It’s been three years since we launched Border Songs into the world on Oct. 12, 2010, at a standing-room-only concert at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, AZ. In the meantime, much has happened. First and foremost, we have essentially sold all of the albums—5,000 double albums!—and we gave every cent of the proceeds to No More Deaths / No más muertes (http://www.nomoredeaths.org). Each album that we sold generated $20 for No More Deaths which provides enough money for No More Deaths to buy 29 gallons of water. That’s roughly $100,000 for humanitarian aid—or, expressed differently, nearly 145,000 gallons of water (or the equivalent in food, medical aid or blankets) for people in extreme need.
In this way we helped further No More Deaths’ mission of “Ending death and suffering in the Arizona / Mexico borderlands.” I have personally met several people who told me that they would have died had they not found water left in the desert by humanitarians. I get weak in the knees every time I hear that. It hits home. It becomes real. Unfortunately, this crisis is real.
People—men, women and children—continue to suffer and die all along the US/Mexico border, including in Arizona. Last year 133 dead bodies were found in the Tucson sector, an increase from 122 the year before. And keep in mind that these are just the bodies found. If you’ve seen the desert you know—as we stated in the Border Songs booklet, the area is vast and many, perhaps most, of those who perish are never found. We can take some solace in knowing that few of these bodies were found in the immediate area where No More Deaths works. No More Deaths makes a difference. Humanitarian aid is never a crime!
Three years in and I still cannot believe the breadth and scope of the Border Songs album. We brought together work by artists from Aztlán, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and all over the United States. Border Songs unites poets, performance artists, sound sculptors, writers and musicians. I probably said it a thousand times while hawking the album at Farmers’ Markets and festivals, “It’s the most eclectic album in the world!” Border Songs crosses from Spanish to English, from spoken word to music, from hip hop to cumbia, from mariachi to Central American New Song, from mambo to rock, acoustic instrumental guitar to country, from folk songs to animal fables, to the vibrations of border wall itself. Border Songs is an almost impossibly eclectic mixture, but it works because it’s all held together by a proclamation, respect for and defense of the dignity of human beings regardless of their ethnicity or the country where they were born.
In addition to the humanitarian aid that Border Songs helped to fund, the album has generated a great amount of thought, awareness and discussion. It’s as if Border Songs is an album of seeds—growing and reproducing awareness about the humanitarian crisis taking place on our border all over the world. I am happy to report that there are Border Songs albums in every state of the U.S. (with the possible exceptions of North and South Dakota). There are albums throughout Latin America, and Europe, even in places as remote as Iceland, India, Japan and Kazakhstan. The album was broadcast in its entirety by radio stations in Mexico City and Australia. I learned recently that a track from the album was played at an event in the Pompidou Center in Paris. Border Songs crosses borders!
Over the last three years artists from the album presented a series of events and concerts with music, art and spoken word—powerful experiences for all of those present, including the artists and the audiences.
Sadly, in the three years since we released the album we lost three contributors:
•Pete Seeger, passed at 94 years old. He chopped wood up until eight days before he died. I think that every single contributor to the album was, and is, incredibly honored to have participated in a compilation with one of the most influential musicians in the history of American folk music. Pete Seeger was not only an influential musician, he was a man of conviction who, when interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Mccarthy era, refused to discuss the communists with his inquisitors and instead offered to sing them his songs. Pete Seeger believed in justice. To think that we created a project that Pete Seeger endorsed, celebrated and participated in is, simply put, mind blowing! Pete Seeger knew that no human being is illegal.
•Charles Bowden passed unexpectedly. He left this earth without warning, but before departing he left in print a vast cannon of border writing that helps to draw attention to the complexity of this sometimes forgotten frontier. The fact that Border Songs includes an audio recording of Chuck’s unique and evocative voice, in the desert, on the border, helps keep his voice present today. “There are no Mexican stars or American stars,” growels Charles Bowden while looking into the sky above the border on Border Songs, “it’s like a great biological unity with a meat cleaver of law cutting it in half.”
•Cyril Barrett was taken from us way too young. Cyril had volunteered with No More Deaths and the beautiful song he contributed to Border Songs, “Coyotes of Sasabe” reflects the musical memories of someone who knew, intimately, the trails that migrants and No More Deaths volunteers walk. Though we didn’t know Cyril before he sent us his submission, we became friends over the course of producing the album. He played with us at three concerts, in Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson, and he peddled albums while playing out in Tucson. “Which way to go nobody knows it’s north and east a little,” sings Cyril on the album, as if simultaneously describing the disorientation of refugees in the desert and, metaphorically, our own confusion at figuring out what to do to fix this awful situation. I spoke with Cyril by phone a week or two before he passed. It seemed pretty clear that he was on his way out. I didn’t know what to say. I told him how many albums we had sold and he laughed with joy. I felt happy that Border Songs could bring some relief to Cyril at a moment when his outlook was really bleak.
Looking back over the last three years, I cannot believe how much this project enriched my own life. I made so many friends, from contributors to the album and people who worked to prepare the package, to people who participated in the Border Songs concert/events in Flagstaff, Sedona, Phoenix and Tucson. Never in a million years did I imagine myself playing and singing in concerts, sometimes to audiences in excess of two hundred people. Thanks to John Tannous and his team for giving us the support of the Coconino Center for the Arts, and Chad Hammill and the Center for Indigenous Music and Culture for procuring us quality sound at each of those shows.
I’ve continued to write border songs of my own all of this time. Though I never thought of myself as a “songwriter” before the album, I’ve now written eight of my own border songs, and performed many of them at concerts. Even when singing them to myself in my living room I feel these stories deeply. The crisis on the border has occupied my soul. I have even written poetry about the border.
There are way too many people who helped with this project to thank everyone. If I tried to thank all who have helped and deserve recognition you would stop reading before getting a third of the way through this blog. That said, I at least want to thank a few people who made enormous contributions. First and foremost, thanks to my co-producer, Chuck Cheesman (“Uphill: American Dream”), who came up with the crazy idea to make a CD for No More Deaths in the first place. Chuck insisted we put my song, “Voluntary Return” on the album—it’s his fault!—and I am amazed to this day to be part of a compilation with this group of people.
I never would have written “Voluntary Return” if No More Deaths volunteer Christa Sadler hadn’t offered to help me take a group of students on a field trip to the border in 2010. Before that first trip I had an academic understanding of the border and undocumented immigration. On the border, while meeting the people I describe in that song, I was hit in the gut so hard that my song emerged. Christa and I kept taking groups to the border, and Christa started taking other groups from Northern Arizona University and Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy. Before we knew it, and with a cohort of supporters at each of these institutions, we had started an unofficial Border Field Trips program in Flagstaff, Arizona. I first heard Christa sing while out at the No More Deaths Byrd Camp in the desert and at the shrine of Josselyn, a child who tragically lost her life while crossing. Christa’s voice is the last track you hear on each of the discs.
After we announced the Border Songs Project with an online “Call for Songs,” people contacted us and offered to help. Christa Agostino contacted me from Prescott, like mana from heaven, and asked if we had a graphic designer. She, like everyone else involved in the album, donated her time and created a slew of different design options. Shawn Skabelund, worked behind the scenes on many parts of the album (and the planning committee of the Beyond the Border: The Wall the People and the Land exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts which ended up bringing a great deal of the album art to the project), Christa Agostino, Chuck, and I negotiated and fretted over the package until, miraculously, we settled on the killer design, with Raoul Deal’s incredible art on the cover, and Michael Hyatt’s and Rex Koningsor’s and Shawn’s photographs, a collection of images that makes Border Songs a visual, as well as a sonorous, work of art. It took a village to produce this album.
Bill Carter, a friend of a friend, appeared out of nowhere and offered to invite several internationally known musicians and writers to contribute to the album. The artists readily agreed, but when some of the record labels started to flex their muscles about permissions, Bill didn’t give up until he procured gratis rights to the songs. I’m proud to have worked with a such a generous and talented film-maker/writer.
Then folk musician/producer Ted Warmband (“Who’s the Criminal Here”), contacted me to ask if we’d like to have some incredibly well-known musicians on the album. Not only did Ted help to make the album the extraordinary compilation that it is, he also played in four Border Songs concerts, in Flagstaff and Tucson, and helped me produce other concerts. He has even come to sing to my students while we’re on field trips. Most importantly for me, Ted has become a dear friend.
Flagstaff artists Matt Hall (aka, m. henry) and Pachuco & Classik filled incredible niches in the album’s wide angle scope. They all, generously, performed in multiple presentations. Matt performed all over Arizona with us, making people laugh, smile and then think, about the selfish purpose behind the border wall. Pachuco & Classik showed us, through hip hop, the complexity of young people’s experience of living in the U.S. without documents. This reality became doubly manifest when Pachuco decided he could not play at the release concert in Tucson for fear of driving through Phoenix where he might be detained by the authorities. We can breathe easier knowing that Pachuco received his papers and can now travel safely.
Glenn Weyant, my border-wall playing sound sculptor friend has also been there throughout to help push this project and to help resonate sonically in an ever-expanding soundscape. Glenn too has spoken in Flagstaff, participated in concerts and has met with my students and, most memorably for me, invited us to join him in the largest group ensemble performances of the world’s largest most expensive and most lethal instrument—the border wall. Glenn insistently blogged about Border Songs to his followers in the sonicsphere. And every time Glenn gives an interview to a journalist from anywhere in the world he tells them about Border Songs!
We’re grateful to all of the contributing artists, but Scott Ainslie, Katia Cardenal, Eliza Gilkyson and Joel Rafael made extra generous efforts to promote Border Songs. Katia (from Dúo Guaradabarranco) came to Flagstaff with her daughter Nina to perform as featured performers at Border Songs first anniversary concert. Scott and Eliza carried albums with them on tour to sell. Joel dedicated an entire day of his radio show to interview me about Border Songs and to play the music from the album. Joel told me that Border Songs is the best project for a cause he’s ever been involved in. I can definitely say the same thing!
Here’s a true confession: I, naively, thought it would be easy to sell 5,000 albums . I innocently believed that NPR, Terry Gross and Dianne Rheim would all interview us and the albums would sell like hotcakes. I know that there are millions of people on this earth who would gladly buy a $20 album to save lives. And yet, unfortunately, millions of people never heard about Border Songs. Though I gave interviews about the album at every opportunity throughout the country, we never got picked up by that top layer of national press that could and would have sold out the album in a couple of months. When I looked at the original stack of the first 2,000 CDs in my garage, and realized that they could be there forever, I kind of panicked. The thought that I had begged people to donate some $9,000 to make the album (thank you, once again, to all who donated and helped us to fundraise!), and that these albums might just gather dust in my garage forever was completely terrifying. In response, I became obsessed with selling the album. I consciously embraced a cartoon-character persona, constantly challenging myself to sell an album to every caring person with whom I came into contact. I wouldn’t go to a doctor or dentist appointment without giving the folks in the office the opportunity to purchase an album. I couldn’t sit on an airplane without finding a way to bring up the border and try to sell Border Songs to the people beside me. It worked! I sold albums in cafés in Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and supershuttles in New York City. I sold the album to my vet, my roofer and everyone in-between. My kids were mortified to see me in sales mode, but, knowing that my goal was to save lives, they shouldered the embarrassment as best they could. My personal record on a plane was six albums sold to a woman who bought them to give away as Christmas gifts.
