Pink Martini are a big band with a big sound, a big live presence – and big ideas. Thomas Lauderdale, a classically trained pianist, formed the group in 1994 to play political benefits in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, on the West Coast of the US.
“Our music represents a US that’s much broader than what most people think about when they think of US pop music,” Thomas told Socialist Worker.
“Everyone in the band comes from different parts of the world and plays music from different places. Whether it’s Afro-Cuban, or samba, or classical symphonic, the idea is to make up a portrait of the US that’s broader and more accurate.”
Pink Martini currently includes a dozen permanent members, including a percussionist who performed with Herbie Hancock, a bassist who played with Diana Ross for nine years, as well as several musicians from the Oregon Symphony orchestra.
The band write and sing in a stunning array of languages. “There used to be more singers in the US that sang in different languages – like Connie Francis in the 1950s and 1960s or like Marlene Dietrich,” says Thomas. “But this doesn’t happen in modern pop music – with the exception of some cross-overs into Spanish.
“I think it’s the result of a country where people don’t really sing or dance and people don’t learn another language. After all, we have a president who can barely speak English, let alone another language.”
Pink Martini’s lyrics aren’t overtly political, but Thomas nevertheless maintains that there is “something inherently political” about the band’s music. “On our new album, for example, we’re doing a song in Arabic, which is very significant at this particular moment,” he says.
“The song goes down really well – even in quite conservative communities. By singing a song in Arabic that’s romantic and upbeat, we can say something without pushing people into a corner or alienating them.
“Sometimes, though, I do think its important to speak out – like the Dixie Chicks did. At a certain point, things become so outrageous that to not say anything is criminal – as criminal as what is going on in the first place.”
Pink Martini released their first album Sympathique in 1997 on their own label, Heinz records – named after Thomas’s dog. The album sold over a million copies, as did their follow-up Hang On Little Tomato.
The band is based in Portland and still has a big following there. “Portland is a city which is about something beyond the bottom line of capitalism,” says Thomas. “It was founded by people who went west not just to become rich, but to get a more harmonious relationship with the land.
“It’s a city with a lot of activists. George Bush’s father always called Portland ‘little Beirut’ because it had so many people turning out to protest whenever he came to town. It’s also the cheapest city on the West Coast, so there are lots of artists and musicians there – a progressive community.
“But now people are moving into Portland looking for ‘investment opportunities’. The underground is being squeezed out, along with risk-taking art. I think it’s important to take a stand about the future of the city.
“One of the issues I’ve been thinking about is the Justice For Janitors campaign in Portland. One of the biggest property owners in Portland owns huge amounts of the downtown property space in the city.
“Yet they employ some of the poorest people in the city to clean their buildings on the minimum wage without any benefits.
“So the janitors have been struggling to change this. Maybe we could take the band and play outside the company offices to raise publicity and support for the janitors.”
He adds, “It will be fascinating to see what happens in the next ten years in American politics. I’m partially hopeful, but also partially terrified.
“I think people are scared. And television has silenced the complexity of discussion. Things are reduced to soundbites – like when you say ‘9/11’ – that is supposed to end the argument and stop the conversation.
“There’s a lot of opposition to the war and it’s more comfortably expressed in the US now than it ever has been. While it’s devastating to think that half the country voted for Bush, half the country didn’t. And that half is even more angry now.”
Pink Martini play at the Roundhouse, London NW1, on 20 May. Go to www.pinkmartini.com