Rock the Casbah: History, the Ghetto Blaster, and the Great Joe Strummer

Whither the Ghetto Blaster? Was the portable mp3 player the herald of its demise? Did it begin sooner? Perhaps portable CD players, or the advent of digital music itself were the first signs of doom for the ubiquitous fixture of the 80s and early 90s, the BoomBox. How did one machine come to get the hood all bouncing around in the first place? What was the social life and death of this crucial urban technology?

voilá:

Speaking of rocking the casbah, I’ve spent the better part of 2008 and a bit of 2009 obsessing over the awesomeness of this song, which I’ve found for you below. Its Rachid Taha, an Algierian rockstarr covering the Clash‘s post colonial punk rock anthem, Rock the Casbah. The very idea of mapping the transnational exchanges here makes me want to hole up and write an anthropology paper. Ha! Gotcha! 😛

All kidding aside, I stumbled upon this interesting blog all about the casbah in Algeria that seeks to reveal pieces of history through maps, buildings, and architecture of historical sites over there.

There are a lot of actually interesting articles, films, and books written about the Algerian casbah and the role that specific cultural spaces and architectures played in propelling the Algerian Revolution toward success. Casbahs, Ghettoes, Favelas, and Hoods still interest me as spaces outside of, or in opposition to the State. Moreover, their role in producing their own ethos, logics, music, motivations, and movements (which usually get appropriated by others for purposes revolutionary & capitalist, liberatory & suspect) cannot be overstated.

Then of course there is the inverse dynamic, where the Clash covered Police and Thieves (ahem, below), a punk band from the heart of (declining) empire playing a song from Jamaica about conditions in the Third World, which had recently become conditions between people all around the world and cops all around the world.

All kidding aside, Joe Strummer and 20th century imperialism are an interesting prism through which to see the connections in the mutual formation of ideas, anthems, sounds, muses, and politics across oceans. Consider this,

In 1975, after being offered £100, Strummer married Pamela Moolman, a South African citizen, so she could obtain British citizenship. He bought his signature Fender Telecaster, later painted black, with the money.

…and so a South African, most likely in an attempt to escape Apartheid in her home country, however indirectly, had a hand as a midwife to the punk rock and musical genius that was to become Joe Strummer. The idea of discrete “origins”, of “English” artforms, of “African” politics, of “Caribbean” movements is of course short sighted. Anyone who digs but a little, (and is unattached to maintaining stable geo-political or cultural categories) will find that all this stuff is far more interconnected than a secondary education would lead you to believe.

This time of year has become a somber moment for me, ever since the passing of Joe Strummer on December 22nd, 2002. I remember walking around the Lower Eastside of Manhattan with my Best Friend in a vain attempt at xmas shopping when he stopped me mid-sentence. “What did that guy on the radio just say? And why have we been hearing nothing but the Clash in every store we’ve walked past???” Concern grew in his voice as he murmured this last question and stopped in his tracks as his brain connected the dots. We dashed into a record store on 2nd Avenue. “…Umm… Joe Strummer…?” was about all we could manage to blurt out in some excuse for a coherent question.

My main memory was of being with Brendan when it seemed, my sensory faculties all blurred for about 15 seconds. And of being with Brendan when we both struggled to reconcile the young death of a hero with the world around us. We had grown up listening to the Clash together. We met at punk shows. We had been on tour together with punk bands. I was living on the West Coast at the time, but was back in New York just for the holidays. If anything, there was something meet about being in his company for the somber news…

Can we share a moment of silence, followed by a moment of rocking out for the Great Joe Strummer…

as a Jamaican and a punk rocker, (and a social scientist), I really appreciated that guy.

Thank You, and Rock the New Year!
Sunshine Superboy

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4 Responses to “Rock the Casbah: History, the Ghetto Blaster, and the Great Joe Strummer”

  1. I also remember hearing about Strummer’s death while walking through the lower east side, and I was also momentarily dazed by the news. He was the coolest. Normally I try not to idolize, but with him I made an exception.

    Here’s one of my personal favorite Clash performances:

  2. Heard the Boombox piece when it aired. Now I’m listening to WHYY’s rebroadcast of Joe Strummer’s radio shows. Ya make me feel like a friggin NPR addict!

  3. Sunshine Superboy Says:

    ooh ooh ooh, Clampdown live is pretty rad. I’ve always had a weak spot for Train in Vain, especially after Brendan pointed out the unlikeliness of its composition in the 80s. How the eff did they pull that song off like years and years ahead of its time? It sounds like it could have been written in the late 90s!

  4. CD Players are nice but today we have DVD players and Blu-ray players that are even nicer .’:

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