Charlie Haden, Pepe Guerra, El Salvador, and My Mistake

A musician in Berlin, Nicholas Bussman, is collecting revolutionary songs from throughout history, and asked if I would help him out by pointing him to songs from the Central American revolutions of the 1980s.

I had not thought much about those songs since those days of revolution, which were long before YouTube and Google. In Nicaragua, where the revolutionary movement had triumphed, the singers and songwriters of the left could release records. But in El Salvador in the 1980s, the movement was underground and the repression against it horrendous. Songs were shared by unmarked cassettes or simply by singing and playing them.

So it was interesting to revisit all of that in the age of the internet.

El Salvador is not known for its music. Its indigenous culture was destroyed in the massacre that followed an uprising in 1932, and the landowners who ruled the country thereafter did their best to ensure that the only thing that replaced it was hard labor. So El Salvador’s contributions to the revolutionary songbook are modest. But this is the age of google, and even the modest songs of the poor people’s movement of El Salvador are readily available.  Here is one of the best, by Yolocamba Ita.

But as I googled around, I was perplexed by the absence of information concerning The Ballad of the Fallen. This was a beautiful, beautiful song from the Salvadoran civil war. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of it even now.

To understand my feelings about this song, check out the funeral scene at the end of  the early-1980s documentary El Salvador: Revolution or Death (beginning at about 41:00). That scene was repeated again and again, hundreds and thousands of times, all over El Salvador during war. It was enough to make a young man like myself abandon a career in music to support the poor of El Salvador.

That film is a story in itself. It was made by a Dutch film crew. The Salvadoran army did not like it at all. A few years later, when I was working in El Salvador, the film makers returned to El Salvador to make another movie and were machine-gunned to death by soldiers on a city street in the capitol in full daylight.

The early 1980s were not only before YouTube, but before affordable and portable video tape. My first job working with the Salvadoran movement was to raise the money to make a 16mm copy of that film, and my next job was to take my copy around and show it to church groups and schools  until the copy fell to pieces and I raised the money for another copy. I showed that film so many times that even today, more than 30 years later, I can recite most of the narration verbatim. The film always ended with that haunting song.

In 1981 Charlie Haden came by the NYC offices of the Salvadoran revolutionary movement, where I was working at the time. Haden was a major figure in jazz, a virtuoso bass player who had been part of the fabled Ornette Coleman Quartet. He had made a record in 1969 with Carla Bley called The Liberation Music Orchestra and featured songs of the Spanish civil war. Haden wanted to make a follow-up album, featuring songs of contemporary liberation movements.

I gave him a collection of revolutionary songs from Central America. This was before CDs and personal computers. I made him a cassette of songs that I dubbed from other cassettes. That was how revolutionary songs were circulated in those days: by hand-dubbed unmarked cassettes.

I urged him to take special notice of The Ballad of the Fallen, which was so beautiful and so particular to that moment, when thousands of Salvadorans were being murdered by death squads, and the revolutionary movement, which until then was largely a civilian movement of unions and campesino co-ops backed by small guerrilla units, had no choice but to flee the cities for the mountains and completely militarize. I loved that song so much, I had asked a Salvadoran friend who occasionally sang at political events to record a cassette version in my apartment. All I knew about the song was that the Salvadoran compañeros sang it at funerals, and they called it The Ballad of the Fallen (El Corrido de los Caídos), and no one knew who wrote it.

Haden made the song into the title track of his album, The Ballad of the Fallen. The album was voted Jazz Album of the Year in Down Beat magazine’s 1984 critic’s poll. Haden and Bley placed first in that poll’s Acoustic Bass and Composer categories, respectively.

Haden was kind enough to thank me in the liner notes, which I appreciated. I had left music to help out however I could in the effort to overthrow the Salvadoran dictatorship, and the credit made me feel like I still had some sort of connection to the music world, however tiny or remote.

Googling “The Ballad of the Fallen” today, I found many links to Charlie Haden, “The Ballad of the Fallen” record, and videos of The Liberation Music Orchestra’s live performances of the song.  There were even  various other groups doing covers of Haden and Bley’s version of “The Ballad of the Fallen.” Here and here, for example. Haden’s album and the song still resonate today, as reflected in this 2017 blog post.

But I was perplexed that in all my googling, the only links to “The Ballad of the Fallen” were Charlie Haden’s music and the covers. What happened to the Salvadorans and the original? I tried using various Spanish translations of the title: “Corrido a los Caidos;” “Canción para los Caidos;” and so on. All the searches yielded nothing.

