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Anarchist Europe: a view from the outside. Part 1
To exist as a band without the corporate music industry is in itself a political feat.
– Ian McKaye of Teen Idols, Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Evens
White Man Destroys Culture.
– Sticker stuck on a wall at a venue in North Germany
Sitting in a village on the edge of Kathmandu happily listening to the Subhumans, I had this yearning to go to Europe. A good friend of ours from Holland calls the West “the fortress”; he said the people, the culture, and the way the whole place works is like a fortress, sealed and intimidating. I agreed with him and so why would I want to leave my six-year-old son behind for six weeks to travel in hostile territory? Not for work, nor for a better life, or for fortune but because I am “virused” and I am a little punkish.
In 2009, we got an email from somebody who’d been following our band for a while, asking us to gig at some shows for a festival organised by the ministry of culture in Denmark, all expenses paid. Though the other half of my band (my partner, who is also the drummer) was totally sceptical about a government-funded offer – the fact that some comrades of a similar “virused” nature happened to be part of the organising committee gave us confidence that we weren’t going to become sell-outs just yet.
The festival’s theme was “subculture”, so we fitted in along with the South African slam poetry and Zimbabwean street theatre. “Punk from Nepal” on posters all across Copenhagen did look kind of funny, juxtaposed with gargoyles and sports shop mannequins wearing nothing but shoulder-strapped red G-strings (the G-string was my moment of uncontrollable laughter on tour). The idea was to do this festival then continue to tour four other countries in Europe. (The UK was also initially on the agenda. However I was really sad that nobody responded to my call for help with contacts.)
After the third gig in Copenhagen I lost my voice due to coming out of a steamy hot venue into the sharp, cold Scandinavian night air. In retrospect, the worst part of our tour wasn’t the cops searching us or the time I got rejected when about to board a flight going in transit through the UK (I found out the hard way that Nepalis need a transit visa for this fortress – I was miffed because I know my father, a retired gurkha, still pays taxes to Britain).
No, the worst part of the tour was this half-cracked voice that somehow stuck with me throughout my whole six weeks in five countries of Europe. I sounded like a cross between my chain-smoking dead grandma and an evil toad. And I kind of felt really guilty when people said: “You have such a cool voice”, knowing that it wasn’t mine.
I lost my real voice the night we played two gigs in a row, the second of which took place in Christiania.
Inside the fortress
I had given up on Christiania when I saw it had become like Camden market but instead of multi-culti stuff for sale, it was multi-culti drug stuff for sale. I was also really not used to peeing in toilets that didn’t have doors. There I was, witnessing the height of liberalism and anti-sexism and I just couldn’t handle it. However, after hanging out with high school kids and giving them workshops on Nepal and punk all day, that night we had been invited to play at a 20-something anniversary for old Danish punks who decided to do a grand reunion to commemorate the old days, and it ended up being great fun.
Parents who were 40- to 50-year-olds – some of them now grandparents – were in the mosh pit and said it was one of the best shows they had ever seen!
The organisers were a sweet old couple who gave us a verbal tour of their lives and how though their daughters were all grown up and wearing tattoos, sadly they weren’t into punk music as much as the parents.
I totally understood what they meant; we aren’t how the media portray us – cool, fashionable and daring rebels; most of us are in fact a bunch of weirdos and losers who celebrate it, and most kids I know don’t want anything to do with their parents or with weirdos and losers for that matter. Somebody once said: “punk rock saves lives”. I think it does.
After my trip to the fortress, I realise how hard life is for people in the west, and though it’s a different kind of “hard” from Nepal, a different kind of “struggle”, there is a common problem and to quote one famous band, the problem is you. You get all screwed up mainly because of all the structuring that comes with rapid industrialisation or capitalism, or as they call it in Nepal “development”. It’s hard to cope with the modern world.
For example one of the things that really struck me that I’d forgotten about the west was how there were roads everywhere. Roads stretch for miles and miles and miles and there’s not just a few – there are loads of them just covering up the earth. And I reckon it not only messes with the earth but also with our minds.
It might sound crazy, but punk helps some of us as we try to exist parallel to this new world order. Punk is not just music (and by the way is not just punk music either – the diversity of music from punk to out jazz I encountered on the tour just blew me away) but a forum where all sorts of misfits are able to express themselves without the constraints of conformism through music, art and literature, without it being competitive or painfully academic. Personally, for me it’s a way to say “I’m not crazy. They’re the ones that are crazy.”
