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A portrait of a politically-driven musician

American musician Tao Seeger speaks to Ahram Online on music and its important role in revolutions over the course of history, following his performance on the night of the Egyptian Revolution's first anniversary last month

Farah Montasser, Tuesday 14 Feb 2012
Tao Seeger
Tao Seeger performing with grandfather Pete Seeger (right)
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American musician Tao Seeger speaks to Ahram Online on music and its role combating oppression after his New Orleans concert marking one day of Egypt’s revolution

“Music and art have always played a critical role in revolutions,” Tao Seeger tells Ahram Online. “When governments crack down on freedom of speech of the media, the only ones who can speak truth to power are artists with the ear of the people...We see examples of this from Shakespeare to Bob Dylan,” he explains.

Tao Seeger performed at the People is Singular event in New Orleans, marking one year of the Egyptian revolution, and launching a book of poetry by the same name by Andy Young. A number of artists took part in the cultural multimedia event, with Seeger contributing with what he knows best: protest music.

“I have been singing songs of protest all my life,” Seeger says recalling his grandfather Pete Seeger, an iconic protest singer and Seeger’s mentor. “Both of my grandparents played a big part in the civil rights movement in America,” he says.

Protest music, Seeger says, dates many years back in the US when African-Americans found sorrow and despair in music to demonstrate their civil rights and freedom. Seeger grew up living with his grandparents, who “lived in a United States of America that was not as free as it is today,” he tells Ahram Online.

Until the 1960s, “African-Americans did not have access to the simplest of things, including restaurants, bathrooms, and voting booths.”African-Americans fought hard to co-exist socially and politically, and to attain their civil rights, and music as Seeger puts it “played a huge role in the civil rights movement.”

The musical legacy of ‘protest music’ was passed onto Seeger by his grandfather. The musical education he received also included music of the 1970s anti-nuclear power movement that expressed itself in USA in 1970s. “I grew up with all that music around me, singing those songs and learning about the history of my country through that music,” Seeger remembers.

In a different kind of musical influence, Seeger was exposed to the music of the Nicaraguan revolution when he accompanied his father Emilio Rodriguez, a war correspondent, on a visit to the country. It was in Nicaragua that hebegan the merging of rock and roll and folk music that would come to influence Seeger in his musical career. 

Back in the US, Seeger joined his grandfather at a Hiroshima Day rally in 1986, performing with him for the first time in front of an audience of more than half a million people. Thus began the musical partnership between grandfather and grandson that would take them around the world.

“As I grew older, I found that I agreed with most of my grandparents’ reasons for participating in our democracy in the way they did and I feel that it's my responsibility to carry on their legacy in whatever way I can,” he says.

Music to Seeger had become highly associated with democracy and freedom, and the way he does music has earned him the label “protest musician and singer.” Seeger objects to this label. “I don't really like the term protest music all that much,” he says. “It puts the burden of quality on the protest and not enough on the music. If a song speaks to people and helps them in times of struggle then I think it can transcend the protest altogether,” Seeger adds.

Not only does Seeger see his music free as free from political and social labels, he also believes that his music is free from the industry’s genre and styles. In the music business, Seeger’s music is described and categorised as folk/rock with a “rootsy and psychedelic sound.” Seeger says he finds such labels “so limiting… I really hate genre and I do not find it the least bit relevant,” he comments. 

“I try to contribute as best I can by writing songs about what I see going on around me.  I sometimes produce concerts and as in the case of Andy Young, I collaborate with other artists as part of an ensemble of creative people to work on a larger piece: The People Is Singular.” 

Seeger believes that music and oppression cannot co-exist for “the best music is always selfless and made not for profit but for the enjoyment and good of the community. Oppression is by its very nature the opposite of what great music is.” 

Commenting on how people can face oppression, Seeger states that “it is always the musicians, poets and artists who are the first ones on the chopping block whenever oppression rears its ugly head.”

At 39 years old, Seeger has his own band and is the co-founder of the folk/rock groups RIG (Rodriguez/Irion/Guthrie) with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and The Mammals with Mike & Ruthy Merenda. In 2007, Seeger was featured in the Emmy-winning documentary film, ‘Pete Seeger - The Power of Song,’ where he performed at Carnegie Hall with Arlo Guthrie in his annual Thanksgiving concert. 

The Tao Seeger Band is a revolving cast of wonderful characters including Laura Cortese on fiddle and vocals, Jason Crosby on keyboards, Charlie Rose on pedal steel and banjo, Jake Silver on bass and Robin MacMillan on drums. The band has performed at a lineup of events, including the ‘2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’, ‘Newport Folk Festival’ and ‘The Clearwater Concert: Creating the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders at Madison Square Garden.'

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