: 2 horns, 3 drummers, and we kept something going for the duration of the march.
I've gone into some detail about just getting started yesterday because I've been trying to get a critical mass of brass banders together in NYC for about 5 years now and it's been getting harder and harder to find horn players. Now drummers are getting scarce, on a weekday morning anyway. Let me say here that "live musicking" for peace feels to me like it is hanging by a thread, or by the sound-thread that each of us is and that can only make sense when we are woven into an ensemble. Once coalesced as a few drummers and 2 horn players we at least pleased and supported each other. But whenever we paused I couldn't hear anyone ahead of us or anyone behind us making music. No one jamming as we arrived at the UN plaza. No one came in after us making music.
A day later I wonder if I'm becoming an extinct species, or can only be kept alive indoors, in captivity; the last outdoor peacenik cornet player something like the last passenger pigeon.
The peace demo last spring was much bigger, permitted well in advance and we had two trombones, Steve and Bob, who hooked up so nicely that over a dozen percussioneers couldn't keep them in line 100% of the time. Months later I still remember a moment where they grabbed a merengue and ran with it way past the New Orleans street beat we were laying down; I was pisst for about 3 seconds and then realized that the merengue melody ran away with them, they didn't run away from us. We were all still together, 2 locked-in tromboners, a dozen locked-in drummers, just not in the same tempo-time dimension. That day I also realized that every groove has its clave, every 12/8 path has it's 3/2 or 2/3 or some African bell pattern inside it, as an implicit or explicit set of reference points for improvisors.
One other highlight from when "just two trombones led the big parade" was A. That's right, plain vanilla A 440ish. When they hit A together and held it for about eight, full, slightly overblown seconds the effect was magic big cheer from the crowd for a few seconds after each blat! Course they weren't both on 440 exactly all the time, one was @ 438 and the other @ 443, partially, for PDs, make you weak in the knees. Some kind of textural vibe of the peace tribe, if you please, caused the applause, made the JBs call for mo' peas. And they could get the same response from the crowd with a Bflat! Which proves Roswell's proverb, "One tone is worth a 1000 tomes." And it verifies the sacred "Tibetan pairs principle" of the redhat Nyingmapas or the secular "2 trumpets make a polka band principle." Two of any one horn -- 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 saxes, 2 penny whistles, 2 kazoos, 2 carhorns, 2 tubas is better than 2 different instruments because the paired horns cut thru the percussion better, create more vibe, more brightness, more penetration, more happiness, more mojo, more Particpatory Discrepancies, more shine and shimmer.
I'm hoping that the next NYC demo of any size we'll get 3 or 4 trombones out, 2 of something else, and a Saturday afternoon time and place to achieve a critical mass of drummers.