And I had a LOT of help. So many people helped to sell the album, it’s impossible to mention a fraction of them, but I want to at least thank those who believed in this project so much that they stuck with it time and time again. Reyna Cárdenas, Jude Costello, Nate Edenhofer, Conrad Felix, Erika Hess, Alleigha Keeling, Sarah Larsen, Mollie Muchna, Emily O’Neil, Brandon Pence, Alyosha Sándoval—these folks, and MANY others, would table at events all over Flagstaff and would talk to people about the border and Border Songs. We learned a lot about people while selling the album. It wasn’t always pretty. I’ll never forget the time a guy told Reyna to go back to Mexico. She cried, took some deep breaths and went right back to selling CDs. Once a guy told me that we ought to post a guard every quarter mile on the border and “shoot every last one that comes across.” “I guess you don’t want to buy an album,” I responded. Usually though, people were supportive if we could get their attention. The challenge was to get people to stop and talk—if you don’t engage them, people will walk right past you at your table. Thanks to the Flagstaff Community Market for letting us sell so many times at the market, and the Museum of Northern Arizona for letting us sell at the Day of the Dead celebraciones. Thank you to Rand Jenkins for letting us sell at the Hullabaloo and Conucopia festivals. Thanks to the Ballet Folklórico de Colores, especially Jessica Kitterman, for the long-term loan of their tent which protected us from the elements. Thank you to Marisol for helping us get a booth at the Latin American Studies Association congresses. Thank you Tracey Goode, for inviting us to play a concert at sell at the Rocky Mountain Council for Latin American Studies Association conference in Tucson. Thank you to the stores from Oregon to New York, who sold the album and supported the cause.
While tabling, we realized that the album was more than an object to sell. Border Songs, for us, became an opening, an opportunity to talk with people about the humanitarian catastrophe on our border. And since the reality is so hidden behind a discursive wall of bla bla, and since everyone is so busy now a days, many people right here in Arizona have no idea what’s going on. Over the last three years we asked thousands of people if they had heard about Border Songs and we showed them photographs of little girls who died in the desert, and death maps, and we told them that over 7,000 human remains have been found since 1994 and that these are just the bodies found . . . While trying to engage with people, we amused ourselves by profiling them. We would look at the crowd and try to figure out who would be interested in talking and who wouldn’t. Often, people would surprise us. Occasionally, you’d be sure that someone would be with “us” and they would start talking about illegal this and illegal that, shake their heads and march off in disgust. Other times, someone we might think would be anti-immigrant would turn out to be strongly supportive of the project and compassionate. Students, we sometimes thought, hardly ever bought the album, but we would still talk to them. One day a young man looked up at me with tears in his eyes. “I have to buy this,” he told me, “my parents crossed that border!”
We relearned, over and over, the old adage that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Sometimes people’s reactions were thick with irony. “Have you heard about the Border Songs CD?,” I would ask at a festival to get a passerby’s attention. “Sorry man, I’m dying of thirst” more than one told me, hurrying to buy a beer or a drink and having no idea just how ironic their get-me-out-of-here response could be in this particular case. And fortunately, many people asked questions, and people gave donations, and some cried, and some got mad, and some hugged us, and quite a few bought albums to listen to or give away to their friends. And all along we kept sending money to No More Deaths in Tucson and Phoenix. And we learned that just because people are conservative doesn’t mean that they want people to die in the desert. I sold albums to Tea Party people who told me that they didn’t agree with me about politics but that they didn’t want folks to die in the desert. (I wrote about that once in a blog called “Finding Common Ground.”)
Anyway, long story short, today Border Songs is three years old today. There is just a handful of albums left online (see purchase links), and No More Deaths has a few, but that’s all that remain for sale out of the 5,000 cds that we made. Personally, it’s quite an adjustment for me not to have any more albums to sell. When I meet someone friendly I sort of twitch internally, I instinctively feel like I ought to sell this person an album. Then I remember that I have none to sell, I’m not that album selling guy any more . . . I need to find other ways to communicate with people now. Stay tuned, we’ll figure something out. Thanks again, for everything!
October 12, 2015