Drinking in the culture
Much of my time in Europe was spent drinking… drinking tons of their best herbal teas and not-so-good chalky hot water. Drinking alcohol is big in Europe, I decided. There is no party without a drink. And there is no gig without drink. There are band names about drink; there are band names named after beer, or drinking, or about being drunk, or having a hangover. If I listed them that would be my 2000-word article for “Pissed News” right there. And show organisers make more money from selling beer than selling tickets at the entrance to a show, so I can’t argue. Many of the spaces we played in run on empty, so any little cash raised goes towards the upkeep of underground spaces, infoshops, and food… and again drink.
Some places where we played had been occupied and then were threatened with closure so a bunch of people got together and bought the place in order to save it. That seemed to be the recent trend. But it’s a lot of money.
Some people tended to break away from the dominant squat scene venues and created their own thing that was half-merged with a local community project because there was too much drinking and the fake “you’re my brother… we are all brothers” type of nonsense sentimentality didn’t do it for them. It also made them more responsible because they would have to “report” everything to the local council, including accounts. On the whole, Germany out-organised the other countries.
I think it’s too bad that there is such a huge drinking culture in activist circles; but when I look at the landscape you’re dealing with, I can hardly blame people for wanting to escape. A lot of the ways in which we humans sustain ourselves I reckon, is perfectly portrayed in the snake biting its tail. Underground activist spaces are no different, except you also have the cops biting your tail too.
One of the most amazing things that struck me was that 95% of all the shows were organised by people who were just hitting 40 or were beyond it. We were amazed to see such necessary collaboration between ages and sexes. I was sure we were going to be the only oldies (37+) at each show but in fact it is mainly “the oldies” keeping many underground venues and squats going. I was totally inspired by that.
In one city in France I met three women who all played music or sang in at least three different bands, all above 40 years old. They were politically active, loosely associated with different solidarity groups – one of them is also apparently a history teacher. There was such a variety of people from different backgrounds and experiences that were pretty much doing the same thing, but not together.
People in more organised anarchist circles commented how having tattoos and wearing anti-facist badges and “beating up” nazi skinheads was just a macho load of shnoof. However we talked to folks from East Germany who said their lives depended on their display of violence. When you’ve got nazi skinheads walking down your street who are out to attack any liberal-minded punk or queer, you have to be ready. For both men and women, the tattoos and spikes were their armour to defend themselves.
People who identified themselves as queer seemed to stay away from the established and organised anarchist groups we came across, and I found out why.
We met men from a more officially organised group who didn’t seem welcome in the dyke (as they referred to themselves) quarter. I asked one of the women at the queer squat why she was suspicious of them and she replied: “I know them from a really hetero context”. Queers definitely felt it important to have their own spaces; most squats or collectives they said were hetero or male-dominated and couldn’t comprehend the issues of queers. These women totally bended my brain and I had to do some serious re-evaluation of the context I was in back in Nepal.
I realised that all this time I had been totally spearheading a fringe punk movement in Nepal without realising that I could in fact be just supporting a bunch of middle-class mummy’s boys while they vented out their safe rebellion. I came back home slapped in the face; a good lesson learned.
I learned that both women and men were making it happen in Europe even as they struggled with their everyday mundane existence as slaves in the capitalist strongholds where they lived. In Spain, one organiser in his 40s is a bike messenger by day and runs one of the radical, pirate radio stations in Barcelona (or Carcelona as they like to call it) by night. His partner runs her own feminist radio show and has also been a child specialist for children with difficulties for seven years. In Denmark, the main organiser was 40 with two kids, and a professor of music and culture. One of the women collaborating with him took us on for a show at her collective in the north of the country; she was 22 and was studying nursing.
At a collective in West Germany, a woman in her 40s with red streaks in her hair who wore fishnet stockings and leather stood at the door doing the tickets at our show. By day she runs a day care centre for toddlers whose parents go to work.
In a beautiful town in the South of France, a young queer kid who runs a zine came to pick us up at the station and loaded our rucksacks, guitar and cymbals onto a box trailer thing that attached to his bicycle. He organised a show for us on the recommendation of a traveller who had met us for literally five minutes at a show in Kathmandu. His collective included eight dykes who also requested a slide presentation at the show. We talked about how important it was to meet and share ideas. We laughed all night as they made fun of my prudence. “Why don’t you take your shirt off and play” they said as some of them danced half-naked. “I wish I could”, I said, “But I just can’t get rid of the way I was raised in one night!”
