As idealism goes, it's perhaps the last seven words of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence's Preamble that are the most important: "...Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," it vows to all people (well, men, but we'll go with people) as unalienable rights.
Those words hold worlds of promise for everyone here, no matter where they may have come from: Citizens, immigrants and visitors hoping to use American soil to make the most of their ambitions, skills and talents are, ideally, welcomed and encouraged to turn existing resources into unimagined possibilities. It's no mystery that America owes much of its best social, scientific and cultural debt to a continual influx of immigrants colliding with citizens who are just the newest generations of lines of people who once immigrated but have been here for decades, centuries and millennia. The melting pot, as it were, depends on adding new ingredients to old stock and waiting for the latest result.
Here—during this most paramount of American holidays—we profile two local musicians whose recent addition to the Triangle has added new questions, sounds and ideas, and another, whose progressive bent on an old form proves that molds are meant to be re-imagined.
Standing on the concrete patio outside Sadlack's Heroes in Raleigh, Anthony Neff looks a bit like the prototype for the American man of the Southeast. He's of medium height, sort of broad and muscular. This evening, he's in blue jeans and brown shoes, his navy blue collared shirt unbuttoned to reveal some band's T-shirt just beneath. A trimmed quadrilateral of facial hair is centered around his mouth, matching the dark brown hair that's neatly slicked with pomade.
He's drinking Budweiser from a brown longneck bottle while talking to two other men, one discussing rock 'n' roll songwriting as the other speculates about the farfetched renaissance of old American jukeboxes spinning 45 rpm records. It's hot out here, three days before July breaks in on a sweltering North Carolina summer. The marginal breeze is doing far less to cool the crowd's sweaty brows than the clear plastic cups everyone holds. There's live bluegrass inside.
In a red state in the Southeast, one could be forgiven for assuming that the level of political talk here on a Thursday night—especially talk of progressive politics—is nil. But that would be wrong. Neff, for one, isn't so easy labeled. He's a songwriter with an acoustic guitar, working somewhere among the worlds of folk, pop and alt.country. Recently, there's been a smart political slant to some of his songs. He wrote "Sweet Revolution" in 2003 on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, a true-to-life narrative where a politician cuts deals out back to keep inequality intact and himself in office. Then, last summer, Neff posted an acoustic demo, "American Fire," to Living with War Today, an interactive Web site launched by Neil Young. Using videos and news updates, the site expanded on Young's album Living with War, a candid political record that Young termed "metal folk protest music." On the album, Young calls for George W. Bush's impeachment; on the Web site, Young allows musicians across the world to submit their own political songs. So far, 1,910 songs are available on the site. Weeks after Neff posted the track in July, it climbed into the site's top 10.
"Bless him for doing that record, but it's not like Neil Young has a lot to lose," says Neff. "It's frustrating as an artist because you write about what you care about, what's on your mind. You want to entertain, but you also want people to think."
Neff's frustrated that artists who've been speaking out for the past six years have been ostracized by their record labels, the media and their fans. Questioning leaders doesn't mean criticizing troops, and few are better equipped to defend that than Neff. He certainly isn't against the troops; he was one. From 1988 to 1994—or from the end of the Cold War to the end of the first Gulf War and the Iraq-Kuwait disarmament crisis—Neff was in the Army Reserves, trying to pay for college and do what he thought was right.
Laughing, he says he's glad his unit never had to enter active combat, as Reserves are now having to in the second Gulf War: "I think about my old reserve unit, and if we were over there now, we'd be.... Well, let's say we weren't the cream of the crop. We were just strung together, trying to make some extra income. I wouldn't do it now."
Neff's just trying to do what he thinks songwriters and artists at large are supposed to do—entertain people and make them think. That's what his favorite artists gave him.
"As a kid, I learned about the struggles about Latin America by listening to The Clash. I didn't know what Sandinista was," he says, that band undershirt he has on—a Clash shirt that reads "The future is unwritten"—suddenly more significant. "But they challenged me and made me go out and find out what's going on. Kids aren't getting a lot of that today."
Neff's position on the war is peculiar if not unique. In fact, he thinks and hopes it's becoming more common. He cites his mom, who still lives back in his hometown of Fayetteville, W.V. They've been arguing about the war for years now, but he says he's noticed a change in the last six months. She's been a staunch Bush supporter all along. The propaganda—talk of soldiers happy to be there, talk of Iraqis happy to have them there—is wearing thin, even for her. But Neff, too frustrated by American politics to take credit, just shakes his head: "I'm not going to change her mind, but I can plant seeds, I guess." —Grayson Currin
At 6 feet 6 inches, Ricardo Welsh is a rangy man. His baritone voice booms in conversation like a bass drum, and it certainly doesn't hurt when he's onstage, delivering come-ons and dance-floor directions as Real Cat. He mixes the Latino club music staple reggaeton with Jamaican dancehall in something he calls "dancehallton." When I spoke with him last year, he was busy settling into taking himself seriously as a musician. Since then, he's gained notoriety with local Latino audiences and worked on a new full-length album due in November.
Everybody wants a break that will launch their music into the limelight. Real Cat's no exception, and his story—a Panamanian military brat with strong ties still to his native country—is a prime example of a young, eager artist trying to realize the American dream. By day, he works in the maintenance shop of Waste Industries, a Raleigh-based sanitation company, and he's been working on his album for two years by night. He calls Durham home.
INDEPENDENT: I'm interested in the details of your military family. Was your father in the military?
