When Ojai North! – I have to point this out each time, that’s their exclamation point – was in Berkeley last month, I went to hear Dawn Upshaw in The Winds of Destiny, which was followed by Music of Afghanistan with vocalist Ustad Farida Mahwash and the Sakhi Ensemble, featuring artistic director Homayoun Sakhi on rubab. The whole evening was conceptualized and directed by Peter Sellars.
The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV) is a series of traditional and beloved spirituals and Civil War-era songs as deracinated by George Crumb. He makes effective and eerie use of percussion (the accompaniment was performed by red fish blue fish percussion ensemble along with Gilbert Kalish on piano, and there are those who will point out that the piano is a percussion instrument) to create haunting effects out of songs – Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and others – that are so familiar they tend to evaporate in our ears unless twisted into new shapes.
(Of course, some of the effect will be lost if the songs aren’t familiar; in the lobby beforehand I saw a tall thin woman, possibly Bulgarian, in a dark forest-green dress with bright red suede shoes and a head of hair henna’ed a clashing shade of solid purply-rust red, saying in puzzled tones to her male companion, “Shen – An – Do – Ah?” “It’s a place name,” he murmured.)
Upshaw plays a returning vet; dressed in fatigues, trying to lie down and rest, she suffers from memories of the war, looking nervous and unhappy. She jumps a little for the loud, gun-shot-like percussion. She clutches a pillow and caresses it as if it were a child. At the end, she stands on the bed and uses a pole as if the bed were a boat and she Charon the Ferryman.
I have been enjoying Upshaw’s adventurous and intelligent performances since the 1980s. I hadn’t seen her live in a few years, I guess, since I was kind of shocked to see how much she’s aged since I last saw her. I realize she’s been seriously ill (and has fortunately recovered) and I don’t look the way I did back in the 1980s either (and obviously a lot of this is coming from my own anxieties about aging), but in all honesty it kind of threw me. I don’t mean to be unkind about it, but there it is.
I do mean to be unkind about the youngish middle-aged woman sitting to my right, who entered announcing to her companions in the loud harsh bray in which she said everything, “So I told him, yeah, I’m a smoker!” She was apparently proud of it, which gives you an idea of the intellectual level of the conversation I was forced to listen to. It was a needless announcement anyway, since she was surrounded by an immovable air-wall of rancid cigarette stench. It was so embedded in the nasty creature’s hair and skin and clothing that it didn’t dissipate. It was literally nauseating sitting next to this thing, and every time she moved, her dirty clothes produced another suffocating wave of stale stink.
The older woman to my left, on the other hand, was delightful; completely silent during the performance but pleasantly chatty before and during the intermission. She had been to Afghanistan several times, doing volunteer work at an archeological dig. She and her husband had a list of places they wanted to see and things they wanted to do together; he had died a few years ago so she was carrying out the list on her own. A really beautiful and inspiring person.
Upshaw’s voice occasionally sounded a bit worn, but there were also moments of the old purity. Characterization might have led to some of the rough passages. I think some of the songs were amplified. She is, as she has always been, a committed and powerful performer, and this is powerful material, but its effect weakened in memory afterwards, largely because of Sellars’s naïve though well-meaning approach.
Given his portrait here of a woman deeply damaged by combat service and obviously longing to nurture a child (all that pillow petting and hugging), combined with his statements in his program essay that women “are more likely to return home [from combat] with post-traumatic stress” and that “one in three women in the U.S. armed forces is sexually assaulted or raped by a fellow American soldier” (assaults which they are frequently “too frightened to report”) and that “increasingly women soldiers have taken the lead in some of the more positive [I assume he means generally nurturing, since these positive aspects are completely unspecified] aspects of the U.S. occupation” one might think that the appropriate and necessary response to the situation is not carefully staged arty song cycles but a return to the less fragile all-male military.
Is there anything in his portrayal that would provoke disagreement from the most reactionary Victorian patriarch? Isn’t he essentially evoking the Angel of the Household that Virginia Woolf found it so necessary to kill? If women are more suited to being Florence Nightingale, why use them in combat anyway? (This is not what I believe, but this is I think the clear implication of what Sellars is presenting here.)
As for women soldiers taking the lead in the "more positive aspects" of the US occupation of Iraq (which I guess means trying to undo some of the damage they helped cause in the first place), I wonder if he’s simply forgetting the Iraqi men tortured and humiliated by Lynndie England and her ilk at Abu Ghraib. Those forgotten men, assuming they have not been killed already by US forces, would no doubt have the deepest sympathy with post-traumatic stress disorder among the war criminals who tortured them.
With all due respect to the undoubted suffering of American soldiers (men as well as women), many of whom were very young and idealistic, I find it bizarrely narcissistic, given the American public’s continuing and callous indifference to the immense suffering caused by our country’s endless wars, that the victim we are called upon to sympathize with is . . . American women. It’s like those Hollywood films about apartheid or the civil rights movement that are given a middle-class white protagonist for “us” to identify with.
Also, let’s not forget that we have a volunteer army. Who is this woman, where did she come from, why did she volunteer, what did she see, and more to the point, what did she do? Singing All My Trials while looking mournful is indeed moving when it’s performed with such conviction and intensity, but after the immediate experience there’s nothing to think about or grab onto; we’re presented with the smooth surface of a generic, victimized, nurturing Woman, a monolith that is clearly absurd: I’ve described three of the women in the audience that night, and even though they all came from a very small group (white, straight, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class, educated women who attend off-beat theatrical events in the Bay Area), they were three totally different and unique people. It’s aesthetically uninteresting to ignore these differences and politically insidious: while we’re smugly telling ourselves that women (that is, our women) will nurture and heal, we have Lynndie England and her ilk committing war crimes, and plenty of women politicians and commentators excusing or cheering them.
Remember when feminism was about freeing women from the burdens of idealization, and judging them as capable adults (that is, as morally complex and responsible human beings) instead of as perpetually innocent victims? Could we please go back to that?
There was a half-hour intermission, and then Sellars came out with a little speech about the cost of the Iraq invasion, which basically repeated information easily found in the program. You know, if you’re not going to start your work-night performance until 8:00, and you’re going to have long intermissions, please spare us the little ego-trip talks from the stage. Some of us have to work the next morning.
The Sakhi Ensemble is dazzlingly virtuosic, with improv solos traded off as in a jazz band. Ustad Farida Mahwash was an endearing singer, smiling broadly at us after each song and thanking us for our applause. But it was getting late and the audience was running out of steam, and for most of them this was, however enjoyable or appreciated, inescapably foreign music, something you might hear in an ethnic restaurant, not something you'd play on the radio at home. Oddly there were no surtitles, so we had to check the program insert to find out what was being sung (the lyrics were in Pashto and Dari, and I’m guessing few in the audience understood either). Afterwards I heard the possibly Bulgarian woman saying she really liked the last song (Beshnaw az nay, the “song of the reed,” composed by Ustad Nainawaz to a verse by Rumi). It was about the pain of exile, which clearly struck home with her. But I didn’t even see the words on the back of the insert until after the concert.
The players are all refugees from Afghanistan, now living a BART ride away in Fremont. Sellars seemed to think this was a marvelous example of continued creativity in the face of destruction, of bringing good things out of tragedy, and maybe it is, but I have to wonder: brave and beautiful though the musicians are, in their homeland they were popular headliner artists, while here they are exotica for an elite, following the star performer. I find it difficult to believe they don’t regret the change. Once again an optimistic and well-meaning American is assuring everyone that everything is working out for the best, but beneath their gracious smiles and committed artistry, I suspect the exiled musicians might disagree.