By Martin Smith | 3 February 2015
Instead of writing about my ten favourite records this month, I have decided to review just one.
The album by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd is called Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project. I missed it when it was first released in 2013, but since discovering the CD, it has had a profound impact on me.
Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project (PI Recordings 2013) CD
This is no ordinary album; the project started when jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and vocalist Mike Ladd (Anti Pop Consortium) gathered testimonies from US veterans of colour who were involved in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The musicians persuaded them to talk about their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) dreams, flashbacks and traumas. The veterans horrific, nightmarish and brutal visions were then turned into music and spoken word.
It makes for deep, heavy and disturbing listening. But there are occasional moments of light.
The US military uses the poor and the oppressed to do its dirty work, they kill and they are killed. People of colour make up nearly 40% of the US armed forces, many enlist because of poverty and when they come home many face high levels of unemployment, mental health issues and indifference.
The unemployment rate for post 9/11 vets stands at 7.2% compared to the 5.8% national figure. Again according to the American Psychiatric Association, 1-5 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are diagnosed with PTSD. If all that is not shocking enough 349 service members in all branches of the US Military committed suicide in 2012.
Holding it Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project is part psychological, part political and in part a therapeutic work of art. It takes you on a journey from the unspeakable back to the speakable.
One of the voices you hear on the album is Lynn Hill’s; she served in the US Air Force for six years. She spent two years piloting drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from a console in Las Vegas. On the track Capacity she answers the question what was the first thing you did when you left the drone base? She replies:
The first thing I would do is stand outside and I would walk to my car and I would sit in the car and decompress everything that happened that day. Try so hard to strip off everything that wasn’t me; trying to with the guilt of what I did that day; hoping that when I put the car in drive that it didn’t feel like a joystick that I had been flying all day.
And what did she think about before she went to bed?
The last thing I would think about was the families of these other people, and how they look like me and I could be have been on the other side of those crosshairs.
These are young men and women dealing with the demons of warfare. In the song Shush, another veteran Maurice cries:
I’ve been talking in my sleep again mumbling in Arabic pounding my chest a prayer ritual reflex.
I’ve been talking in my sleep again incoherent rantings snipers traffic control points suicide bombers.
I’ve been talking in my sleep again tense hands form fists I fight an invisible enemy again.
This project reminds me of others.
Guess Who’s Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live In Vietnam on Black Forum (a subsidiary of Motown Records) was a series of field interviews with black soldiers in Vietnam. In these candid interviews black troops talk about racism in the military and in the US, The Black Panthers, and Ho Chi Minh.
Another was jazz violinist Billy Bang’s, Vietnam the afterlife (2001). Here Billy Bang brings together a group of jazz musicians, all Vietnam Vets to create an album of haunting, beautiful and fragile music. In the album’s footnotes Billy Bang writes:
This project has been in my mind for at least thirty years. My inability to bravely confront my personal demons, my experiences in Vietnam, has been a continuous struggle. For decades I’ve lived constantly with my unwillingness to deliberately conjure up the pain of those experiences. At night I would experience severe nightmares of death and destruction and during the day I lived a kind undefined ambiguous daydream.
In 2005 Billy returned with another album Vietnam Reflections. This time he recorded with US and Vietnamese veterans. Again the music is beautiful and reflective. The idea of musicians from different sides of a war coming together 30 years later breaks so many taboos.
Some may say that the weakness of the Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd project is that it only looks at the horrors of war from the perspective of US vets. I think it’s important never to forget the horrors inflicted on the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions of people mentally and physically scarred. These people are the victims of US and UK imperialism.
But is also true that those doing the oppressing can also be victims – the actions they carry out in the name of their country, the horrors they see and the wounds they receive come back to haunt them.
This album captures all those contradictions and more. On the track Dreams in Color, Lynn makes it clear even with peace there is no peace:
When I dream, I dream of normalcy
I dream the colour of peace
This is an important record in so many ways, I only hope more people get to hear it.