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Ted Sirota: Drummer with the Soul of a Rebel

R.J. DeLuke By

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I think that what I strive for is my band is to do something different. I don't want the band sound like any other band. I don't want people to listen to it and say, 'They sound just like so-and-so.' I want the sound of the band, the voices and the vibe of the music, to be able to tie anything together.
Ted Sirota out of Chicago is a thinker. He’s politically astute and socially conscious. He’s also a musician, drummer and composer by trade. He sees struggle in all realms — political, social and art — but he rolls with the punches and moves with the times. And he’s combined a sound statement on the political and social scene with some outstanding music on his latest CD.

Breeding Resistance by Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls, the band’s first release on Delmark, is a recording marked by different musical influences. It’s improvisational, and mostly jazzy, but reggae and other influences can be heard. The band is tight and the musicians — whether in ensemble or solo — are doin’ it.

It’s deliberately done as a statement, and on both a musical and social level it’s an exceptional achievement. The music pulls you in and the titles, and other elements, like the “power to the people” chants on “Chairman Fred” (written for Black Panther Party leader Fred Hopkins who was killed by Chicago police in 1969) get the message across.

“I think this is a crucial time,” says Sirota, with turmoil around the globe and political posturing in the US that is unpopular among activists.

“I don’t think art and music alone is going to fundamentally change anything. But everything that exists in the superstructure of a society is more like a battle for ideas. I think that’s really important because I think that has an impact on who controls society and how long they are going to control it. So whether it’s music or the debate on evolution — there’s a large segment of the people in the US today who are fighting to ban the teaching of evolution in school — to me, that’s part of the battle for ideas and I believe music exists within that battle as well.”

Sirota, who turns 35 in May, has been politically conscious since his teen years. It didn’t come from his parents, he says. But they didn’t discourage him. He could be found taking a bus to Washington D.C. or downtown Chicago to protest things that weren’t going right in South Africa or Central America. That’s important to the drummer, as is his music. Even though the name of the band, Rebel Souls, is indicative, as are the names of his previous albums on the Naim label — Propaganda , ...vs. The Forces of Evil and Rebel Roots , he says this CD was his first true opportunity to make his political and social statement, while at the same time creating damn good music. (Good music is the hallmark of all the Naim discs).

“I was wondering and debating and studying these kind of questions for a long time, like 20 years now,” he says. “But as a musician or artist, I’m not always free to put that out there the way that I want to. I can put that out on my own, but if I want to use a record label or CD as a medium to present some questions and ideas, there’s a lot of restrictions there, generally. And in the past, I’ve faced a lot of restrictions as far as what I was allowed to say and what I wasn’t allowed to say. So this is really the first time I felt relatively free to express myself.”

Sirota only had a few months to put together the music, once the deal was struck with Delmark. “When I looked at the current situation in the world, and when we would be recording, and seeing what was going on around me, especially in the US, but globally, I had to ask myself: Do I just want to put out a record about my pets or a summer home or the yacht I want to get? Or do I want to try and have an impact on a situation. I just felt like the timing of putting the record out was important for me to make a statement and get this line out into the debate while I had a chance.”

He put together tunes like “This is a Takeover,” “Huntsville, TX” (where 310 people have been executed under death penalty law since 1976), “Breeding Resistance,” and “Saro-Wiwa” (the last name of a Nigerian rights activist hung with eight others in 1995). And bandmates brought in songs as well.

“The reaction so far has been really positive. A couple of people have said, ‘nah, I don’t like it too much.’ But you’re not going to please everybody. I knew that by staking my ground politically, there’s always a chance you’re going to alienate some people who are just turned off by that or disagree with it. But overall, I’m happy with the way the record came out, especially considering the circumstances.”

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