Even after all these years, I remembered the lyrics, so I tried googling those.  I found a Facebook group called “Vientos del Pueblo” who posted the lyrics to the entire song, which they listed as “Milonga del Fusilado” /Autor Anónimo (The Song of the Executed / Author Anonymous).

So I googled “Milonga del Fusilado.” Bingo. The song I had known for years as an anonymous Salvadoran folk song titled “The Ballad of the Fallen,” and recorded by Charlie Haden as such, is actually titled “Milonga del Fusilado,” and was co-written by the celebrated Uruguyan journalist Carlos Maria Gutierrez and Uruguayan musician José Luis Guerra,  known popularly as Pepe Guerra. Guerra’s group, Los Olimareños, recorded the song in 1972. A milonga is song form from Argentina and Uruguay. Fusilado could be loosely translated as “fallen,” though it literally means executed.

At this time when “fake news” and malicious disinformation spread via the internet have cast such a dark cloud over culture and politics, it is nice to discover that, at least sometimes, one can use the internet to finally sort out confusions and falsehoods which date from a pre-internet era of unmarked cassettes and clandestine movements.

Carlos Maria Gutierrez died in 1997, Charlie Haden in 2014. Carla Bley and José Luis Guerra are still very much with us and playing music. I will now set about contacting Pepe Guerra, to let him know of a record, and a large group of fans, that I suspect he does not know he has.

Milonga del Fusilado by Carlos Maria Gutierrez  and José Luis Guerra

No me pregunten quién soy
ni si me habían conocido
los sueños que había querido
crecerán aunque no estoy.

Ya no vivo pero voy
en lo que andaba soñando
y otros que siguen peleando
harán nacer otras rosas
en el nombre de esas cosas
todos me estarán nombrando.

No me recuerden la cara
que fue mi cara de guerra
mientras hubiera en mi tierra
necesidad de que odiara.

En el cielo que ya aclara
sabrán cómo era mi frente
me escucho reír poca gente
pero mi risa ignorada
la hallarán en la alborada
del día que se presiente.

No me recuerden mi edad
tengo los años de todos
elegí entre muchos modos
ser más viejo que mi edad.

Y mis años de verdad
son los tiros que he tirado
nazco en cada fusilado
y aunque el cuerpo se muera
tendré la edad verdadera
del niño que he liberado.

Mi tumba no andan buscando
porque no la encontrara
mis manos son los que van
en otros manos peleando.

Mi voz, la que está gritando
mi sueño, el que sigue entero
y sepan que sólo muero
si ustedes van aflojando
porque el que murió peleando
vive en cada compañero

English translation by Bob Ostertag

Don’t ask who I am
Or if you knew me
The dreams I held dear
Continue without me.

My life is finished but I carry on
in those who still dream
and  struggle.
They will grow new flowers 
And in the name of those
I too will be named.

Don’t remember my face 
That was my war face
While in my land
We could only show faces of hate.

In heaven where all becomes clear
You will know my true face.
Few people heard me laugh
But you will hear my unused laughter
In the dawn
Of the new day.

Don’t remember my age
I was as old as all of you
In so many ways, I chose
To be older than my years.

My real age can be counted   
Is the number of shots I fired
I am born anew in each new volley

And though my body died
My true age will be the age
of the child I liberate.

Don’t go looking for my grave 
You won’t find it
You will find my hands
in the hands of those continuing the struggle. 

My voice is the voice that is shouting
My dream continues 
And know that I only die 
When you give up
For those that die fighting 
Live on in each comrade.





Thanks to Hank

With some reluctance, I should say that my next big project will be a documentary movie about the life of Hank Wilson.

I usually don’t speak of my projects until they are done, but most of my projects have required no money. This has been fundamental for me: make art that costs no money. The large majority of my music CDs were produced with a budget of zero dollars. If you can make your art for nothing, you are free of the obligation to sell it.

But movies cost money, and even if we make this movie using every possible community resource, and cutting every possible corner, it will still require more money than the production cost of all of my two dozen CDs added together. So I have to raise money. So I have to talk about it.

