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After Donald Trump was elected president, Marc Ribot sat down and cried. “That was my first reaction,” the guitarist said in his Brooklyn apartment in April, just days after Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House.
“When I was done crying,” Ribot said, “I called my friends and people who were politically involved to figure out what the hell we should do. There was a lot of disagreement, which confused me. Since Trump represents a serious threat of fascism, I thought it was a no-brainer: When faced with this, you adopt a ‘popular front’ approach, in which you unite. That’s what worked last time around, when fascists were defeated.”
As a forceful bandleader and first-call collaborator within New York’s creative-music community, and as a distinctive sideman to pop’s most inventive stars, Ribot spans enough styles and scenes to suggest broad coalitions, aesthetically speaking. His resume includes work with Elvis Costello, Caetano Veloso and McCoy Tyner. His playing helped define the gorgeous weirdness of Tom Waits’ 1985 album Rain Dogs; his Spiritual Unity band of a decade ago helped rekindle the career of bassist Henry Grimes, not to mention the legacy of free-jazz hero Albert Ayler.
Ribot is a born activist. “I guess my first political campaign was in second grade, when they canceled the Soupy Sales show on TV,” he said. “I led a protest march in my elementary school.” More recently, Ribot has worked to support environmental groups and to protect voting rights. In 2007, when New York’s downtown venues for experimental music were closing due to rising rents, he was front-and-center at a City Hall protest, imploring the city council to create sustainable contexts for its signature cultural communities. When Internet downloads and online streaming threatened to cut creative artists out of revenue streams, he helped found and lead the Content Creators Coalition.
Yet in 2011, when Ribot brought his guitar to an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Lower Manhattan, he felt frustrated. “It was the kind of situation where people really needed a song,” he said. “I knew these songs from the Civil Rights movement. I tried singing those. Nobody knew them. Some people started that Tom Petty song — ‘And we won’t back down’ — but that didn’t feel right either. There just wasn’t a common knowledge or repertoire.” That frustration grew when he played a benefit connected to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., timed to Trump’s inaugural. “I simply didn’t know what to play,” he said. The march itself was inspiring, yet something felt off. “People would chant these one-liners,” he said. “And it bugged me. There was a palpable need for people to sing something. I felt like the lack of common songs was an analog to this problem of the lack of a popular front.”
[caption id="attachment_14951" align="alignleft" width="300"] “What I’m trying to say is that I think people need to prioritize getting rid of people who are threats to democracy.”[/caption]
Ribot resolved to curate and write a bunch of tunes that could be used now, as music of the popular front he envisioned. “I included a couple of Italian songs, in reference to the anti-fascism of World War II, because those were successful politics relevant to our time involving coalitions of groups who had very different points of view. What I’m trying to say is that I think people need to prioritize getting rid of people who are threats to democracy.” He came up with Goodbye Beautiful: Songs of Resistance, 1942-2018 (Anti- Records), an album that is both an accessible musical triumph and his clearest mission statement to date. Some of the songs were plucked from the past — from World War II anti-fascist Italian partisans, from Civil Rights Movement pioneers, from Mexican protest balladeers — and rendered in reimagined forms. A couple of his original songs, though recently composed, sounded like they’ve been around for ages.
Ribot assembled an impressive army of musicians for the album. With his gravelly gravitas, Tom Waits sounds very much like an Italian partigiano on the World War II-era song “Bella Ciao (Goodbye Beautiful),” here played more as mournful ballad than strident anthem. Meshell Ndegeocello sings in pure and radiant tones on “The Militant Ecologist,” a reworked Italian Resistance song in which Ribot cast the hero as now female and the red flag as green, for environmental conscience. That song touches a particular nerve for him. His brother, Jesse, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his environmental studies. “So I have been blessed and cursed with a brother who actually understands the science of climate change,” Ribot said. “What struck me particularly hard about the Trump administration is the cancellation of the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement because it means that the world may become uninhabitable during my daughter’s lifetime. Beyond the shame and the insult to reason, this is a crime against humanity. So in that song, I draw a parallel between the seriousness of the struggle faced by an Italian Resistance fighter in WWII and the seriousness of the battle for environment right now.”
On an original song, “Srinivas,” Steve Earle’s vocal sounds earnestly matter-of-fact and utterly fed up. The ballad is ripped from headlines about a Sikh immigrant murdered last year by a racist who mistook him for a Muslim, and it contains Ribot’s lyric, “A madman pulled the trigger/Donald Trump loaded the gun.” Earle erased the killer’s name from the lyrics, Ribot said. “He told me, ‘That guy’s just some idiot who will wake up in prison saying, ‘What the hell did I do?’” Ribot updates the hymn “We Are Soldiers in the Army,” which was popularized in the 1960s as a social-justice anthem, aided by the soulful cries and unbound feel of two New York City cohorts, singer Fay Victor and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. Overall, the album is infused with Ribot’s angst about this political moment, his brilliance on both acoustic and electric guitars, and his penchant for precise research. One original, “The Big Fool,” moves from insistent acoustic strumming to waves of plugged-in fury; the footnotes to its lyrics cite, among other things, Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and the “The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.”
The album sounds complete. Yet, like all good political movements, Ribot’s songs of resistance have evolved through a campaign, delivering what’s needed for each community in each moment. Hunkered down over his guitar at the The Stone in Manhattan’s East Village in 2017, roughly a year after Trump was elected, Ribot seemed less like he was playing a gig than stirring up some nascent political underground. Leading a quartet, his music was alternately rough and pretty, sung or snarled. It carried a clear message: Donald Trump means trouble, this cannot stand. In January, around the time Trump tweeted that his “nuclear button” was much larger than that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Ribot played these songs again, at New York’s Winter Jazzfest. He meant to shake up the usual festival vibe, and did. By April, shortly after Trump’s travel ban was rebuked by a federal judge citing an unconstitutional religious objective, Ribot was deconstructing his repertoire, turning it into a poetry-meets-free-jazz rant with a quartet at Brooklyn’s Bar Lunatico. And at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem in September, within my own “Jazz and Social Justice Series,” Ribot sang these songs himself, with saxophonist Jay Rodriguez and percussionist Reinaldo DeJesus lending wildly abstract asides to some and Afro-Latin-infused feeling to others.
That night, Ribot talked about what a protest song can do and how even wordless improvisation can be a political act. Then he leaned into the microphone and explained about why Donald Trump and his enablers must be run out of office. “This time around,” he said, “there’s no such thing as not voting.” - Larry Blumenfeld
Feature photo by Ebru Yildiz