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Nova Ruth Wants to Free Us From the Bondage of Wage Slavery

by Carol Cooper

On YouTube you can find a video of Javanese soul singer Nova Ruth singing "Perbatasan" (Indonesian for "Borderline") from the back of a pedicab driven by her American-born collaborator, Grey Filastine. Strings of lights draped on the pedicab illuminate a world of endless roads and fragile vehicles in an unnamed Indonesian city, while English subtitles translate lyrics about the alternating hope and despair of contemporary war refugees. The rhythmic and melodic structure of the song is based on the circular polyphonics of Javanese gamelan, while the digital loops and noise-filtered string mosaics evoke Migos as much as Philip Glass.

Welcome to Drapetomania, an album named after the mental disease invented by mid-nineteenth-century apologists for chattel slavery, to suggest that any slave seeking to escape the "benefits" of captivity must be insane. Filastine and Nova believe that the constraints of nationalism and global capitalism enslave the human race; their album title presupposes that many will call them crazy because their art advocates the need to abandon both systems. The ever-expanding suite of music and videos tied to Drapetomania makes one wonder what might happen if this multimedia project got as much press and exposure as Beyoncé's Lemonade -- and given the diverse sources of inspiration for Lemonade, it wouldn't surprise me if Bey's brain trust had noticed the past ten years of audiovisual provocation that have made Filastine and Nova legendary among musical activists worldwide.

On a budget of next to nothing they perform close to 100 international gigs a year, many of them free and mounted in semi-legal spaces. "We have to be crazy efficient," says Filastine. "Most tours are just Nova and myself dragging a few overstuffed suitcases around the world, unfolding ourselves into a deceptively large stage show." YouTube and the website Post World Industries offer an impressive sampling of Filastine and Nova videos and music for the uninitiated. You can watch live footage of beat-meister Filastine and singer Ruth onstage at the Calais "Jungle" migrant camp in France, or in the studio at Seattle's KEXP. Neither Filastine nor Ruth is new to video, radical politics, or digital production on a shoestring; even their most outlaw installations have a professional look and sound.

Emerging out of the Seattle-based agit-pop underground in the 1990s, Filastine formed the anarcho-punk dance theater group Tchkung! then the multiculti marching band Infernal Noise Brigade, making the latter a strategic participant in protests at the 2000 IMF Meeting in Prague, the 2004 US Republican Party National Convention in New York, and the G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005. He went solo and nomadic to form an amorphous digital collective under the name Filastine in 2006; while touring Jakarta in 2009 he was introduced to Ruth. She was already active as a videographer and community hacktivist, as well as a singer-songwriter who performed as half of the rap duo Twin Sista.

"My grandpa, a priest, taught me to sing since the age of five, and my dad is a rock guitarist," says Nova of her background. "I studied at a school focused on Javanese culture, so I learned gamelan as a kid. Half my family are Pentecostal and the other half Muslim, so I was lucky to spend my childhood in both of these musical traditions." Drapetomania was conceptualized as a dance record, with 808 drum machines abetted by bits of accordion, Gypsy guitar, and Brent Arnold's eloquent cello, but gamelan is a pervasive influence, deployed with specific intent, Ruth explains: "If we could make a drawing of the gamelan's frequencies, they would be shaped round, like a ball, resonating in all directions equally. This can trigger deep feelings, and that's why it's so effective for trance and ritual music." Nova's elegiac melodies and layered harmonies on tracks like "Miner," "Perbatasan," "Fenomena," and "Senescence" open up a place of ecstatic reverie that transcends language.

Impromptu recordings and performances in migrant camps, nomadic communes, or sites of organized socioeconomic protest are what most characterize Filastine and Nova as a pop group, yet they refuse to let their art eclipse their politics or their politics become more important than their art. They manage to capture and honor the signature beauty of every genre in Filastine's ambitious sound collage -- be it Japanese taiko, Dirty South trap, or industrial dubstep. The duo maintains that what they do is distinct from music that explores sound for its own sake, and also from the ego, power, and commercial discourse of mainstream rap. (Let's face it, "Bad and Boujee" defends an outlaw lifestyle, but it could also be the theme song of the Trump administration.)

"I do think we are exploring a different kind of politics," Filastine explains. "Ideas about our alienation from nature, about migration and urbanism, ideas more about the totality of the human project, and less about the internal tribal divisions and myriad oppressions that divide it."

At the heart of Drapetomania is a thematic quartet of online video singles collectively titled "Abandon." "Miner" was filmed in Indonesia, "Cleaner" in Portugal, "Salarymen" in the USA, and "Chatarreros" in Spain, with each vignette using music and dance to incite workers in each country to abandon "crappy jobs." What do miners, housemaids, corporate wage slaves, and scrap metal collectors have in common? The desire to imagine and live a better life. Yet Filastine and Nova are not so much anti-wage labor as they are pro-responsibility. They want all captains of industry to honestly reassess the social and ecological damage done by structuring businesses around ideas like artificial scarcity, conspicuous consumption, planned obsolescence, and maximum profit.

Filastine himself, who abandoned a day job as a Seattle cab driver to travel around the world as a multimedia artist, somehow manages to walk this insurrectionary talk. The songs on Drapetomania speak to, for, and from the perspective of a nationless wanderer, even though Filastine spends most of his non-tour time in Barcelona, scoring bicycle "sound swarm" interventions, or music for activist documentaries. (He chronicled his struggle to make this unusual bohemian life possible in a blog published from 2008 to 2013.) As if to underscore the upside of useful work, Grey remembers his time in the service industry of driving cabs as deeply inspirational: "If you're asking about the taxi's acoustic impact on my work, well, nearly every song I've produced references some part of that experience, whether it's the crackle of a two-way radio, a confusion of tongues, or the low-frequency rumble of a city."

Published in: Village Voice, June 7, 2017