Hank Wilson was a kind of a gay saint. I know that sounds ridiculous but there is truth to it. He founded many of the queer organizations that populate today’s LGBT landscape in San Francisco. He organized the first gay film festival and the first gay cabaret, the first gay liberation organization and the first AIDS activist groups. But even though his contributions to queer culture and politics were second to none, he spent most of his life serving the homeless. For 20 years he ran a 150-room SRO hotel for the indigent, with an all-queer staff and no budget, making it pay for itself yet providing services beyond those provided by funded organizations. When AIDS arrived he turned an entire floor of the hotel into an AIDS hospice for the indigent. He was also my dear friend, my mentor, and briefly my lover.

He was also beyond modest: a big talent and a small ego. Very few people know of his work. In this era when most queer activism has mostly focused getting stuff for “us” (the right for us to marry, for us to serve in the imperial army, for us to get access to medical care we think we need), I profoundly miss his commitment to a much broader vision of justice, but always from a gay perspective. This is what I would like to share through this movie.

I have never made a movie, but I am going to make this one. I have partnered with Joan Grossman, a wonderful film maker I am looking forward to working with. And we are bringing in Leo Herrera, a young gay film of enormous talent.

And yes, we need money, and are accepting donations, no matter how big or small. We have a a Facebook group for those who want to follow the progress of the film  here,  and web site for the film where you can give us money here. If you are an American citizen, your donation will be tax-deductible through the fiscal sponsorship of the GLBT Historical Society.

To learn more about Hank, here is the Hank Wilson obituary I wrote on The Huffington Post. 

Thank you.



My new hero

Rebecca Ferguson is my new hero.

I’ve been asked and this is my answer. If you allow me to sing “strange fruit” a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington. Best Rebecca

Brilliant! Way better than saying no. THANK YOU.


Christopher Williams, an American musician and scholar living in Berlin, just completed his PhD dissertation, which is actually a website:

Tactile Paths: on and through notation for improvisers

Tactile Paths is a native website — filled with music, scores, videos, and other tidbits in addition to plenty of text about the interface of notation and improvisation in contemporary and experimental music. It features sounds and thoughts around Richard Barrett, Cornelius Cardew, Malcolm Goldstein, Lawrence Halprin, Bob Ostertag, Ben Patterson, and myself.

There is a large section on my Say No More project, which includes audio, images, scores, and Christopher’s writing. There is no other place on the web where all of these elements are put together like this.



New Music Release: Wish You Were Here: World Tour 2015-2016

Pleased to announce the release of music from my a-year-a-month-and-a-day world tour from March 2015 through April 2016.

Like most of my recent releases, this is download only, pay what you like, no minimum.

The music is played an the Aalto virtual modular synthesizer by Randy Jones and Madrona Labs. But unlike my previous release, Bob Ostertag Plays the Aalto, in which I left the synthesizer in various states and simply let it run, in this new music I play the synthesizer quite actively using a standard gamepad.  I use the Max programming environment to create what might be called virtual topographies of the synthesizer through which I can explore and wander with the buttons and joysticks.

With the development of this instrument, I feel like  I have finally found a way to play a modular synthesizer in a manner both musical and constantly surprising, something I have been dreaming of since I first began playing modular synths in the mid-1970s.

The recording includes parts of concerts in Malang and Surabaya (Indonesia), Lima (Peru), Montevideo (Uruguay), Beirut (Lebanon) and New York City.

Thirteen months on the road took me to the US, western and eastern Europe, the Middle East, China and Taiwan, Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, and Mexico. My travels relied on the support of many wonderful people, far too many to thank here by name. Here, for all of you, is an entirely insufficient THANK YOU.

The beautiful cover art is by Rutger Zuydervelt.

Don Buchla, my friend

How strange. My previous blog post was about a private concert I performed for Don Buchla. My post today is about his death. But then, no one I have ever met was more comfortable with life’s strangeness than Don.

I first encountered a Buchla synthesizer at the Oberlin Conservatory in the 1970s. In a way, I could say that encounter reset the course of my entire musical life. The Oberlin studio also had a Putney synth and a very large modular Moog. None of us students cared about the Moog. It sat untouched. The Buchla was where it was at.

Over the years, the pop-quiz version of the difference between a Moog and a Buchla got reduced to the idea of a keyboard: the Moog had one, the Buchla did not. But there was so much more to it than that. Moog essentially built an electronic pipe organ, with knobs instead of stops. Don built a cybernetic instrument, in which the human musician was invited to intervene in automated processes in a very open-ended and creative way.

It sounds like hyperbole to say that Don’s instrument marked something fundamentally new in the history of music, but it is close to true. (To tell the whole story, we would have to include Bebe and Luis Barron, and Raymond Scott.)

