Featured Music: Wednesday, August 24, 2005
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Kahsen: ‘I never thought I’d see this country attack a country unprovoked for no reason, and people know that and still don’t care.’
Jhon Kahsen
Every Tue-Fri at Sardine’s Ristorante Italiano, 509 N University Dr, FW. 817-332-9937. For more information, visit www.jcasemusic.com.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Protest Jazz

The artist formerly known as Johnny Case turns musical metaphor into an indictment of U.S. foreign policy.

By PABLO LASTRA

He doesn’t seem like a radical. He was a piano prodigy who, with his older brother, helped shape Texas Swing in the 1940s, and for the past 22 years he’s been playing straight-ahead jazz at one of Fort Worth’s most popular restaurants, Sardine’s Ristorante Italiano in the Cultural District. But Johnny Case may be the most politically charged musician in North Texas. He now goes by a Muslim name, Jhon Kahsen, in honor of civilians killed in Iraq and elsewhere as a result of U.S. foreign policy. He is also releasing Love’s Bitter Rage, a self-described “protest-jazz” album that in lyrics and music sharply criticizes U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Latin America.

“It’s an exercise in free speech,” Kahsen said. “And I feel so strongly about this. It feels like nowadays, if you’re not taking a stand, then you’re part of the problem.”

Kahsen said that he decided to write the record a couple of years ago after hearing a speech by a Guatemalan woman calling for the closure of the School of the Americas. Now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the Georgia-based organization uses American military personnel to train Latin American troops in paramilitary combat. The woman claims that her family was killed by SOA graduates.

“I was very moved by this lady’s story, how after years of waiting, she knew that her children were not going to return,” Kahsen said. “She said it took her 20 years to accept what’s unacceptable. I was haunted by her words. I replayed them over and over, and one day I felt compelled to write a song that expressed that feeling of someone seeking justice.”

What began as a mere “song” soon became an entire “peace and justice suite” — and an album.

Love’s Bitter Rage is unlike Kahsen’s previous 13 full-lengths, including last year’s Waiting for the Moment. Not only does Rage consist of all originals, it draws its power not from music alone but also from lyrics and supplemental material. Included in the c.d.’s packaging is a 20-page booklet of essays by local activists, including 1919 Hemphill’s Ramsey Sprague, attorney Maureen Tolbert, and Kahsen’s wife, Kitty Case. The project, Kitty Case said, has revealed “one of the most beautiful songs he’s written — it’s awakened the political side of him.”

The 58-year-old musician said that he had never been intensely involved in politics. The extent of his participation was limited to contributing some money to civil rights groups. That all changed when he and his wife were in England shortly before the invasion of Iraq.

“We saw for ourselves how the people in England felt about the situation, and they were very much opposed to it,” he said. “When we got back, I saw how the American corporate news channels were covering this, and it was completely different. It was like propaganda. I never thought I’d see this country attack a country unprovoked for no reason, and people know that and still don’t care.”

The spirit of protest is part of every musical genre’s history. Though easily recognizable in vocal jazz songs, such as Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” and, earlier, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” outrage directed at specific targets is impossible to identify in the all-metaphor realm of instrumental music, especially without the help of a song title or good liner notes.

For Rage, Kahsen looked to the work of composer/drummer Max Roach and composer/bassist Charles Mingus. To combat the racial injustices of the 1950s, both artists parlayed moods of frustration and anger into aggressive, nearly inaccessible instrumental music.

“Writing the songs [on Rage] came to me very easily, even though I’ve always found composing hard,” Kahsen said. “The thoughts I had informed the music — the lyrics should make it clear what the album is about.”

The title track, in both English and Spanish versions, is the single Rage song with vocals, and its modulated vocal melody shows the impressive range of mezzo-sopranos Chelsea Coyne and Claudia Gonzalez. The message is clear: “I vow to tell the world the ugly truth I know / I vow to make the blinded people see / It’s a great hypocrisy that they say, / ‘Live and be free’ / They come to rob and murder too for vile greed ... You’ll see, the disappeared will someday be avenged / I know for USA the time is near.”

Recorded in the winter of 2004 with Byron Gordon on bass, Joey Carter on percussion, Chris White on flute and trumpet, and Sylvester Jones on tenor saxophone, Love’s Bitter Rage will be released by Kahsen in September. The company that distributed Waiting for the Moment, Sea Breeze Records, showed no interest in distributing Rage — surprise, surprise. “It’s ironic,” Kahsen said. “Jazz is a revolutionary form of music, but the business side can be conservative.” Kahsen has played some of the songs live — but only once, about a month ago at the Veterans for Peace conference in Dallas. Response, Kahsen said, was encouraging.

Will the Sardine’s crowd be as sympathetic as Vets for Peace?

“Quite a few fans are curious about the record,” Kahsen said. “A lot of people have shown their support and wish me well. I realize it may alienate some people, but I haven’t heard anything like that so far.”

Kahsen said that he hasn’t converted to Islam but that he’s serious about the name change. “One of my friends asked me if I had become a Muslim. I told him I wanted to express support for all the Muslim victims of our wars,” Kahsen said. “I will use this name on all my recordings from now on.”


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