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Barbez’ “Bella Ciao” — and a Few Words about Lou Reed

Jacob Perl
February 5, 2014
by Jacob L. Perl bc_cover"Bella Ciao," Barbez's second release on the radical Jewish Culture Series of John Zorn's Tzadik label, draws from Roman Jewish religious melodies and centers around the Italian partisan resistance to the fascists. The album features readings in English translation of poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonso Gatto, poets who spoke eloquently and seriously about the experience of the resistance. "Bella Ciao" has the generosity of a newspaper — it is an honest attempt to tell someone else's story, with the pyrotechnics of the formidable musicians merely tools in service of this aim. Such modesty and generosity are appropriate, considering the title song of the album: "Bella Ciao," the famous resistance song, is about the self-sacrifice and anonymity of a partisan who asks to be buried beneath a flower that free people may pass someday and pause to appreciate. (To hear the title track, look below.) Barbez, a Brooklyn-bred band that formed in the 1990s, includes a diversity of voices, including violin, clarinet, and theremin. The album begins with a breakdown: A frantic high pitch rises like smoke, then rhythmic drums, and finally the burst of instruments. Wild! Dangerous! Undeniable! This beginning is Barbez's declaration that there will be no safety net found in this recording. There will be no refuge of introspection, not even the introspection of loneliness or terror. When the wild music falls to a lull in the middle of the first song, it is a lull built to be broken. Every lull in the album is such, except in the last song. Barbez-1-pc-Gabrielle-PlucknetteDeath moves this album; energetic tenuousness is its backbone. Words are spare on "Bella Ciao", but clarify the music and tie it to history. Pasolini's poem "The Resistance and Its Light," the first words on the album and not showing up until track four, illustrates the tenuousness and fragility that flows through the music. The poem is a description of a family fleeing their home, the speaker's brother hiding a gun in a book and setting out to hide himself in the mountains, how the boy’s mother watches the far mountain while hiding in a barn. Each phrase ends, "and it was pure light." Light has no weight, exists only as motion, illumination, and impermanence. How fragile would it be, with your world falling before the great weight of the war machine, to fight back? Nothing in the album is settled. It is all as fragile and quick and uncertain as light. On the fifth track we get a few words from Alfonso Gatto that make clear the true stakes that inspire the nervousness of everything else. The poet describes being at a window and being touched by the light as it abandons the dying — "a human cry, then nothing. only the snow." Those who know snow know how softly it destroys the palette of the world, reducing complexity and movement to something like a few strokes of ink brush. This is the album’s version of death, and it animates the music. It isn't until near the end that we encounter the partisan anthem itself, sung by Dawn McCarthy. Her rendition is strong and fierce, defiant — it has to be. Even here the music does not relent: The chaos, the danger, rise furiously in contrast to her vows to future generations, just as the fascist machine once roared at those who fought for life against it. The album ends, finally, quietly, with something different but portended. We get sad strings and a few piano notes, wide spaces between them. It is the only true rest in the album, and is the snow that Gatto spoke of covering the dead. What an end! What a question this album leaves us with, stopping in sadness, and sparseness, and snow. "Bella Ciao" is kin in obvious ways to Barbez’s previous Tzadik release, "Force of Light," but feels much different. "Force of Light" featured readings of the poems of Paul Celan, who as a young man lost his parents to the Nazis, was imprisoned in a labor camp, and drowned himself in the Seine years after (Celan came up recently in Zelda Gamson‘s Jewish Currents piece about Nelly Sachs). "Force of Light" was depressed, heavy, low, and filled with terror. As opposed to the movement of "Bella Ciao," "Force of Light" felt hopelessly weighty — it is the only album that has scared me as an adult. A farewell, if I may, to Lou Reed — one of the great honest lyricists of our generation. He may now expect to be questioned closely by the one-thousand Yiddish theater critics of heaven who have been arguing about his 2011 collaboration with Metallica since its release. Also there will be, I imagine, some questions regarding his album Metal Machine Music. (Is it supposed to be an imitation of the thoughts of a calculator rolled down a hill, or, rather, a guitar surfing the internet on an old modem?) Here is Reed along with Philip Glass, that other Jewish light, speaking about Occupy Wall Street. And here is the Jewdayo entry for Reed, which includes his film, "Red Shirley," about his leftwing cousin Shirley Novick. Jacob L. Perle, a poet in Wisconsin, is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents.