The MOBRO 4000 was something of a joke. Nightly news updates of the barge’s journey from New York to Belize were delivered tongue in cheek, and late-night hosts and comedians weaved the subject into their monologues. It wasn’t so funny, however, to the ports where the barge attempted to dock. Hauling trash from New York to a North Carolina landfill, the MOBRO 4000 was stopped from unloading its haul. This became a habit, as the MOBRO searched for a place to deliver its trash, heading as far south as New Orleans on the U.S. mainland, before charting a course to Mexico and then all the way down to Belize before returning to New York, where it was finally able to dock and dispose of its load.
Nobody wanted the trash. The barge was met with common refrains. Why should we accept New York’s trash? They can damn well keep their own garbage! We don’t want New York City garbage polluting our town’s landfill. We need to protect our landfills and keep them for our own. There was also an underlying message to those refrains: Outsiders, stay away.
It opened a window into how the country’s landfill system worked and just how much garbage we were burying. The dangers of incineration were highlighted. The concept of increasing recycling efforts became a thing. Environmental issues took center stage.
But there was an underlying theme of Us vs. Them. Some of that was simply your standard anti-NYC bias… them big city folks can go and bury their own trash. But had this instead been Albany’s trash, there still would have remained the anger that this trash belonged to “others.” A home-grown vs. foreign thread dangled from the bigger issue of where MOBRO was and what was it up to. It was a pop culture joke, unless your town was along the eastern coastline… and then there was fear and anger and resistance. It was a profound statement that this trash undertook a grand odyssey all the way to Central America, turned away at every port before, ultimately, returning back home to New York to be incinerated in Brooklyn and its ashes buried in its hometown of Islip.
This is the thematic inspiration to MOBRO, the current collaboration of John Ellis and Andy Bragen. They’ve now released a studio version of the 12-part through-composed piece originally created for live performance. They, too, examine the larger societal issues that were the backdrop to MOBRO as environmental cautionary tale and pop culture lunacy.
The theme of Us vs. Them bleeds into everyday life with an everyday frequency that borders on banality. To what degree does it drive the current debates over immigration, gun control, religious freedom and voting privileges? From a big picture perspective, it lies at the root of racism, and yet it tweaks the nervous system for something as small as wondering about the new neighbors moving in next door. And often intertwined with the fear of the “other” is the belief, whether it be latent or proudly declared, that the “other” is somehow less than the “us” and something to dismiss or fear, like refuse… like trash.
As a physical object, the MOBRO 4000 was a trash barge that fell victim to politics and popular opinion. But as a concept, MOBRO spoke to the flaws of society. That it was trivialized as pop culture is further evidence of this, as laughing at a serious topic is the safest way to face a problem head on. Blind hatred is the easiest way to cower from it.
The album opens with “Anticipation” and “Sailing.” The former is the sonic equivalent of a new day beginning the start of a big adventure. The latter of those two tracks sings of “sunny days” and repeats the mantra “everything’s a-okay” to the accompaniment of Ellis’s soprano sax dancing with an almost giddy motion. It could be the personification of the MOBRO’s point of view. It could also represent the point of view of Cubans preparing to board a makeshift raft headed to the Florida Keys, Spaniards crossing the ocean in search of new trade routes, or a family moving into a new neighborhood in a new town.
The tone on both tunes is upbeat and bright and sometimes bubbles over with excitement. Brass instruments boldly call out the beginning of a new adventure even as their individual voices each recede into the ensemble’s harmonic pool. The abounding imagery is of a new day sun, shining proud. Rodney Green‘s drums twitter with excitement. Mike Moreno‘s guitar solo adopts an optimistic tone. Atonal bursts from the ensemble hint at an insistent nervousness of what lies ahead. In a bit of foreshadowing, the melody sours at the song’s end.
And then the mood undergoes a dramatic change. “Storm” is the embodiment of the invading force, a thrashing, untamed beast. “There’s no mercy!” vocalist Miles Griffith screams across the bow, “Hide the children! They won’t be spared. Hide and stay close to the ones you love. If I see them, they are going to die! You. Are. Going. To. Die!!!!” This is the hyper-perspective of those seeing the MOBRO approach, of the belief that their shores were threatened by harmful biological waste and exotic poisons. It is, unfortunately, also close to the mark when applied to the anti-immigration protests, where the frenzied opposition predict the fall of America and the spread of Ebola and crime if children from south of the border are allowed to find a home on U.S. soil. The battle of Us vs. Them lacks subtlety and grace. Its means of expression is one of melodrama and barely contained violence. The Ellis-Bragen ensemble is a force of dissonance. Griffith’s voice is terrifying. This is as much point of view as it is music. How it is heard depends on whether the listener adopts the perspective of Us, Them, neither or both.
In the same song, the trash pleads to the heavens above, prays for understanding and the forgiveness of the gods. It can’t understand what it has done to cause such offense that it has been demonized by the crowds of people protesting its very existence. It begs the heavens for understanding and forgiveness… behavior that contrasts indelibly from the expect-the-worst stance of residents at the very thought of the trash (or Others) entering their community.
