On an occasional basis, monthly during high season, spoken word artists from around the island come together to perform under the mango tree at Green Gallery on Koh Phangan. There are always surprises, some choreographed in advance, some spontaneous sharing from the audience. Phangan Poetry Jam is an ongoing project of Writers of Koh Phangan, a group I founded 20 months ago. We recently added our 400th member, quite a group on a small Thai island with 2,000 expats.
I perform the Master of Ceremonies role so I often choose not topresent. This time, I presented two pieces. One, the opening page of my last book “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation,” and an except of my interview with Adbusters publisher and Occupy Wall Street provocateur Kalle Lasn.
Michal Dohan, the impressive proprietor of Green Gallery, set up, once again, a living style set, with a couch and both a handheld and standup mic. The night was lovely, with a near full moon and a calm about the place. Perfect weather.
Here is the Cobham book piece that I read, imagining how Bill’s love for percussion originated in his Bedford-Stuyvesant walkup brownstone.
Chapter ONE: In the Beginning
Brooklyn, New York, Spring 1947
A three-year-old boy alone in his room on a Saturday morning is master of the universe.
The rest of the week is regulated by Ivy and William Senior. What to eat, what to wear, what to hear. Bath time, shopping time, promenade time. And this just months into the cacophony of Bedford-Stuyvesant life. The Cristobaltransports the family from Panamanian shantytown Colon to Manhattan’s west side, then they’re on to Harlem, then Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy, Chauncey Street, across from Fulton Park, a brownstone clustered with other Caribbean households.
Saturday morning at the park is time for driving percussive beats, untamed power. The boy notices the Puertorriqueño, Cubano, Colombiano, Panameno congueros in the neighborhood, coming off the ‘A’ train on Utica Avenue all week long. Exhausted bus drivers, filthy construction laborers, put-upon janitors, exasperated store owners, all beholden, controlled by someone or something. The twenty-something Nicaraguan accosted by his girlfriend with furious accusations, the older fellow burdened by some damn thing. A week of complaining, protesting, bemoaning. Then…Saturday comes.
It’s 1947, so Saturday morning cartoons on black-and-white televisions are a decade away. He’ll have to wait till he’s eight to make his weekly trek with kids on the block to the local movie theatre for six hours of movies, shorts, cartoons, and trailers. These men, some just back from World War II service in Europe or the Pacific, some feeling sucked dry from a week of bosses, cops, families, life, exude power and joy, their laughs are fierce, fat, and ecstatic. He is captivated, the beats filling his room. Here’s an early lesson: joy, power, freedom, human connection flow from the hands of men who can drive a beat forward.
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I then read this short excerpt from an extended interview with Lasn in Vancouver, about the effects of the “mental environment” of western culture and the value of travel in transforming and clarifying one’s view of the world. The full interview will be in the upcoming book fro the Surmountable project on the art and alchemy of effective protest.
Gruber: How does a young person who has grown up in the mental environment you’ve described engage in the world effectively?
Lasn: For most people, I just feel like saying to them, you’re all fucked up, go back and start from zero. That’s really my advice. If we can identify the memes and meta-memes and come up with books with big ideas, a new set of first principles, this is something I still believe in. Trying to talk some guy in San Francisco into living a more benign life, I don’t have time for that.
Gruber: In the Culture Jam book, you made some provocative statements; one of them is, a free, authentic life is no longer possible in America today.
Lasn: No, I don’t think so. It was motivated by the reality of what a constant barrage of two or three thousand marketing messages actually does to your brain. I mean, once your brain has been pickled with emotionally coercive advertising like that, from the moment that you’re a little kid, you’re running around the living room, you’re looking at the TV set, then you’re a cooked goose.
Gruber: It’s not just the advertising, it’s in the television shows you watch, the movies, the way the culture is formed and structured, the cars people buy and the reason that they buy them, what you see as you walk down the street. Living on a Thai island, coming back to visit, it’s an interesting difference in the physical and mental living experience.
Lasn: I can understand that. I also understood that when I traveled around the world for three years, when I was young, I found people who were still authentic, still alive, still real. And then you arrive back in LA, and you realize that these people running around America, they’ve lost it, they just can’t live an authentic life anymore. They’re finished.
Gruber: You mentioned the travel experience. I think for many people the experience of travel is a kind of revolutionary personal act.
Lasn: I’m still running on that juice. I have never forgotten many of the lessons and epiphanies I had during those three years. And actually, there is an answer to that young guy in San Francisco, the answer is, go travelling. Go travelling, go and find yourself. Find your true self. Go travelling, go to Thailand, go to magic mushroom village in Mexico, look at the people in the streets of Calcutta dropping off like flies, and then come back and then figure out what has to happen.
Next Phangan Poetry Jam is slated for late November, details to be announced at the Writers of Koh Phangan Facebook group page.