By Oliver Walkden June 30, 2021
When John Cage wrote 4’33”, the notorious composition that silently shook bourgeois America in the 1950s, did he imagine it being received by an African audience, or performed by African musicians? The first broadcasts of the play on the continent took place in South Africa. One was executed by a white man from the United States, and other cases were performed privately at elite universities across the country.
Although imperialism may have manifested itself indirectly in these recitals, some of Cage’s works had more blatant colonial overtones. As one of America’s most sought-after percussionists, he was responsible for writing music with a “primitive” sound inspired by Asia and Africa for a performance in Seattle in the 1940s. Misappropriations and deliberate abuses of culture like this continue to infuriate Indigenous communities and their allies.
The Indigenous Resistance collective and label are part of it. With members spread across the globe, the collective’s most recent performance is ‘When Silence Rises from Earth’, a short film of a unique performance of 4’33” shot at their Dub Museum in Kampala, Uganda (the center of their operations). Less a performance than a quiet ceremony to prepare the traditional djembe, it is significant of its autonomy from the institutional world of corporate funding, music festivals, academia and avant-garde art scenes.
The concept came to them in a vision. “It also came to us from a place of longing – a longing for balance,” the band says, speaking jointly and anonymously. “As for dub reggae, Cage 4’33” has often been discussed for its use of silence as a source of mystical experience. We chose to adapt Cage’s composition and emphasize a political dimension, while sending the message that political activism requires spiritual practice. Thus follows their mantra and their call to arms: “In silence we prepare”.
The elimination and oppression of indigenous people has been part of the history of many countries, and the struggle continues today. IR are particularly concerned with the original West Papuans which were annexed by the Indonesian state, and the Rohingya people displaced from their homes in Myanmar. Each of IR’s members has a “personal history of studying colonial and neocolonial systems of oppression and anti-colonial resistance” as well as “anarchist and other politically radical philosophies, traditions and cultural expressions”. They want to cut through the noise of Western capitalism to claim their human rights through activism based on lived experience and traditional knowledge.
Although Cage’s work does not explicitly address (post)colonialism, it shares some fundamental precepts with IR: a commitment to politically charged noise, socially engaged listening, and the centrality of percussion. The group notes that when Africans were enslaved, their drums were banned and confiscated. “Slave and plantation owners clearly recognized that Africans could communicate using these drums and they feared that such communications would lead to revolts,” they say. “Music is accompanied by a code that has the power to organize people. It is a threat to the power structure.
The mythical meeting of Thomas Sankar and Fela Kuti became the symbol of this natural convergence of the musical and the political for the indigenous Resistance. The first was the socialist leader of Burkina Faso who challenged French colonial exploitation and elitism even after independence. His revolutionary politics complemented Fela’s anti-establishment Afrobeat in the 1980s, but their camaraderie was shattered when Sankara was assassinated at the age of 37. (One of the groups that publish on IR is Sankara Future Dub Resurgencenamed in obvious honor.)
The Indigenous Resistance releases all largely fit into the “dub” category, but when asked about their relationship to the subgenre, the question was turned around. “For IR, dub is not a thing, it’s the quality of a thing, the dub quality of anything. We live in a world where music and other forms of resistance, protest, and social justice language are institutionalized, neutralized, and devitalized in the colonial, capitalist white mainstream. The dub is the B side of these moments of assimilation and co-optation. It is a question of fermenting the revolt, of making Babylon tremble. It upends our perceptions of how sound frequencies can and should be used,” they say.
Producers such as Ramjac, fire this timeand dhanghsaaka Dr Das de Asian Dub Foundation (as well as guests such as Adrian Sherwood, Jah9 and Herman Soy Sos Pearl), have long explored the heavier, more industrial side of dub. IR’s releases are almost austerely electronic, abandoning the heartwarming roots of reggae in favor of devastating sonic artillery. It’s a philosophy shared by the nominal inspiration of IR, Detroit’s revolutionary techno team underground resistancewho were also opposed to the oppressive power system of Babylon.
Both groups refer to Afrofuturism, but where UR’s iconography and aesthetics were largely mythological, IR’s work is based on historical events – violent cases of land dispossession, extraction of resources and cultural genocide, as well as pre-colonial traditions that they claim are alive, no. dead. A story that comes up frequently in their discography is that of Galdino Jesus dos Santos: leader of the Pataxó tribe in Brazil who was burned alive in 1997 by the sons of elite judges and lawyers in Brasilia. “They received privileged treatment during their stay in prison awaiting their trial”, explains the IR collective. “They were given incredibly light sentences and quickly returned to the streets, partying on the beach without remorse.”
Indigenous resistance contributes to these living traditions with original works of words, sounds and power (to borrow an expression from Rastafarianism). Like their disregard for borders, their artistic process circulates between and through the media. They have made documentaries, recorded podcasts and organized murals in cities around the world. Their latest release Eritrea Dub Journey, is a 300-page e-book and soundtrack that takes the listener on a journey through the “dub worlds of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Morocco, Senegal, Jamaica and Turtle Island”. But ultimately, wherever they go, they will always return to sound as the main medium to dream of a future closer to our pre-colonial past.
“An IR release doesn’t have to be timeless,” they say. “It just needs to echo through time. Because sometimes it takes that long for a message to reach us on the B side of the world.