Category Archives: Politics

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.




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.

Are you serious? Julian Assange used Wikileaks to support Donald Trump, with the additional support of some unidentified secret team of very sophisticated hackers? For real?

Yes, this does seem to be real. There is an additional allegation that the hackers were based in Russia and spoke Russian, but this is not confirmed.

Bernie Supporters: YOU ARE GETTING PLAYED.

Yes, the DNC functioned as an arm of the Clinton campaign. That is how it goes: candidates work to get their people into key positions, and then work every angle. It is not fair according to the party rules, but it is the norm. It is American electoral politics as usual. Hillary is good at it, and has been putting her people into place for years. Duh.

Anyway you already knew that because Bernie had been telling you that over and over. It is great to have so many new and passionate activists. The campaign was amazing, surely one of the high point of the left in the history of the US. That means you are playing in a big league now at a time of real danger in the world. This is no time to cling to your naivety.

Looking at the Assange interview, and reading other interviews he has recently given, is actually quite scary. His position is that anyone who is not for the kind of freedom of information he espouses is his enemy. This makes Clinton an enemy. Assange says he doesn’t know what Trump’s position on Wikileaks will be, so he prefers the unknown Trump to Clinton, whom he unequivocally considers a personal enemy.

This is nowhere near any sort of notion of an institution which is about transparency and protecting whistleblowers. There is no whistleblower to protect here. No one from the DNC freaked out with guilt over the misdeeds of their superiors and gave Assange documentation of it. Nor was there anything to blow a whistle on, other than the ugly everyday face of electoral politics.

The polls now show Trump ahead, and the bump that put him ahead was timed with Assange’s carefully orchestrated roll-out of the stolen emails.

The amount of power Assange wields is breathtaking. And the amount of power he thinks he should wield is even bigger. He is the nightmare combination of the extreme ego and extremist libertarianism of the digital elite, intervening in world events as a major player accountable to no one … in support of Donald Trump.

If it is true that the hackers were Russian, or even more explosively tied to Putin, that would make a trio of Trump-Putin-Assange vs. Clinton. But the Russian connection is an allegation at this point. The allegation that somehow “the Russians” did this adds to other recent allegations about Trump’s connections to Putin which as far as I can tell have been verified.

We are wading into very murky waters here. Global brinksmanship. Sabers are rattling. Blocks are shifting and forming. Is England in Europe or out? Will the US defend Europe from Russia or not?

Putin in Russia. Xi in China. And Trump up in the polls in the US.


Lonely and Scary Times for Sexual Diversity in Indonesia

A recent New York Times editorial decried new laws against nongovernmental organizations that promote human rights and democracy in China, India, Egypt and elsewhere. In China, the new law comes as part of a broader package of restrictions which have essentially shut down the vibrant experimental music scene which I visited and performed in last October. The venues at the center of the scene just a short while ago are now closed. The organizer of my tour has decided that the current political climate makes it impossible for him to book shows. There is no question in the minds of young Chinese musicians that even though this law deals specifically with NGOs, it targets social freedoms of all kinds, like the freedom to make music.

After China I went to Indonesia, where the state soon launched an orchestrated and vicious campaign of homophobia.The Vice President instructed the United Nations Development Program to cut funding to LGBT-rights education programs. TV and radio programs that portray queer lives as “normal” were banned. There were calls for LGBT people to be barred from employment, from university, and even killed. The Minister of Defense called the LGBT community “a form of proxy war” more dangerous than nuclear warfare. And so on.

This campaign is the Indonesian manifestation of the same drive to control civil society that led to the laws in China and elsewhere decried by the New York Times. Indonesia has used not laws but state-incited violence to maintain their desired level of social control. The current campaign against the queer community falls squarely within this tradition.

Queers in Indonesia have a rational basis for fearing for their lives. In the recent past, similar state-run efforts to incite violence erupted into mass violence against religious and ethnic minorities in which thousands were killed. And it was only fifty years ago that a military government directed a wave of mass murder that killed somewhere between five hundred thousand and two million people. So things like making hiding places and evacuation plans are on the to-do list of queer Indonesian activists.

Sadly, none of the musicians and artists I met in Indonesia felt any sense of connection to the plight of their queer compatriots. To the contrary, musicians would repeat the talking points of the homophobia campaign almost verbatim: this was all the fault of the queer community itself: asking for too much too fast; being too militant; pushing for gay marriage; and not respecting traditional Indonesian values. Certainly the musicians and artists saw little connection between sexual diversity rights and, for example, the relatively new social space they themselves were claiming as young people making art and music far outside the bounds of what is commonly understood to be traditional in Indonesian, and living defiantly non-mainstream lifestyles in a country vexed by an increasingly aggressive religious conservatism.

In fact, sexual diversity activists have not pushed for gay marriage in Indonesia. What they have tried to do more than anything is exist. Most of their activism goes into supporting each other in some way or other, in this poor and marginal country within which they are even poorer and more marginal than most.

As for traditional Indonesian values, Indonesia has one of the longest and best documented traditions of sexual diversity in the world. In just the island of Sulawesi, pre-Islamic culture recognized five genders, not two. The novelty of what the state and conservative Islamic groups claim to be traditional Indonesian values was thrown into sharp relief in a recent incident involving Facebook. A government minister demanded that social media platforms remove any emojis “that smack of LGBT.” Facebook then censored the account of a young Indonesian woman who posted old photographs of topless Indonesian women. Facebook claimed to have acted to protect traditional Indonesian values, but the account holder found the photos by searching on Google for historical photos of Indonesian women. The campaign to protect “Indonesian values” has succeeding in protecting Indonesians from their own history.

The fact that young Indonesian artists and musicians sitting in coffee houses late into the night talking art and politics feel angry and threatened about the attempt to eradicate memory of the fact that many Indonesian women recently went topless, yet dismiss as unimportant the attempt to eradicate all memory of sex, love, and gender in Indonesia that strayed from what is acceptable to today’s conservative Islam – this fact is a reflection of how thoroughly the state controls the sexuality narrative in Indonesia. Indonesia’s queers are left on their own. Their rights and their plight is not part of the discussion of the defense of civil society in Asia – not among the power elite like the New York Times, and not among their natural local allies in Indonesia.

It is a lonely place to be.

There is a CAMPAIGN TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE INDONESIAN QUEER COMMUNITY HERE. If you live in a place where ¡queers can live comfortable and easy lives, you might think about sending some money.


With Vinolia Wakijo, Sexual Diversity hero of Yogyakarta