From Chicago, Music In the Key of Life - 4/12/2011

First published in Huffington Post

Gail Vida Hamburg

In 2007, Chicagoan, Nicole Sotelo, a Harvard-trained theologian and author, read a searing account of Congolese rape victims. The women, young girls and grandmothers among them, had suffered extreme sexual violence at the hands of the Inerahanwe and Hutu men responsible for the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, the Congolese army, armed civilians, and occassionally, U.N peacekeepers.

Sotelo remembers weeping when she read the experience of one woman identified only as "Nadine," talking to Eve Ensler, writing for Glamour. "She was fleeing her village after her family had been slaughtered and she had been raped, when she saw an infant girl lying on the ground next to her slain parents," Sotelo said. Ensler had written: "Nadine rescued the girl; now having a child to care for gives her reason to keep going. "I can't go back to my village. It's too dangerous. But if I had a place to live I could go to school. I lost my children but I'm raising this child as my own. This girl is my future."

Sotelo, now of indie folk rock band, Clara May, wrote her song, the haunting Lullaby, with Nadine, and the baby Nadine claimed as her own, very much on her mind. "They were both alone in the world. Nadine could only outlive her own sorrow by loving this child and willing her to life," Sotelo said.

My daughter, You keep me on this earth, My daughter, This ground gave you birth, You put breath in my lungs, Help me to stay strong, I get up for you and pray ... Unlike other lullabies which coax babies to sleep, this one urges the baby to stay awake: Stay awake, Stay with me, For the nightfall is approaching, And you are all that I see, And the rebels' call is encroaching, And I'm dying, To be free...

Lullaby is in a larger sense an aria for the brave women of Congo, Rwanda and elsewhere who have experienced unimaginable sexual violence at the hands of their perpetrators, and who have risen out of the ashes like phoenix.

Clara May is a studio band that rarely performs live, which made their appearance at the Dark Room last week a special treat. The founding members of the group and its singer songwriters are Sotelo and Tom Silva, a Malaysian-born corporate executive, filmmaker and University of Chicago humanities student. Given their diverse professional backgrounds, the quality of their music is remarkable. "One could hardly hope for two more unique and distinct voices than those wielded by the duo. Silva's rich baritone marries Nick Cave's sneer to the mournfulness of a young Scott Walker, while Sotelo's recalls Dar Williams at her most pristine," wrote one reviewer.

For Hush, their debut album (which I heard live last week), they assembled a group of talented session musicians including Chicago producer, Phillip Amerson, who in his other life is lead guitarist and vocalist of the hard rock band, Bitterson, and a service member of the U.S. armed forces about to begin officer training. The band is rounded out by bassist, Michael Sinclair of the grunge band, Tribal Opera; classical guitarist and former philharmonic musician, Barmey Ung; Nate Pusateri on drums and percussion; Marcus Smith, a church organist from the South Side; and Alex Gowland, a 20-year veteran of the Unites States Navy Band on lead guitar. The ensemble is 21st century America up close -- multicultural, transglobal, worldly, idealistic, pragmatic.

Clara May's songs resonate with the soul that tilts and pitches towards terra firma, through a singular fusion of 60s folk and anthem rock laced with world music beats and grunge guitar licks. The songs in Hush address themes I've not heard in mainstream indie music before -- ethnic conflicts, identity, racism, genocide, the Iraq War, and yes, human folly, love and loss.

Location of Culture, an intriguing tone poem named after the seminal postcolonial text by Harvard professor, Homi Bhabha, is a meditation on the presence of an imperial figure in a fractured former colony peopled by solitary, split figures who oscillate between repulsion and attraction to their former overlords. The lyric images evoked are of a stark, fragmentary space -- the kinds of places that Graham Greene and Albert Camus wrote about.

The enchanting Hyderabad, a technically flawless composition written in a Muslim city during the height of the Iraq War, expresses a need to break away from the rhetorical strategies of the Bush Administration, which at that point had taken to justifying the invasion of Iraq on the basis that Iraqis were from the "same part of the world as the 9-11 terrorists". The song is part apology and part canticle for a new kind of ecumenical world view.

This is music that makes you brood, ruminate and remember personal and planetary hurts, monstrous acts in faraway places, and women like Nadine who have lost everything and still found reasons to live. "Sooner or later, one must choose a side if one is to remain human," a Vietnamese character tells the indifferent, uninvolved, Thomas Fowler, Graham Greene's protagonist in my favorite novel, The Quiet American. Nadine did, and so did Nicole. Listen to Hush. Hear the ripples. We are all involved.
Posted by Gail Vida Hamburg at 07:48


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