Cinco de Mayo was originally celebrated in honor of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, who, with his Mexican army, defeated the French in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. Although the French took Mexico City five years later, the holiday remains in popular culture as a celebration of Mexican culture and an excuse for college students to have a party under the misunderstanding that they’re celebrating Mexican Independence Day. In 2008, a flicker of that celebration could be seen in the eyes of the hundreds who packed City Hall—completely dismissing the Mix 92.9 mariachi band a few blocks down the road—to see something of a revolution themselves: Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A.
Before Sri Lanka’s favorite daughter came on stage, however, a band whose full name would be frowned upon in print at Belmont took the stage to rock some Juno nominated electronic improv. For the sake of not ruffling any feathers, let’s call them “Holy F-Bomb.”
Holy F-Bomb is the kind of band that would play Bonnaroo in the 2 a.m. timeslot and act as a magnet to exhausted fans that spent the last 10 hours partying in the sun. On their way back to camp to crash until the oppressive Manchester heat turns their tents into ovens, only the most intriguing band is going to break their march and get them dancing for just a little longer. The hunched over fellows of Holy Four Letter Obscenity easily meet that criteria with a constantly escalating set built out of spazzy beats backed by live drums and bass.
The quartet have made a name for themselves by replacing modern electronic standbys like sampling, splicing and programming through laptops with old-school ingenuity. Instead, they become the ultimate slight-of-hand band, distracting the audience with bridges between songs while the rest of the band franticly retunes their instruments or rips film through the 35 mm sequencer before launching into another song which quickly melts into their ever evolving ball of electro-jams.
What was most endearing to them was that they were able to keep the crowd moving through out their entire set, even though their style of music is completely different from what most people paid over 30 dollars for. One of the most diverse crowds, speaking in all manners of diversity, to run rampant at City Hall turned out for the show and an initial wave of indifference could have sunk the two hours before M.I.A. took the stage. But, on the contrary, the band succeeded in hyping the crowd into a frenzy begging for more. Had DJ Million $ Mano’s extended DJ set which followed been excised entirely so that Holy F could play longer, there is little doubt in my mind that the crowd would have minded.
Fast-forwarding to 10 p.m., the huge screen behind the stage flickered to life with the broadcast of a radical election speech by Kouichi Touyama, a left-wing street musician who called for the overthrow of the Japanese government during his bid for the governorship of Tokyo in 2007. Cheers erupted when Touyama declared “Elections won’t change anything anyway,” which does not bode well for the three U.S. presidential candidates presently duking it out in the polls. He bid us to join in on a “terrifying conspiracy to overthrow the government,” which brought more cheers and a hint at what was to come.
There is good reason why M.I.A. has topped “Best of” lists with both 2005’s “Arular” and last year’s “Kala.” It’s not hard to misunderstand the broad umbrella of electronic music and it, largely, can be perceived as superfluous, interchangeable dance music. What sets M.I.A. as the queen of the genre is the incredible political and social awareness which goes into her lyrics. She quickly launched into “World Town,” a surprisingly danceable, globally conscious song about child soldiers which was at home alongside anthems against war (“Pull Up the People”) and gun culture (“Sunshowers”). Her music doesn’t just cross borders—it pulls them down like chunks of the Berlin Wall.
But none of that matters as much as the fact that a M.I.A. show is an incredible musical experience. These are songs that make you dance as much as they might make you think and her live performance brings the added intrigue of video which, when not broadcasting rants by Japanese dissidents, forms into a multimedia experience that pulsates with 8 bit Nintendo graphics and virtual dancers to accompany the real-life ones on stage. When time came for her to play “10 Dollar” off “Arular,” the dancers on stage multiplied exponentially when she called the ladies in the crowd to climb on stage with her to dance and even sing along from time to time.
For her grand finale, M.I.A. graced us all with “Paper Planes,” the third single from “Kala” which cribbed a guitar riff from a Clash tune and had people throwing fists in the air to the sound of gunshots which rang out in each chorus. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have listening to a song about xenophobia.
In all, her set was about an hour and a half long, but it felt significantly shorter. Any feelings about what time it was or how bad traffic might be when I left were replaced with, dare I say, dance fever and perhaps slight claustrophobia. Artists like M.I.A. thrive upon live performances and seeing her live adds entire new levels to songs that are already pretty good. Her performance at the soon to be defunct City Hall was no exception.