REAL CAT: First, I was born in Colon City, Panama, 100 percent Latino. I come from a very poor community where many people are still struggling. Many people have a very rough life in Colon. I will be honest: In my opinion, Panama is a very corrupted country, meaning that if you have money, you can get away with anything, even murder. My father was in the military and I moved to the U.S.—South Carolina—in 1990. Months later, we had to move to Germany. There, I was going to school on base, Fulda American High School. I spent three years in Germany without leaving the base. I have also been to Georgia, New York, Maryland, Virginia and Miami because of life as a military brat.
What connections do you still have in Panama? What was the music/social scene like there, especially with tensions between U.S./Panama relations?
I still have family—grandparents, uncles and cousins, and friends. I don't really have too many friends here in the U.S. I just have a lot of acquaintances. The music social scene in Panama was one heavy into the Latino Reggae and Salsa Calypso and other tropical music. Reggaeton was born in Panama and was called Reggae Dancehall Latino. I grew up listening to Latin Dancehall from Panama, and now I call my style of music "dancehallton," which is Latin Dancehall/Reggaeton.
You've mentioned that one of the reasons you decided to move to North Carolina was because it had a strong Latino community. Now that you've been here for a decade, do you still feel the same way?
Yes, I still feel that the Latino community in North Carolina is very strong and continues to strengthen every day.
How do you feel your music has been received by local Latinos here?
I have received nothing but love from my fellow Latinos and fans.
How about your sense of patriotism now that you've lived in the N.C. area for 10 years but still visit Panama? Do you find that you have a feeling of home in Durham?
Having a military upbringing, I have always been patriotic. I consider the U.S., the Triangle, my home base even though I still manage to visit Panama every now and again.
How do you think you've carved out your own identity in the U.S. as both a Panamanian American and a musician?
I consider myself a Latino-American and basically believe that, by being a U.S. citizen as well as embracing my culture and expressing myself through my musical compositions, I have carved my own identity, because the U.S. is a melting pot anyway. —Chris Toenes
To be or not to be
As Dan Bryk sees it, Canadians think a lot about becoming Americans. He recalls Canuck musical satirists The Brothers-in-Law and their late '60s cut "Canada-U.S.A.," a yarn that speculated on the effects of Canada finally fulfilling its destiny as the 51st united state. Canadians, Bryk remembers, would be lavished with only the best American assets—the John Birch Society, color television, racial segregation. It's not always a positive picture.
But it's not all snark, either: Bryk is quick to note that for decades Canadian artists had to head south to be more than regional successes—four-fifths of The Band, Michael J. Fox, Neil Young, Dan Akroyd, Lorne Michaels. There's another list, too, says Bryk—those Canadian acts that should be part of the collective North American heritage but aren't, mostly because they refused to leave. Bryk extols Kensington Market and The Paupers, Canadian standouts who are barely mentioned in America four decades later.
It's not like that anymore, or at least it's not as extreme: Especially in the realm of indie rock, which Bryk circumnavigates with a piano and pop songs, Canadian bands—The Arcade Fire, Destroyer, Wolf Parade—tour the world and cling to their national identity. Bryk grew up in a suburb of Toronto, Ontario. He started performing his witty, hooky songs 15 years ago, but—even when he left in 2001—he found it was hard for a Canadian artist to stretch beyond the country's broad boundaries. "I hit the glass ceiling in Canada hard," he remembers.
He didn't flee, exactly: Erin McGinn, his girlfriend, got a job offer in America. They left together on Christmas morning 2001, living first in Chapel Hill and now in Raleigh. In 2005, Bryk received his Temporary Work Authorization. In January, the federal government granted his Permanent Resident Card. He'd been living here for five years, resisting the professional urge to tour as he waited on government clearance. Meanwhile, he's been stockpiling songs and albums, recording other bands, and laying the groundwork for Urban Myth Recordings. He's ready to go now: He's slated to release three records of his own by the end of the year, and he'll launch a full tour in September.
Still, Bryk's in a peculiar position as an American artist: He's very much a newcomer in most stateside music circles, and current national political debates could affect the ability of a relatively unknown artist, like Bryk, to find an audience and even payment for his work. In Canada, he says, he never contacted a politician for anything. In March, though, after the Copyright Royalty Board approved new royalty increases for streaming music online, he contacted several state and federal lawmakers, arguing his case as a young musician seeking exposure. He realizes, though, that ultimately his voice is just his voice, not an actual vote.
"It's not like if they don't do what I want them to do, I can vote them out of office," says Bryk, who refers to the Triangle as a beneficent cul de sac of American people, where he's mostly able to avoid some of the country's nasty social and cultural habits. "It seems like a responsibility worth having, but I don't want to seem like some Canadian carpetbagger down here for Yankee dollars, either."
Bryk's not sure what he'll do in five years. That's when he'll be eligible to apply for United States citizenship. He likes it here, but he mentions the fancy of moving to New Zealand or Europe. He laughs it off, saying he's actually considered being a "responsible adult" sometime soon, possibly even having children and staying put. But does that mean trading in his old citizenship for a new country, or even trying to obtain dual citizenship, when he's not in line with America's current political climate? Good question.
Last year, he threw a Canada Day party, but it was a bust. This year, he spent the July 1 holiday that celebrates Canada's 1867 establishment as a Dominion eating lunch with friends, as if it were any other Sunday: "Do I want to give up what made me interesting anyway? Do I want to be an assimilated person? I just don't know." —Grayson Currin