Famous anarchist Emma Goldman never actually said "If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution". Her actual response to be being criticized for dancing and having a good time, was "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, and everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Somehow her sentiment was paraphrased by a printer into her most famous "quote" when creating an Emma Goldman t-shirt in 1973. While the modern version is definitely snappier, and fits better on a t-shirt, it doesn't really do justice to the sentiment she was originally expressing.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, when textile workers went on strike to improve their lot, the slogan "Bread & Roses" came to symbolize their desire not only for better working conditions and decent wages but an improvement in the quality of their lives. There is more to human existence than simply the drudgery of work and the struggle for survival. Emma wasn't just saying that she wanted the right to party and have a good time, she was saying that social movements had to fight to liberate not just the bodies of the people they represented, but their minds and spirits as well.
When Goldman said she did not think that "a cause believing in the release and freedom from conventions and prejudice should demand denial of life and joy", and that she wanted nothing to do with it if it meant living like a nun or in a cloister, she was unfortunately expressing a minority opinion. Since her death in 1940 I doubt there has been anybody in a leadership position on any side of the political fence who has considered quality of life, freedom of expression, or beauty, as worthy even of mention, let alone worth fighting for.
Even those you'd expect, or hope, to express such sentiments, have for the most part stuck to politics. The majority of musicians, who could so easily bring beauty and joy into people's lives, with either their sound or their message, have taken to being either preachers or purveyors of mindless and thought-destroying noise. English ska bands the English Beat and the Specials of the early 1980s were exceptions. The infectious joy of their music made it impossible to resist dancing, while their lyrics spoke of resistance to the spread of social conservatism and appealed for racial tolerance.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that the first band I've heard since those days that's able to recreate that same spirit, has its roots in ska music. Babylon Circus' disc Dances Of Resistance, due for release at the end of this month on the Mr. Bongo label, is 17 (18 with the hidden ghost track) songs of the wildest, most exuberant, make you glad-to-be-alive music that I've heard in a long time. Not only have these nine guys from France got something to say about the state of the world, they say it in a manner that brings you to your feet from joie de vivre.
While there is no denying the reggae and ska influences in their music, there's another flavour that comes through loud and clear as well. The sound of the Balkans can be heard in the way they use the brass section of the band. Anyone who has listened to any of the gypsy brass bands from Romania will recognize their influence on Babylon Circus. While the idea of mixing the deep bass groove of reggae with the express train of a gypsy brass band might sound odd to some, the effect has to be heard to be believed.
Not only are they musically exciting but their lyrics, at least the ones in English that I could understand, are compelling and intelligent. The first song on the disc, "Contra La Guerra: Greva General!" (Against The War: General Greva) starts off with the sounds of the anti-war demonstration in Spain that brought two million people into the streets to protest the war in Iraq. At the onset of the current Gulf War, a conservative government in Spain had supplied troops as part of the occupying force against the express wishes of the people. It was demonstrations like this one that ensured that government lost the next election and the new government brought the Spanish troops home.
No matter how much the American administration wanted to bluster about Spain giving in to terrorists, the truth of the matter was that the people of Spain were against the war from the start, as was proven by demonstrations of that size. Celebrating that demonstration in song is a celebration of the power a population can have for positive change when they come together and speak with one voice. By incorporating the sound of the people at the demonstration chanting the words of the title into the song, the band manages to capture the spirit of the event and transmit it to the listener. They've done such an effective job that it's impossible not to be caught up in the moment. If you close your eyes while listening, you can almost believe that you are there in amongst the people.
The music of Dances Of Resistance isn't just about the big events in the world. There're songs about our individual struggles as well. "J'aurais bien voulu" ( "I Would Have Liked") is about a man's regrets and desperation from what must be unrequited love. "My Friend" is a driving guitar song in honour of friendship, and what that can truly mean. In some ways it raises questions about the nature of friendship because the music is so frenetic, but at the same time it avows that "this song is for you because you are such a good man". (At least as near as I can tell because sometimes it is hard to understand the vocalist's English. When he gets excited his accent becomes very thick and I lost the occasional word).
The title song, "Dances Of Resistance" is pure reggae and is a call to arms to stand up and "get out of control" because "Dances of Resistance give justice a chance", and "turns the balance". It blends into the first track, "Contra La Guerra", so that the demonstration becomes part of the "Dance Of Resistance". In fact, the first four songs of the disc pretty much blend into each other, as the band careens from song to song. It is very much like watching a three ring circus, what with the variety of entertainment, and the ongoing display of talent. That might not be what the name of the group refers to, but it sure feels appropriate in that moment.
More than anything else, though, Babylon Circus makes you feel alive and encourages you to understand and appreciate being human as much you possibly can. They sing about the world, and they sing about individuals, and in some ways they are a call to arms. The battle they want you to fight doesn't involve guns, or hurting anybody though. It's a call to wake up and live.
Emma Goldman may not have said "If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution" but I'm betting she would have been the first on the floor for Dances Of Resistance. This is a CD of great music, and a timely reminder that being political doesn't mean forgetting what it's like to be human. In fact, remembering what it means to be human is probably the best "Dance Of Resistance" we have at our disposal.