Spoken Dub Manifesto (Jarring Effects)
As I drove into the playground parking lot on a warm spring day, the sound of Mohammed El Amraoui’s voice was pulsing through the speakers and out of the open windows of my car. My three-year-old daughter was in the back seat, listening comfortably to the music as she gazed out the window.
She’s been exposed to some of the usual children’s fare (Laurie Berkner, Dan Zanes, and, here and there, a smattering of that abomination known as the Wiggles), but what she hears more often is things like Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and, on the poppier side, the French song stylings of former Brooklynite April March and the great Japanese Shibuya-kei band Pizzicato Five. Although she requests Pizzicato Five more than anything else, she has, on occasion, asked me to play some of Ornette Coleman’s less melodic offerings during a drive to the supermarket. For her, El Amraoui’s Arabic-language spoken-word vocal, and the accompanying dub beat created by the French duo Brain Damage, was probably more on the pop side of the spectrum.
But I live in a quiet place—a suburban neighborhood with well-tended lawns and landscaped gardens that are at an indiscrete distance from my days of heavy drinking on the Lower East Side of New York. It’s a nearly all white, mostly upper- and upper-middle-class neighborhood. We ended up here because the New York lawyer-turned–real estate agent we worked with when we were looking for a place to buy insisted it was just the sort of gem we needed: a cheap house in a rich neighborhood.
When I’m accompanied by my wife, who’s white, things aren’t so bad here. But when I’m on my own, or even when it’s just me and my daughter, people tend to react to me with raised eyebrows and suspicious double-takes. Being American-born, but of Filipino heritage, the unspoken message that my face seems to be broadcasting to a lot of people in the neighborhood is that I’m from somewhere else, perhaps even another planet. Sometimes it’s very subtle and sometimes it’s not subtle at all, but the unspoken message they send me in return is that no matter how long my wife, my daughter, and I may live here, this neighborhood will never be “mine.” So although it’s physically comfortable to live here, I feel no connection with the neighborhood. And as soon as I step outside my front door, I’m a long way from home.
Which makes every day here feel like a very strange vacation. So, just as when I’m on a real vacation, say, driving around a touristy beach town sightseeing, I roll the windows down and choose a soundtrack that’s to my liking. Thus, my music—turned up to a very audible (but not obnoxious) level.
I’d seen trophy wives grimace as I drove into the parking lot at the neighborhood shopping mall playing some early Pere Ubu, and I’d seen a middle-aged corporate lawyer–type on the verge of having a stroke another time when I pulled in playing Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But this time, pulling into the playground parking lot while Mohammed El Amraoui’s cut from Brain Damage’s new CD, Spoken Dub Manifesto played, I got a reaction I’d never gotten before. Because when I got out of my car and slowly led my daughter to the toddler swings, the royal soccer moms on the playground started gathering their preschool heirs as they pointed their noses towards the heavens and headed back to their patriarchal sanctuaries. Pretty soon my daughter and I had the whole place to ourselves.
Although my wife was a little bit skeptical at first when I told her later what happened, I knew immediately as the playground cleared that I was witnessing the Spoken Dub Manifesto at work. Indeed, there’s no denying the power of the words and music on Spoken Dub Manifesto—it’s the sort of thing that frightens a lot of people. Because although much of the music is quite danceable, the words seem to be compelling you to do something else—namely, to stop and think. Aesthetically, it makes for an intense listening experience and, intellectually, it’s challenging—two things which the platinum wage-earners in my neighborhood who feed solely on platinum-selling CDs would prefer not to deal with.
If I’d been playing 50 Cent, I’ll bet that not one parent would have pulled his or her child from the top of the slide and into the family Hummer. After all, one will recall that “Fiddy” was among the pop stars who played at the bat mitzvah of Long Island defense contractor David H. Brooks’s daughter. Indeed, during an interview last year with GQ, 50 Cent gushed, “I wanna meet George Bush, just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him.” Certainly, 50 Cent’s theme of “Get Rich or Die Trying” is something the people who left the playground that day can relate to.
Me and my daughter played undisturbed for half an hour. (Of course my daughter wouldn’t have minded the company of some other toddlers, but I think she was cool with what happened.) When we were done, we got back in the car and listened to the rest of the Spoken Dub Manifesto on the way to pick up my wife/her mommy. We listened to cuts like “Embolism,” where hip-hop artist Giovanni Marks demonstrates how rap isn’t just for gangstas; to “Under the Ground,” where Brain Damage (Martin Nathan and Raphael Talis) add a dose of electronica to Emiko Oto’s Japanese language vocal; to “The Beer Mystic’s Last Day on the Planet,” which takes an excerpt from writer Bart Plantenga’s novel and turns it into a perfect spoken-word piece that is both funny and sad and (unlike a lot of the more popular spoken word that gets seen on MTV, for example) never substitutes attitude for smarts.
As we drove, no one tailgated me (which is what usually occurs on the stretch of road leading out of my neighborhood—a road that’s notorious for its aggressive drivers). No one shot a condescending glance my way as they moved ahead of me, or gave me the finger for no apparent reason. (It happens more you’d think in my neighborhood.) And I didn’t see a single Hummer on the road. It was as if we were in what Hakim Bey (who also appears on Spoken Dub Manifesto) would call a Temporary Autonomous Zone, a place that, for a brief period of time, lies beyond the reach of the forces in charge.
If only I’d had Spoken Dub Manifesto last fall, when, coming home one evening, I had to squeeze through the road into “the morose topography” (to borrow a phrase from Bart Plantenga’s Spoken Dub piece) that had been created around my house by a gaggle of Hummers and other gigantic vehicles bearing bumper stickers supporting George W. Bush (example: “Support George W. Bush: He’ll kill more Bad Guys”). It was a housewarming party (to which my family wasn’t invited, of course) hosted by a woman who had just bought the house a couple of doors down from us. A woman who, I had discovered, had been an observer for the GOP during the recount in Dade County, Florida, that put George W. Bush into office in 2000.
If I’d had it back then, I would have put Spoken Dub Manifesto into the car stereo and blasted it, sending them scurrying like roaches back to the dark crevices from whence they came. It might have worked.
Or maybe they would have just called the cops and had me arrested.