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Keep your hand on the plough, hold on


Stateside With Rosalea: Keep your hand on the plough, hold on

By Rosalea Barker

On Sunday night I went to the second annual musical tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr at the First Congregational Church of Oakland: 'In the name of love'. I kind of missed the point... I got really, really angry, and the whole event was about peace and love. What made me angry was watching the first artists, a group of young jazz instrumentalists, perform and thinking: music is everything that war is not.

It wasn't even an original thought. It had been said by a musician in the Iraqi national orchestra in a network news or current affairs item here several weeks ago. Perhaps the reporter thought the culturati in the US would be so outraged at seeing a national orchestra having to play seated in plastic patio chairs that they would throw their weight in behind Bush's war plans, no further questions asked.

Or perhaps the reporter was trying to show that Iraqis are human too, unlike the Saracens - the enemies of the medieval crusades - who were reputed to have one large foot that they put over their heads for shade when resting during the day, and two large ears that they wrapped around themselves at night to keep warm.

The first rule of combat for crusading kings touting a war, of course, is to make out that your opponent is in some incomprehensible way totally terrifying, ferocious, and too numerous to be counted. Failing numerous, too commonplace to be noticed while hiding in your midst just waiting to strike is a damned good substitute. If your opponent amuses himself by chopping the heads off goats and batting them around a polo field and declares that Jews are born of apes mating with pigs, then that's even better. (A photo of the former was on the AP wires last week; and a month or so ago, Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network, declared the latter to be what Muslims believe.)

Did I mention that in medieval literature Saracens were black? Really, really black. Which, like, obviously meant they were in collusion with the devil and therefore enemies of God, so that killing them was considered totally legitimate. Now, where was I? Oh, the concert in honour of Martin Luther King Jr. But before that, after Saturday's march in San Francisco, I was in a brand new supermarket in a brand new shopping mall, and Pacifica Radio was playing a scratchy vinyl recording of MLK's speech on August 28th 1963 in Washington.

"The negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a great ocean of prosperity," he said, and I heard it in my earbuds in the household cleaners aisle, where a very well-dressed African American couple and toddler were shopping too. "Excuse me," I said, as I accidentally cut in front of the father with my trolley. "No, no," he replied graciously, "You had the right of way."

So, is everything better now? We're all equal, right, and everyone who is a citizen and wants it, has a vote, and all that stuff? We know that's not so, and while we're at it, where were the half a million people who should have been demonstrating in Florida in November 2000 when it was shown that many blacks weren't allowed to vote when they had a legal right to? Maybe Bush wouldn't even be president if it hadn't just been his supporters that were demonstrating at that time.

And maybe what we need a war on is poverty, poor healthcare, hunger, right here in the U.S. of A. Because actually there was another reason I was angry looking at those jazz instrumentalists. The Oaktown Jazz Workshops from which they came is a non-profit organisation that "takes young musicians 12 to 18 years old after school, and develops their skills in the jazz idiom." They were so damned good, but you just knew that they'll end up fighting in a war instead of playing music. And that when there's money for war, there's none for music in schools.

Or they'll be sent to an army of occupation, a thought that really made me spitting mad. If you look at the tape of Dick Cheney at the Republican National Convention in 2000 saying in his grandfatherly way that his team would bring home all the U.S. military from all around the world, where they're being used to police peace, and hear the chanting "Bring them home! Bring them home!" you get a sense of the betrayal these guys have heaped upon the Republican Party, by having plans for an army of occupation in Iraq all along.

It was a blessing that the Oakland Youth Chorus came on stage then and sang the sweetest song asking God to "lay your peace on my heart." And the youth of Oakland certainly need peace in their world. Far too many of them are being killed in drug gang turf wars. And the lack of social justice means a lack of jobs and opportunities for those who don't want to resort to crime to survive. But hey! that just means they're being called up for the draft - the unequal opportunity draft that sends poor kids off to war instead of rich ones with the opportunity to do something else.

After interval, a group of second graders (7 years old) did a rap saying "If we believe it, we can achieve it", and then the Oakland Jazz Choir, which had organised this evening, presented vocal arrangements of jazz classics 'Afro Blue' by Oscar Brown, 'La plus belle Africaine', and 'Come Sunday' by Duke Ellington, and an Anita Kerr-style rendition of Lennon and McCartney's 'We Can Work it Out'. 'La plus belle Africaine' is an instrumental, so it was adapted for voices and had the lyrics of Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' woven into it.

The final performances were by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, who dress in robes of purple and green with gold trim across the chest and at the bottom of sleeves - a bit like if the crew on 'Star Trek' went through a Liberace meteor shower. According to the programme notes, the 55 vocalists are "united in their love of gospel music with its message of hope, joy, unity and justice," and I can tell you the joint was jumpin' by the end of the evening's entertainment. "This is Old Church music," yelled the director, "Get up and party and dance with us."

Yes, music is everything that war is not.


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