Chicago’s Cordoba Fuses Jazz with Activism
Written by Olivia Cerza on July 11, 2019
Cordoba is a jazz fusion sextet from Chicago who met as musicians but grew together as activists fighting for radical social change. The group uses music as an agent to create a soundspace that confronts the problems of poverty, mass incarceration, gentrification, and isolation in their native Chicago.
Guitarist Cam Cunningham and Vocalist Brianna Tong of Cordoba spoke with Vocalo about their sounds, activism and latest EP “Break the Locks Off Everything New.”
What drew you and your band to the great genre of jazz? And how did it bring you all together?
B: The three of us who’ve been in Cordoba for a long time went to school together. A lot of our writing came out of that. I think even some early songs came out of a jazz feel.
C: I never like to do the same thing twice. I can never watch the same movie twice. I don’t want to watch the same TV show twice or read the same book twice. And there’s an uncertainty in jazz that I really like that’s kind of similar. I don’t have to play the same thing every time, but I can play what I feel. In terms of us coming together, I think more than anyone responsible might have been Mwata Bowden, he’s the chairman of the AACM – the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. In addition to running the AACM, Mwata was also a jazz instructor at the University of Chicago and he led the jazz band that we were all a part of at different moments. That had a big impact on drawing us together, and also thinking about using our instruments differently.
The newest EP is called Break the Locks Off Everything New. I want to talk about jazz and its history of protest. Why is it important to you to continue this tradition that was laid down by folks like Charlie Mingus and Nina Simone?
B: Living in Chicago and especially seeing terrible injustices, and also the amount of resistance and protests have happened in the last few years has been very inspirational. We’ve both been part of it in different ways. A lot of us in the band were organizers and activists who went to protests. It’s such a big part of how I’ve experienced Chicago and how I’ve known this city is through protesting, resistance, and organizing. So that seemed super important to bring into the music. And also to bring it into a space where you have to go out in the street shouting at people or going to meetings. You can do it through art, you can do it through a space that might feel good. It can be done for enjoyment while also hearing about things that matter.
The video for “Shut it Down” is super compelling and very fascinating. Talk to me about the imagery, and the message that the song is trying to convey.
C: I wanted to convey an experience that I had at a protest. I was arrested and I ended up walking away with stitches and had to go to the hospital. I wasn’t charged with anything, but it was a moment that was so intense for me. Tensions are so high that I felt like the music that I wanted to create had to have a corresponding level of intensity. I felt like I had violence done to me unjustly by the police and it felt like things were spiraling out of control. With the power of the dancers in this video I was hoping it convey some of that feeling while also allowing us to take this energy back on our side. Where it’s not just the violence that is done by so many police in the city, but also the energy of the movements to really change this. The energy works both ways.
Brianna, how do you as a vocalist convey those very harsh themes while still managing to sound so lovely?
B: A lot of times it helps to just really feel it and think about what the song is about. A lot of us in the band have had bad experiences with police. What this song is about for me too is seen in the video’s sharp angles of the downtown shots. It shows how police really protect property and the super wealthy.There’s a reason when people are protesting or rioting, the police are protecting property rather than people. A lot of it is like really thinking about that and trying to put that in the vocals and just feel. Some of it is super fun for me too, because I came from punk music, my first band was a punk band. So it’s very fun to be aggressive.
Does it ever get emotionally tiring handling such tense or upsetting topics in your music?
B: I feel that sometimes. Especially songs that feel very personal or angering can get exhausting to keep performing and living through. But at the same time, seeing how people respond can be very healing, rejuvenating, or therapeutic. It’s really nice to make music that is like having some sort of effect and that people are taking meaning from it. But sometimes we do really just want to have fun.
C: We have such a bias towards heavy stuff, but I agree with Brianna, I think it’s really energizing. Brianna will explain what a song is about or what inspired us to write it, and to see an audience really respond to that live and be captivated is energizing. It makes us want to keep doing it. That being said, though, we also I feel like have to have other projects. If I had to do just Cordoba’s heavy stuff every night, I think I would get really exhausted.