The third section of this four-part song returns to how it began, with the perspective of town residents as the barge approaches, of a threat looming on the horizon, a threat to the residents’ way of life. Alan Ferber‘s trombone solo cuts through the heart of the song. It is an act of rage. Its emotional outburst is an everyman perspective, and any side of the issue could claim it as their own. The fourth and final part of the song is the echo of guitar notes, bright like stars and the murmur of brass. It is an uneasy calm, but supremely peaceful by comparison to what has preceded it.
This carries over into “Rejection.” This is a song of the sea. The trash contemplates its life on the barge, separated from land and still searching for a home. The words and inflections of vocalists Sachal Vasandani and Becca Stevens reveal a bemusement and a slight confusion as they recollect the events that brought the MOBRO to this place. There’s also the dawning of acceptance of its current situation. “Soon we’ll fly again, fly another day,” Vasandani sings, “We solider on.” It’s a peacefully drifting song that is about the prettiest moment on the album. It’s the eye of journey’s storm. Is this how the immigrants from Central America felt as the buses headed off to San Diego after being turned away in Murietta? Josh Roseman‘s trombone solo wears its heart on its sleeve, offering up an earnestness and vulnerability that speaks to the uncertainty of the MOBRO’s passengers… or those of any traveler searching desperately for a new home and failing.
The next few tracks reflect the interminable duration of the MOBRO’s journey. “Mutiny/Rebellion” rocks a bit and scampers a bit more and Shane Endsley‘s trumpet solo is at the center of it all. The song’s conclusion sees a reprise of the opening track, but where the original expression reflected a nervous excitement, the current iteration radiates cynicism. Johnaye Kendrick and Miles Griffith shout, “We’re not like you. You are garbage.” Their voices are either hyper-effusive or partially atonal, each quality an ingredient to the blind rage that fuels that hatred of the Other.
“2nd Rejection” takes the trash’s point of view. Sachal Vasandani sings, “Where’s your mercy or compassion?” And he sings, “Pariahs in this cruel world. Sick and hungry, tossed asunder.” Ryan Scott‘s guitar solo nails down the potent blues of being demonized into an object deserving of spite and hate and disgust.
The martial beat and punctuated notes of “Military” followed by the whispering “Doldrums” is fashioned to reflect the perpetual rejection at every port, of approaching the shore and then turning back out to sea over and over and over again. The creaking of timber and rustle of water on “Doldrums” is this the malaise of life at sea, of never finding a home. Those same effects continue right into “Snarl” before relenting to the strong pull of peaceful harmonies singing, “Come closer,” as guitar ticks off the seconds and brass takes a dour tone. It’s a smokey tune that works up to a big finale, maintaining an enchanting ambiance at each stage of its development.
“Self-Knowledge” is the beginning of the end. This strangely upbeat tune is the giddy relief of resigning oneself to a fate, still unclear, perhaps unwanted and likely unexpected. Johnaye Kendrick sings, “Still somehow that fantasy, that waking dream lives on,” and Miles Griffith muses, “This my fate, my destiny and I’d do it all again.” John Clark‘s French horn solo takes a jaunty stroll atop the path swung around by the bass and drum combo of Joe Sanders and Rodney Green. This is the enlightenment of truly seeing the lay of the land.
“Mourning” is the act of hitting that land, and it’s the kind of contact that’s rarely anything but hard. With a peaceful voice, Becca Stevens sings, “I never thought that it would end,” adding, “We have traveled so far… Such a beautiful dream. All dreams have to end.” The concept of the fantasy enduring in “Self-Knowledge” has become the reality of the dream ending on “Mourning.” Contemplative tones blossom into expressions of heartbreak, as Ellis’s sax solo guides the song to the crux of the conclusion.
That conclusion is the upbeat “Celebration,” a New Orleans inspired piece. It is suffused with finality, a bit like a homecoming and a bit like a funeral march. And like anyone who goes on a journey, whether for leisure or for survival, the traveler is changed from the experience. The MOBRO trash changed, too. Incinerated in Brooklyn, its ashes were buried in Islip… the same place from whence it began. But the MOBRO and its trash had changed in ways other than physical, too.
As with anything that captures the public’s attention and elicits an array of strong emotional reactions, the MOBRO was transformed from spectacle into metaphor, and as a result, it is tagged with a symbolism whose lifespan is dictated only by its enduring memory, its currency as pop culture reference, and our unfortunate human talent at expanding the scope of our fears to encompass a vast array of targets.
The Ellis-Bragen crew adopt the MOBRO imagery for social critique, highlighting environmental issues like recycling and global warming. That they are able to frame these issues within an epic tale of stark beauty, intense fascination and wild expressiveness is why it’s one of the truly outstanding efforts of 2014.
Your album personnel: John Ellis (tenor & soprano saxes), Andy Bragen (libretto), Shane Endsley (trumpet), John Clark (French Horn), Alan Ferber (trombone), Josh Roseman (trombone), Mike Moreno (guitar), Ryan Scott (guitar), Joe Sanders (bass), Rodney Green (drums, percussion), Roberto Lange (sound design), Becca Stevens, Miles Griffith, Sachal Vasandani, Johnaye Kendrick (vocals).
Released on Ellis’s Parade Light Records label.
Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.
Available at: eMusic | Bandcamp | Amazon CD/MP3
Or purchase directly from the artist/label via Paypal.
And here’s a nifty video about the MOBRO 4000…
From the New York Times’ Retro Report‘s Vimeo page.