There was a man in East Germany who worked at a vegan café. He went out of his way on his day off to help us photocopy stuff and buy CDs. Then he let us stay for hours at his tiny apartment so that we could burn more CDs of our album that had run out. He was a single father and later that night I saw him stand at the door helping ticket sales at our show. The rest of the collective, knowing that the Nepalis were coming, had prepared the best spicy curry dinner I had throughout the whole tour! The Croatian band sharing the stage with us jokingly cursed us amidst mouthfuls of water. When you tour the DIY circuit, it’s like joining the alternative UN.
Then there was the man in Hanover who ran a record label, who organised our show at an occupied space in town. He himself lived humbly in a small forest in a tiny wagon 15 minutes away. He shared a washing space with 20 others, as well as a perfectly working bio-toilet constructed from plywood. People here lived more simply than some of us in metropolitan Kathmandu. It was from this wagon dwelling that he, along with some friends got together and compiled all the material and art work (500 copies, each individually stencilled and sprayed) of a DIY release of our Tank Girl vinyl LP in 2005. Why? For the love of it.
In 2001, we received a package from a band in Italy who wanted our music in exchange for theirs. In 2010, totally by chance, we happened to be touring at the same time and it was fantastic to meet them finally after all these years. We had all gone old but we were still doing the same thing – keeping the underground conspiracy alive.
In a forest in the countryside of Brittany in France, we played at a three-day festival where they had silk screen workshops, a clothes store that wasn’t a store because everything in it was free, and where collective members baked their own bread, made pizza for everyone at “free price” and brewed their own beer. Three collectives were wildly celebrating their anniversaries in a forest where apparently Merlin once roamed.
We also played at an intersquat meet in Berlin. When we arrived, hot soup was being served out of large pots whilst someone gave a workshop on self-defence. They couldn’t believe that a band from Nepal had come out to play for their low-profile event. And while we all talked and exchanged as much as we could in the little time we had, we heard that friends at the No Borders march in Brussels were getting rounded up and arrested reminding us all too clearly of why we were here. As we said at every show: “We exist and we are everywhere!”
This was the so-called “lazy” fringe of society; the so-called “useless” punks who piss off both hardcore anarchists and hardcore mainstreamers alike. For us from Nepal, these were the people who fed us and housed us despite the little they had; who cooked for us great banquets from the waste thrown in the dumpsters by the rich, and who organised shows for us because we entertained them and brought messages from another world. They collect bits of money here and there to keep their doors open. These were the people who were the antithesis of the fortress.
Tips from white culture
“WHITE MAN DESTROYS CULTURE” is printed in big letters on a sticker at a venue in West Germany where we played. This phrase became my “theme” as we continued to tour throughout Europe. I realised how just reading about stuff or about people’s lives is simply not enough. There’s nothing more important than meeting people from different worlds. I talked a lot about how white man may have destroyed something in the past, but right now I felt that white people can give something back by teaching folks like us the tricks of parallel existence in new capitals because you’ve gone through it and we’re just entering it, and we need hints or tools on how to cope with the shocks.
Long live punk
Punk’s not dead yet. In fact it’s just being born in every over-40-year-old’s heart when she or he realises that the spirit of youth and rebellion is in fact ageless, classless, sexless and overcomes all cultural and religious boundaries.
Some Asian friends of mine in America said they “drifted” from punk to hip hop because the whole punk thing was too white. I commented on this a little as we toured around, but I could see that things were changing – or coming back again.
I mean, I always believed the first punks to be slaves, and in the modern history of white man, this means the first punks were black musicians, artists, rebels. This has inspired the white man who was destroyed by what culture had become, to reinvent it again. And this in turn can give third world punks a head start of what’s to come so that we can start to create activities and spaces, to help us to deal with the onslaught of the so-called civilised world that’s reached our doorstep.
They say MTV and other corporate versions of punk have killed it. But I know it still exists in tiny pockets everywhere, and all these corporates still can’t catch it. They don’t know about the DIY punks – and if they do, they can’t understand it because it’s fuelled not just by anger, but more so by love.
They don’t know that there are three friends in Barcelona who are performing a show tonight as I write this. One twiddles dials and creates electronic soundwaves into a blasting amplifier, the secondwields a screeching violin and the third is a flamenco dancer who struts around the stage. Their theme is violence against women. And they might be holding a benefit for five girls wanting to learn guitar in Nepal or somewhere. That’s punk.
We are loud and angry as much as we are elusive and low-fi. That’s one other thing I learned during this tour – to still believe. So although I wanted to see punk in action in the West before they sold it off for good, I realised that it isn’t going to ever happen. So long as we exist, we just aren’t for sale. And the fortress is cracking from the inside.