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Call and Reponse Music

Call and Response evoked many responses within my heart and soul from pity to rage to determination, and watching it left me completely exhausted, even more than Invisible Children did.  But one unexpected consequence of the global slavery rockumentary was that it gave me new reasons to love music, due both to the performances from the film, and the brilliance of activist/philosopher/scholar/extra in the final two Matrix movies (yeah, the bad ones) Cornel West, who gives a very inspired recount of how the call and response songs of the slaves became blues, jazz, and later rock-and-roll. 

All performances in the film are shot in black and white, on a sound-stage backed by football-stadium style lights.  Switchfoot (“Awakening”), Natasha Bedingfield (acoustic versions of “Unwritten” and “Soulmate”), and Cold War Kids (“Hang Me out to Dry”) all laid down notable performances.  Matisyahu, who already the reputation as one of the best live performers in music, took a pretty central role in the film, and rapper Talib Kweli knocked out a pretty killer track. 

However, it was former child soldier Emmanuel Jal who stole the show.  Backed by a live band that included the (nearly albino) nerd hero Moby on bass, Jal laid down a heart wrenching rap about his experiences as a child soldier in war torn Africa (“when I was seven/I carried an AK -47”).  What’s more impressive is that he’s able to write songs of this depth when English isn’t his native language.  Also note-worthy was new supergroup The Scrolls (featuring the Watkins siblings from Nickel Creek, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips, and Benmont Tench, founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) laid down a slow burning jam that reminded me of Glen Hansard’s rough-cut songs from the film Once. 

Filmmaker Justin Dillon was on my radio show on FUSE FM in Michigan on Friday.  (He will also be on with me around 7pm Monday night on 89.7 Shine.FM in Chicago).  The following are his thoughts on the music of Call and Response:

On the order of the songs:

-I wanted to write out a set list. Every band crafts their set list to have an emotional arc, to make sense, to take people on a journey.  That’s what a good concert will do, and that’s what I wanted this film to do, to have a set list that brings you through this information and leaves you better for it. 

On filming the performances:

I went after a lot of artists, and I had to go to where they were.  In the film, it looks like everyone is playing on the same stage. In reality, we packed up the stage and moved it to six cities and two continents.

On the new meaning of the songs:

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Most of these songs weren’t written about the issue of human trafficking, but when you contextualize them with the movement that we’re creating, the two become very powerful. Some of the artists broke down crying while playing songs they’ve performed hundreds of times, because they were performing it next to this information.

On using hit songs:

When you have well-known songs by people like Switchfoot, Natasha Bedingfield, Moby, and Matisyahu, and their performing these songs alongside information about slavery, it’s a strange, strange mix. But the result is that you feel like you’ve had a companion with you while hearing this information.  And a companion to walk you out and give you courage to take on this issue, and be a part of this movement.  Whether it’s the walls of Jericho, or the streets of civil rights era Alabama, music has always broken down walls. That’s what this film is, a way to break down the walls, even the walls in our own American minds.  Music is beginning what I believe is the 21
st

century abolitionist movement.

tower, 25, can be heard on 89.7 Shine.FM Chicago, and 101.7 FUSE FM in Saginaw, Michigan.  He’s currently hawking stuff on eBay to buy Rock Band 2…

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