This year the usual musical madness of South by Southwest (SXSW) also included a hefty and refreshing dose of political awareness, in what some might consider a return to its roots. Thirty-one years ago, the fest had been born in the Texas capital as a relatively small event with the purpose of presenting independent music which did not easily get the attention of mass media. This, in a city whose slogan is Keep Austin Weird.
Over time, it became a mega-festival supported by huge corporations, with the concomitant massive marketing of products as well as headaches in terms of logistics, not to mention dealing with tens of thousands of music-loving fans and other revelers. And let's not forget the endless lines at the doors of bars, clubs, auditoriums, parking lots turned into concert venues, patios, coffee shops, and even churches.
However, for me, this year’s SXSW was one of the most extraordinary, at least in terms of the eight consecutive years I’ve attended. Given the precarious political era in which we find ourselves, musicians seemed to be keenly aware of the role of art in responding to crises, especially those that threaten precisely to limit creative efforts.
Here’s a recap of just a few moments in which the music at SXSW shared a light against the darkness of these turbulent times:
The first and perhaps my most memorable SXSW night took place with a series of concerts called Contrabanned: Music Unites in which the artists all came from countries whose citizens are limited or forbidden from entering the United States thanks to the recently signed executive order. We were able to hear melodies and rhythms from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and also had the opportunity to hear the artist’s own stories and witness the emotional scars left on their psyches after periods in which their lives were tragically marked by war, terrorism and violence.
The Sudanese artist Emmanuel Jal, for example, is a former child soldier. In his concert he had all of us join in a call to our power in the music, fists raised. Farrow, two sisters from Somalia, had fled their land to Canada as children. Their rap, deployed in sweet harmonies which veered in and out of pop, included a luminous version of the Fugees’ tune “Ready or not”. Moshen Namjoo, the extraordinary singer-songwriter whom The Guardian has called “the Bob Dylan of Iran” also performed, singing and accompanying himself on the setar, a small instrument that belongs to the oud family. It was an entrancing performance; Namjoo shared with us the timeless beauty of a music that was ancestral and modern at the same time.
Another night, we braved a large crowd to see Tunde Olaniran, a Nigerian and British artist from Flint, Michigan. Olaniran has an incredibly potent voice and wrapped in a brilliant golden tunic-caftan, he was accompanied by two dancers dressed in white with geometric white designs painted on their face. Behind him, there were signs that the concert venue was a safe space - no shaming or phobic behavior of any kind would be allowed in Olaniran’s all-inclusive universe.
A large outdoor venue by Lady Bird Lake hosted another entire evening of musical resistance, a concert called All Latino Resiste presented by SXSW and featuring performances by Residente from Puerto Rico, Ozomatli from Los Angeles and Panteón Rococó from México. Residente’s rap reached a feverish pitch as he strode from side to side on the stage, and raised a sign decrying fascism. Residente was cheered as he spoke about resisting the current political climate addressing an audience that was waving flags from México, Puerto Rico, Colombia and other countries. At the end, Residente’s performance culminated with his classic song “Latinoamérica”, proclaiming, “We are a people without legs who still walk.”
Unidos: Liberty, Justic and Music for All was still another concert with explicit political intentions. At the beautiful Paramount Theatre, the evening featured amongst other artists, Gina Chávez, from Austin Texas, who as usual, gave a vital and charismatic performance. At that same concert, it was also a special treat to see Rick Treviño, superstar composer and founder of Los Super Seven. Treviño is a renowned veteran in the alt-rock-country scene, and for decades has composed songs embedded with unexpectedly complex messages. Treviño’s music is 100% Texan and hundred percent Mexican American, truly music born and bred in a state that was part of Mexico until the 1800’s. Treviño included songs from his new album that he dedicated to persons who are in this country undocumented, and one which proclaimed, “I’m a ‘Made in America’ Mexican”.
We also had a chance to see the world premiere of The Revolution with Pussy Riot Theatre, Pussy Riot’s new music-theatre project. The Revolution is led by Maria Alyokhina, one of the original Pussy Riot members jailed for protesting the Putin regime. The Pussy Riot Theater presented their music with an audio-visual documentary projecting behind the band, sharing anti-Putin messages and the stories of their protests and accompanying the audiovisuals at with narrative chants, in the role of a Greek chorus commenting on the events in a collective voice.
And so we lived the musical resistance at the South by Southwest Festival, encountering an unusually electric atmosphere. We felt hopeful as artists shared visions of an open, tolerant world without limits and absurd borders. And so we predict, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, that the revolution will not be televised - it will be sung.
Check out the SXSW preview and recap on Beat Latino.
A Spanish-language version of this article appeared in Revista Contratiempo.