The Nightmare of War Finds an Outlet in Jazz, Poetry from Vets

Musician Mike Ladd and jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer explore the emotional toll of war on veterans of color.

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 30, 2012

"Woke up from dreaming I was fighting my shadows," Maurice Decaul, a war veteran, recites near the end of Holding It Down. The production, along with its other half Sleep Song, tells a story about the detritus that wars leave behind, the shadows that keep fighting after the guns are put down. The spoken words that comprise the cores of the pair of oratorios by poet and musician Mike Ladd and jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer are about the psychic scars, the nightmares, waking terrors, "REM Killer," altered state "Percodan dreams," that remain for Americans who fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the Iraqi and Afghanis made their victims.

Holding It Down, which premiered at the Harlem Stage on September 20, and Sleep Song, which was scheduled to run on Friday and Saturday until it was cancelled this week because Iraqi performers were denied visas, form the third installment in a decade of collaboration between Ladd and Iyer. The artists’ creations, which take the form of multi-media, poetic concerts, ask about life and race in the United States since 2001. The latest installments are about war-making and they’re built on interviews with American veterans of color, Iraqis, and performances by American veterans and Iraqi civilians who know the wrenching trauma and psychic residue these wars leave. Their words, spoken beside Iyer’s driving piano with a cast of other musicians and vocalists, are unfiltered dreams.

"We are delivery men within a dreamscape," Ladd recites in his gravely voice, in which "burns will shift to dunes, the dunes to mountains and the mountains to valleys as we try to navigate our space."

The performances insist that navigating the space of war does not end when war ends. And for soldiers of color especially, when fighting for a country that tortures people of color abroad, coming home does not mean a lifting of the lingering weight of war. The fact of racial divide accumulates upon it.

"To come back and then face racism and economic hardship, the two experiences compound," says Holding it Down director Patricia McGregor, who collaborated with Iyer and Ladd on the production. "There’s post traumatic stress from war, but there’s also post traumatic stress from living in places where the war is poverty and racism in America." 

This has always been so. Veterans of color fought only to return to the same inequalities that preceded their departure–from the GI Bill’s exclusion of men of color through racial covenants and redlining to the incarceration and deportation of veterans of color who run up against a criminal justice system steeped in inequality.

It’s not lost on the artists that the paradox that veterans of color face–"It creates a wild situation where suddenly these guys are anointed as diplomats but what reality are we representing here?" Iyer told me– is also a condition of jazz, the music that through Iyer’s understated, rhythmic patterns and power chords along with a cello, a guitar, an oud and electronics becomes a framework for the poets and vocal performances in Holding It Down and Sleep Song. Jazz in American history, like these soldiers, is exported worldwide as a carrier of American greatness while the music makers are burdened with the country’s failed promise.

"The people over there ask me what’s wrong with my country. What am I supposed to say?" asked Louis Armstrong when he refused an invitation to travel to the Soviet Union on a good-will tour for the State Department.

Iyer says that the project for him was about bringing multiple traditions of performance together to tell stories about people of color in wars and let those who fight in them and fall victim to them tell their own tales.

"What started this for me was wanting to see where we could begin a conversation with veterans of color that you rarely hear from," said Iyer. "Vets in American culture tend to be white males."

Perhaps the most striking voice in Holding It Down is Lynn Hill’s, a black woman and a veteran–black women represent a third of all women in the military–who performs her own poetic meditations on her post-war nightmares about pulling the trigger of a Predator drone from behind a blue screen thousands of miles away. "My name is scarred," she says, in a poem called "Name" over a ringing bed of piano and cello. "Trying to deal with the guilt of what I did that day," she says.

"Actions of my hands charge me guilty," Hill says in the poem "Capacity." "Unclear details and shaky intell/But still, I pulled the trigger."

Beneath the surface is a question about the other side ("Is that the right guy?" Hill asks, looking through the Predator screen), about the Iraqi and Afghani soldiers and victims of these wars. Their presence is constant in the dreams of soldiers, sometimes as victims, as figures in recurring traumatic dreams or as friends, as cousins.

"The canon makes little reference/ to either of us cousin but we find ourselves/ together after six thousand/ generations & this notion of nations," recites Maurice Decaul, another veteran and performer in both productions, in a poem about dreaming of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The performance asks, implicitly at times, what it means to "look across the line and see someone who may look like you. Who you may have a different kind of familial feeling about," McGregor says.

"While we wanted to focus on the experience of veterans of color, we wanted to know that there is always another side," she added.

And that’s what Sleep Song is for. Ladd and Iyer were to be joined in the show by a team of Iraqi and American poets and musicians: veteran and poet Maurice Decaul, Guitarist Serge Teyssot-Gay, and Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdul Hussein and oud player Ahmed Mukhtar.

But Sleep Song did not make it here to New York "because participating artists were not granted visas in time to travel to New York from Iraq," the Harlem Stage wrote to ticket holders. Mukhtar and Abdul Hussein were not allowed to travel here, and without them, the performance, crafted to carefully accompany and balance Holding It Down, was cancelled, along with a conference that was to be held at Columbia called "Iraq, War and Artistic Creation."

A recording of Sleep Song from a performance in France last year reveals a textured set of narratives about afterlives and dreams in Iraq for those who were the targets of American war.

Audiences in New York will not be offered an answer to the question, posed by Ladd in Sleep Song, "If I could meet you in the dreamscape, would the monsters be the same?" because the US government did not permit it.