La plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same) was first said by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849 and is often used in reference to the frequency events are repeated in history. So as the world descends into yet another period of political polarization it’s not very surprising to see people reaching back into the past for inspiration. This is the case with the newly released album For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance From The Spanish Civil War from the Brooklyn based Barbez on Important Records.
In the late 1930s a group of Spanish generals led by Francisco Franco revolted to overthrow the elected government of Spain. Openly backed with equipment and money by Italy’s Fascist government and Germany’s Nazis, the coup was far better prepared for war than their republican opponents. When it became obvious the countries of Europe were going to allow the Spanish government to be defeated, anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world travelled to Spain to fight.
Among those who volunteered were Americans who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In honour of these soldiers, and to inspire those fighting against fascism in WWll, an album of music from the Spanish Civil war was released in the 1940s, Songs From The Lincoln Brigade. It featured songs in English, Spanish, and German (there was a large contingent of anti-fascist Germans fighting in Spain) that had either been sung by troops during the war or inspired by the struggle.
Now, 80 years after the events in Spain, Barbez’s album commemorates those who fought with their renditions of songs from the original album and new recordings of other anti-fascist anthems from the same period. For those familiar with the earlier recording, these versions might take a little getting used to, as they are no longer being performed either as choral pieces or simple folk songs accompanied by guitar and banjo.
Barbez is made up of musicians who have played with everyone from David Byrne to the Philip Glass Ensemble and includes not only guitar (Dan Kaufman), drums (John Bollinger), and other instruments normally associated with contemporary music, but a theremin player (Pamelia Stickney) as well. The other major difference is the lead vocalist, Velina Brown, best known for her live theatre performances.
Her voice isn’t one you’d normally associate with ‘folk’ music as its been obviously trained for performance on the stage. However, she lends the material a power and authority which makes them the calls to arms they were meant to be. When she sings “The International” (written in 1871 by Eugene Pottier after the fall of the Paris Commune and only later co-opted by Communist Russia) it is the anthem for the working class it was supposed to be, not the symbol of oppression it became. After years of hearing it performed by orchestras or massed choirs, this multilingual version, done by a small band with a theremin led intro, reminds us of the song’s origins and who it was meant to represent.
Each of the songs on this album reminds us of a time when people of all backgrounds and political beliefs first began forming a common front against an seemingly intractable enemy. “Moorsodaten” (“Peat Bog Soldiers”) was written inside one of the earliest German concentrations camps in 1933 and sung for the troops in Spain by the great American Paul Robeson. “Song of the United Front” – which calls for a coalition of people to unite against fascism – was written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his composer Hans Eisler echoing the cry for unity of Spain’s elected government.
Brown and Barbez have done a remarkable job in taking these songs from early in the last century ( and older) and not only making them sound alive and vital, but in also making them relevant to today’s world. By singing them in French, English, German, and Spanish Brown not only reminds us of their origins, but of a time when people from all over the world were united against a common enemy.
The album was recorded live in 2016 at the annual reunion of Lincoln Brigade veterans. At two points in the album, Barbez have mixed in the voices of two of the last surviving American veterans of the war (they’ve both dead now with the last, Del Berg dying at a 100 years old last year). On the first track, “Viva la Quince Brigade” (“Long Live the 15th Brigade”) we hear Abe Osheroff explaining why he went to Spain, and then more tellingly saying: “Spain was where I learned I didn’t have to know I was going to win in order to fight. It became the main theme in my life, and that is, you resist whether you win or lose – you resist.”
Maybe this is a part of the world’s shared history some would like us to forget. How people from around the world came together to begin the long resistance against those who preached hatred, who advocated for the rights of the few, and whose power was based on the exploitation of the many. However, aside from anything else, the songs on For Those Who Came After are beautifully executed and an amazing example of how music over 80 years old can not only be relevant today, but sound just as exciting and stirring as they did when originally written.