Music in our message

The Guardian Thursday April 4 1996

At demonstrations across Britain, a new music is being played. And it's not Kumbaya. Newbury protester Gibby Zobel reports.

What did you do in the Eco-War, daddy?
Did you stand up, did you speak up enough?
Is enough
Was it your voice that shouted?
Were you there when it counted?
Where were you when the tide turned?
Did you act with honour?
Did you think about the future?
Did you know that one day I'll be standing there with you?

IT WAS autumn when the Mothership landed. Straddling six tree trunks with enough floor space to do two forward rolls, Europe's biggest tree house was a magnificent feat of building work. Hovering at the Kennet Camp in Newbury -- Britain's largest ever road protest -- it was named in honor of pop idol Julian Cope. Cope had arrived at the camp in January, unaware. «Wow!» the wizard had exclaimed. «That was named after a tune by me?»

Three weeks ago, the Mothership was evicted, dismantled, and the possessions of the protestors scattered in the mud below. Ten days later, Cope played a Mothership benefit -- Kar-Ma-Geddon -- in Portsmouth. Party and protest, dude.

In the quiet woods, acoustic is king. The reassuring «clink, clink» of tree-dwellers in the sky. Community singing. Chanting. Raggle-taggle gypsy on penny-whistle. The hills are alive with the sound of...flute, hammer dulcimer, banjo, tabla, bagpipes, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, recorder, trumpet, whistles, sax, horns, didgeridoos -- and digeridon'ts, as those who haven't quite mastered circular breathing are known.

They're all there on Tribal Voices, a unique collection of original contemporary folk songs, poems and chants released this week that «reflects the new indigenous tribal culture that has rooted and is spreading throughout Britain». Fifty-six artists were recorded by the former Space Goat Clive Ray and his partner Chrissie Ortner at traditional and sacred sites -- and round the campfire at road protests across Britain.

«We are a people retracing the roots of our ancestors, living a simple and nomadic life close to nature,» read the sleeve notes. «Many of us travel with horses, donkeys, handcarts and rickshaws. We celebrate the ways and patterns of the universe and we believe that our music, dance and folklore returns a creative and positive energy to the land.»

Tragic Roundabout, legendary in protest circles, play what sounds like 100-mile-an-hour Jewish wedding music threaded, oddly, with popular TV themes. «Thirty years ago people knew the common folk and pub tunes. Now all they know is The Wombles,» explains Richard, who plays banjo.

«At first I was uneasy about what to do at a protest but I found playing music is positive, it raises the spirit. At Newbury there are hectic flurries of activity for five minutes and the rest of the time it's a psychological battle. If you fill that time with music people relax and dance.» It's also a defence: «I can lean on security guards and if I get arrested it's gonna look pretty stupid, y'know, 'playing a banjo in an aggressive manner!'» It didn't stop him being arrested last month, though, at a free street party against car culture. «I was just standing outside the pub. They smashed my banjo -- it's pretty hard to do that.» He's planning to sue the police.

Why take these risks? Shannon, who has been singing at Newbury for months, says she does it to keep the protest «fluffy». Music breaks barriers that cannot be broken physically. Her warm approach has even led to security guards penning lyrics with her: «What are we doing here? / Need a job to feed my children / Pay the mortgage / Pay the bills / To build a road that always kills / Shattered ambition, shattered dreams / Stuck in a job with no self-esteem / What are we doing here?» She smiles: «I get requests now.»

It's a far cry from Oasis. Noel Gallagher's new Rolls Royce would probably get trashed if he drove it too close. In that other world, the music industry, artistic independence is vanishing. In seven years almost all the «indies» have been bought up. The last remaining major British record company, Thorn EMI, is almost certain to fall into foreign hands. A few hold out: Mute, One Little Indian -- and China, who've got Zion Train and The Levellers on their books. Both bands are outspoken about the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), which has been used to arrest more than 700 people since the Third Battle of Newbury began 10 weeks ago. The Levellers provide rent-free office space at their Metway HQ in Brighton for the campaign collective Justice?. «We were born out of the free festival movement,» says Levellers co-manager Dave Farrow. «The CJA affects us as much as anyone.»

The Act specifically attacks one type of music -- «the repetitive beats» of techno. Techno is folk music too, music for the folks of the urban jungle. In the mish-mash of nineties sub-cultures, free party sound systems and road protests are united through being outlawed. It seems everyone is under attack.

Black Moon's free party sound system last month became the first rig in the country to be confiscated by the Government under the CJA. It took 10 officers half an hour to pack the equipment into a van. Goodbye £6,000. «All three of us now have criminal records and are thousands of pounds out of pocket,» said Black Moon's Bruno. «All for the crime of trying to provide free entertainment on remote, disused land for people who can't afford to pay expensive club prices.» Abominable behaviour.

Then there are demons like Matt. Matt designs experimental sound systems by day and DJs on the 8K Inner Field rig by night. They put on regular free parties in Brighton. The unique system is totally portable -- the kit is divided into four stacks of 64 cardboard tubes. Everyone helps carry one. «No one's into making money from something we enjoy so much. Free parties are happier, more relaxed, feel safer and develop a family feeling. You get to know people.» At the moment they lend their rig out for sound therapy techno dance sessions for mentally ill children. «One of 'em put his hand straight through a bass driver last week,» laments Matt. «Thought it was a drum.»

Without music, life's too serious. But it can be a distraction from the very serious business of being a pain in the neck. Paul, a busker and a familiar face round road camps, plays a regular reminder: «Here we are, wop-fal-de-ra / Singing and drinking and dancing / Wasting our time on music and wine / When we could be bulldozer-driving.»