SONIC YOUTH & SERBIAN MAYHEM
Dave from Fun-Da-Mental Sonic Youth entertains the Serbs
Rough Guide to the Dark Side
by Daniel Simpson
ED NOTE: this is an excerpt from the book Rough Guide to the Dark Side. The ECHO Festival described below took place in July 2003 in Belgrade, Serbia.
Putting on a festival was alchemy. If we hadn't transcended our limits, it couldn't have happened. The magic of G (my business partner) had simple principles at heart: he'd clarified intentions at the outset, and detached himself completely from the outcome. While he hoped to see his vision fully realized, everyone was left to do as they pleased, and this free-for-all was ECHO's fatal flaw. But it also proved a vital source of strength.
By Monday night, there wasn't a puddle in sight. Countless feet had trudged them into sludge. The atmosphere backstage was reverential. Higher powers blessed us in the end; the heavens above were fair, and the field was full. I was dumbstruck by the vista from the stage. Rippling away in the moonlight, the crowd was pulsing like a human graphic equalizer. It roared in a wave of souls merged as one. There must have been eighty thousand, at least. The police locked thousands more outside the gates. They feared stampedes. To a fanfare of cymbals and chords, Sonic Youth took the stage.
'Thank you for inviting us here to beautiful Belgrade,' drawled Thurston Moore. His hair alone was a time warp to 1990, a Ride on Inspiral Carpets to happier Mondays.
In a leopard-print dress on bass, Kim Gordon whispered sensuous invocations. 'Spirit desire,' she trilled over dreamy arpeggios. 'Spirit desire. Spirit desire, we will fall...'
Lee Ranaldo and Jim O'Rourke strummed up the noise. Distortion pedals got stepped on, and the kick drum thwacked us back to where we'd started. “Teenage Riot" was originally titled “Rock and Roll For President."
Thurston's words reminded me of G. 'Looking for a man with a focus and a temper who can open up a map and see between one and two,' he sang. 'It's a teenage riot in a public station. Gonna fight and tear it up in a hyper nation for you.'
The song was even eerily prophetic. 'He acts the hero, we paint a zero on his hand...' Then on to the climax: 'It's time to go round, a one-man showdown, teach us how to fail...' And away they screeched in guitar loops of feedback.
Rather than set them ablaze, or smash up the monitors, the band caressed their instruments with drumsticks, coaxing mesmerizing reverb from the strings. Thurston took his Fender off and embraced it, stroking the length of the neck until it shrieked. Kim wielded hers at the speakers like a rocket launcher, teetering on dainty red heels. Thurston took to rolling on the apron. The crowd went wild. And so did an old friend of G's, the Serbian radio equivalent of John Peel.
'Music has to be provocative,' he said. 'It must open up your mind to let you enjoy different spirits and possibilities.' He smiled his blessing. 'It was like God sent us the rain. Everyone came because it was free, and the people just don't have any money.'
It was always going to be tough to top Sonic Youth. Carl Craig stuck around for a go on a special DJ stage, dropping Michael Jackson's “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," with its paranoid refrain: 'they eat off you, you're a vegetable.' Then came the aptly named Billy Nasty, who blasted a darker techno path to daybreak.
But first there was Fun-Da-Mental's agit-pop. Led by an aging Pakistani punk, who used to use the stage name 'Propa-Gandhi,' they specialized in rabble-rousing mash-ups. They were Rage Against The Machine's more cultured cousins, fusing British Asian Muslim Black Power. And unlike the average band they had a credo.
'Until the philosophy that holds one superior and another inferior is finally and permanently dismantled and abandoned,' it said, 'THERE SHALL BE WAR!'
To prepare for their set, they got stoned and sparred backstage, in a fusion of Capoeira and Tai Chi. Then they stomped on with a choir of half-naked Zulus. To industrial beats and a snake-charming lilt, two rappers strutted out a Maori haka*.
'More chaos!' one yelled to get started. 'More motherfucking chaos!' He was clad in camouflage combats and a headdress, and his message had a resonance with Serbs. 'Maybe the West is demonizing us!'
Loud cheers rang out, but aimed elsewhere: at a portly Qawwali backing singer, who let rip a lung-busting solo from his harmonium. A group of people started pogoing.
Stage right, an enormous Stars and Stripes unfurled. It was daubed with the mantra: 'No. 1 TERRORIST'. This time, the crowd roared on cue.
As Old Glory was tossed to one side, another rapper peeled off his knee-length shorts. Removing his underwear too, Dave (Watts, from Fun-Da-Mental) seized the flag. He pressed it to his groin. Then he fucked it.
The fabric bulged to his grinding pledge of allegiance. While the band played on, he tied it round his waist, and stripped off his top to expose a khaki wife-beater. Thus attired, he hopped off the stage to meet his public.
He resurfaced a few tracks later, right on cue.
'There is too much war,' a fellow rapper squealed. 'TOO MUCH... WAAARRRRR!!!'
This was the signal Dave had been awaiting. Accompanied by tambourine and tabla, he laid down the central Fun-Da-Mental doctrine. 'Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, regardless of race, everywhere is war!' he preached. 'War... What the fuck is it for?'
Draping a microphone cable round his neck, he pretended to hang himself. 'Too much war!' he boomed. 'I don't want it, I said stop it. STOP IT! STOP IT!'
Two projectiles flew up from the shadows. One laid him out. The music stopped. The band had the clearest view of what transpired.
'D got hit in the head with a bottle by a skinhead,' one of them explained. 'The crowd then turned on him and his two skinhead mates, who escaped. Security grabbed the other guy, who kind of stood defiant until the promoter head-butted him. He was taken out and given such a bad beating that even I felt sorry for him.'
You might have thought rants at America would appeal, but being black and Muslim undermined them. To swivel-eyed patriot fantasists in Serbia, their people are the guardians of Christendom, defending it from dark-skinned foreign infidel.
Compounding this weirdness, 'the crowd were throwing nationalist salutes,' the Fun-Da-Mentalist observed, 'while singing along to Sufi Muslim songs. Ironic. A lot of Serbs seem to be in denial of the massacre of my brothers and sisters in Bosnia. They seem to believe it was some kind of civil war. May Allah protect the Muslims and have mercy on the rest.'
Perhaps a different message might have helped. They used to aim their ire at wider targets. Wherever they played, they'd scream: 'The Problem Is You!'
* A Maori dance performed before rugby games by the New Zealand national team (for years the most fearsome on the planet)
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