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Reclaim the thunder: Taína Asili y la Banda Rebelde.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Urban Guerrillas

Taína Asili y la Banda Rebelde practice what they preach

By Josh Potter

In an era when irony is often synonymous with artistry and success is determined by how long bands remain favorable in the blogosphere, it can be a risky move for a musician to espouse the belief that “music can change the world.” But for Taína Asili, leader of la Banda Rebelde (or, the Rebel Band), she doesn’t hesitate.

“If you look at our history,” she says, “you see over and over that music has played a central role in changing how people think, for the good and bad. How we make change in the larger political landscape starts with how we affect one another individually, and music brings message in a way that opens people—their heart, mind, spirit—in a way they might not be opened if they’re just reading an essay or a newspaper.”

A teacher, activist, community organizer, and mother, Asili has specific goals for her music and the language that it carries. It’s been only three years since she moved to Albany, but in this time she’s built a new band, possibly the region’s most diverse; penned a host of politically urgent tunes in a variety of languages; toured the country twice; and, most recently, released War Cry, a pan-global roots-musical mélange that appeals to the struggle of tradition to envision a world of social justice. Just don’t call it “world music.”

“It’s sort of the [category] that fits,” she says, “but I was always really reluctant to use that term. We’re pulling from a lot of different influences, not just the ethnicities of the people in our band. ”

Asili herself is Puerto Rican and grew up in Binghamton speaking both English and Spanish. The daughter of musicians, she grew up with jazz and Latin American music and Broadway musicals as early influences, but she first studied voice in the European classical tradition with an opera singer from Peru. Needless to say, it was a big jump when she started her performing career with punk band Antiproduct. Based in Philadelphia, the group recorded four albums, toured nationally a number of times, and through a European label found a following in Malaysia, Japan and Australia. Not only was it the beginning of Asili’s musical career, but it also launched an interest in politics and the transformative power of language.

When Antiproduct broke up in 2002, Asili transitioned into Philadelphia’s vibrant spoken-word scene, performing her poetry alongside prominent figures like Sonia Sanchez and Ursula Rucker. She started teaching poetry workshops at a Puerto Rican cultural center, a women’s correctional facility and for refugees and union workers. Eventually, she got her MA in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College and in 2005 won the Transformation Award, given by the Leeway Foundation, a group committed to “art making as an integral part of social change.”

As she says, “Transformative language arts is looking at the ways the spoken, written and sung word is used to make personal and social change manifest. If you look at some of the most ancient forms of poetry and song, they’re used as practices to get through the day—for cooking, cleaning, agriculture, also in ceremony and prayer. The Puerto Rican people have held onto this very strongly. During the time of slavery we had art forms which were used to resist slavery, organize revolt, celebrate humanity and pray for a better day.”

Winning the Transformation Award, she says, was life-changing and put her on track to building what would become la Banda Rebelde. She moved to Albany in 2006 and started singing backing vocals for her brother Victorio Reyes Asili’s hip-hop rock band Broadcast Live. It was with that band that she met guitarist Gaetano Vaccaro, who would become her husband.

Vaccaro is first-generation Sicilian and learned guitar from his father and grandfather. “He and I started doing music,” Asili says, “and I realized I had to let out all this stuff I was experiencing. I had a vision for this new musical group that was really holistic to who I was. I knew I wanted a really diverse group of musicians ethnically, racially, gender-wise, but also musically. I thought that would be pretty challenging, living in a small city, but I ended up finding just that over the course of a year.”

She first found drummer Kiki Vassilakis, who was born and raised in Greece, is queer, and does activist work in the LGBTQ community. Versed in a number of musical styles, she also plays in a traditional Greek band. Next, it was bassist Sean Muniz, who is Brazilian but was born in Australia and raised in India. He comes from a background in rock, metal and reggae, and works in the antiwar movement. Rounding out the rhythm section is Saeed Abbas, a percussionist of the Hausa tribe, who has performed as the master drummer for Ghana’s National Dance Ensemble. Lastly, Alicia Ortiz, of Spanish descent and with a foundation in gospel, sings the bilingual backup vocals.

“One of the strengths of our group,” Asili says, “is that we can touch a lot of people from the cultural, political and musical perspective. We can play a large variety of settings: international and world music festivals, political conferences, hip-hop and rock events.”

While War Cry probably would earn the “world music” label in a record store or on iTunes, the range of styles is startling. “Mama Guerrilla,” a track where Asili describes herself as an “urban Zapatista,” owes to antagonistic political rock in the style of Rage Against the Machine. The title track features a Malian guitar part, a sunny Afropop lilt, and lyrics in five languages, while “Mariposa del Fuego” is a very traditional sounding flamenco, a style Asili and Vaccaro have been studying with local guitarist Maria Zemantauski—and traveled to Spain last year to pursue. “As a Puerto Rican woman,” Asili says, “half of my ancestry is in Spain, but it’s something I never really took a look at.” What she found in the folk music of the Gitano people resonated with other struggle-based Afro-Caribbean art forms.

Indeed, anticolonialism, environmental justice and political-prisoner justice form the bedrock of Asili’s lyrics. In Philadelphia she worked closely on the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, and she currently works with the Albany Political Prisoner Support Committee. “Prison Break” might be the clearest representation of this work: The lyrics come from an experience Asili had exchanging letters with prisoners, realizing through the advice that they were giving her that, in certain ways, she lived a more captive mental and spiritual life than they did physically. In this way, the band’s message of revolution can be taken as much in a psycho-spiritual sense as in concrete political terms.

The band don’t take their rebel identity lightly. “It’s called Banda Rebelde for a reason. I believe in rebellion,” Asili says, true to her punk roots, “but with a vision of something more. [The band members] don’t all have the same political perspective, but there’s a certain set of principles we hang on to.” Before releasing War Cry, the band sat down to draw up and sign a statement of 10 principles that guide their work. Depending on where the band is performing and what may be happening in the news, the material provides a platform to offer social commentary. Using the BP oil spill as an example, she says, “we might find a way to connect that to a song we’ve written like ‘She Lives,’ a song that talks about environmental justice.”

Not only does Asili believe in music’s ability to manifest change, but she’s seen the results. “I still get letters to this day from people telling me that the work I did with [Antiproduct] inspired them to get involved with community organizing and political work,” she says. “To use the metaphor of the matrix, music can be the pill that awakens us to what’s going on.”


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