Karlheinz Stockhausen, in his characteristically pompous way, used to talk of his dream of a music of “total serialism,” in which the same serial processes would be applied to pitch, time, dynamics, and timbre. Don Buchla built a device which made the realization of exactly this idea fun and intuitive.

Don’s instruments were not cheap, far out of reach for an undergrad. So I built a Serge synthesizer, a build-it-yourself synth designed by Serge Tcherepnin to be the “poor person’s Buchla.” I dropped out of Oberlin and took my new Serge on tour with Anthony Braxton, and then settled in NYC playing my Serge in the downtown music scene of 1970s New York.

Fast forward a decade and a half and I arrived at my new home in San Francisco around the time that Don released his Lightening wands, a sort of Wii controller for music, years before Nintendo came up with it. I went over to buy one and meet my hero and inspiration.

The man I found was like no one I had ever met. He hardly spoke. You could ask him the most convoluted questions and get one word answers. Gruff, I think, is the correct word. I came away from the encounter thinking this was a guy who could make you feel intellectually inferior simply by stating the time of day. Thus began a close friendship of many years with one of the most unusual people I have ever known.

Once you got to know him, you learned that what initially came across as Don’s gruff exterior  was simply the exterior reflection of the way his mind worked. I am convinced that a big part of Don’s genius was his unique economy of thought. Don’s manner of thinking always cut to the chase. It didn’t matter if you were talking about circuit design, history, music, personal relationships, or anything else. His thought process was free of clutter. It wasn’t that he was talking down to you or demeaning you, it was just that he had no interest in all the clutter: yours, his, or anyone else’s. He was just trying to move things along.

Once you “got” that, Don became the most delightful friend anyone could have. He was interested in everything, and always with a unique spin. You could have the most wide-ranging conversations with him. I remember wonderful dinners with Don, his wife Anne-Marie Bonnel, and friends. Don would say one word to everyone else’s two hundred, yet be a full participant in the conversation.

I think of Don as being exceptionally funny. I am not sure many others share that assessment. How can you be funny when you speak so little? Well, when you really thought about his one-word answers, and worked your way backwards through Don’s thought process, it would dawn on you how acutely aware he was of the humor in the situation – any situation. Don’s humor  wasn’t all laid out for you, or served up like desert. He never told a joke. He didn’t really care if you even got it. But it was there for you if you wanted it. And when your reply indicated that you had found the same humor he had found, his eyes would twinkle and he would crack a wry smile.

His humor was like the ideas in his instruments: there for you if you took the time and effort to find it. He was not about to “sell” you on his humor, his instruments, his ideas, or anything else.

Take, for example, the “manual” for his last modular synthesis system, the Buchla 200e. This is an extremely sophisticated and complex system. The complete manual, including complete descriptions of every possible module you could order, plus caveats about “not taking it into your hot tub,” totals 65 pages. For comparison, the manual for Apple’s music composition software, Logic Pro, weighs in at 1342 pages. The entire description of one of the 200e’s most complex modules, the Arbitrary Function Generator, comes to a grand total of two and a half pages.  He does, however, tell you how to turn the synthesizer on, adding that, “A bunch of LED’s should light up, indicating success in this portion of the endeavor.” Ha! Beyond that, there is absolutely no instruction as to how you might use the instrument. That was for you to figure out. Don’s point wasn’t to make it hard, but rather not to preclude any possibilities.

Some of my students struggle with that. “In order to figure this out you would need a degree in electrical engineering,” one complained to me. Not true, I replied. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. All you need to need to learn to use a Buchla is curiosity and a lot of time with no distractions. Not really the norm in the age of applications with built-in mouse-over help bots.

I could go on and on. Who else in the world had a high-level security clearance from NASA while giving away 10,000 hits of LSD at the Trips Festival (the first rave) of which he as a co-organizer? He was a close friend yet I am sure there are layers and layers, stories and stories of which I am unaware. I just learned today of his work as a teenage smoke-jumper. There are many obituaries out there now to google, but I am absolutely certain none really has a complete picture.

There is no way to end this blog. But at some point I must stop. Here is as good a place as any.

So I will stop.

Goodbye Don. I hate saying goodbye to you, but it was your time. See you in some other dimension.



(My CD played entirely on the 200e is here.)

(Rrose’s remix of that CD is here.)

(A CD with a track played on the old Buchla synth at the Oberlin Conservatory in the 1970s is here.)

(Rrose’s remix of that track is here.)


With Don Buchla and his partner Nannick