Invisible Cities, Invisible Men

A Jazz Pianist and a Hip-Hop Poet Catch Language in the Balance

On April 15, 2001, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi deplaned at New York's JFK Airport on his way from a film festival in Hong Kong to one in Buenos Aires. Panahi was on a festival tour for his latest film, The Circle, and planners in both cities, as well as the attendants on his flight, told him that he did not require a transit visa. They were mistaken. Iran is on a short list of nations from which the United States requires all travelers to present visas regardless of the length of their stay, and in 1996 Attorney General Janet Reno had signed an order requiring the INS to fingerprint and photograph all Iranians upon entry into this country. With no transit visa and too much pride to have his mug shot taken, Panahi was chained to a wooden bench with similarly detained travelers from around the world. Ten hours later, he was sent back to Hong Kong, in handcuffs.

"I saw the Statue of Liberty in the waters and I unconsciously smiled," Panahi wrote in an e-mail to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, which had awarded The Circle their prestigious Freedom of Expression Award. "I tried to draw the curtain and there were scars of the chain on my hand. I could not stand the other travelers gazing at me and I just wanted to stand up and cry that I'm not a thief! I'm not a murderer! I'm not a drug dealer! I . . . I am just an Iranian, a filmmaker. But how I could tell this, in what language? In Chinese, Japanese, or to the mother languages of those people from Mexico, Peru, Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh . . . or in the language of that young boy from Sri Lanka?

"Really, in what language?"

Almost two years to the day later, pianist Vijay Iyer and rapper-poet Mike Ladd are sitting in the homeliest diner on the whole Upper West Side and discussing In What Language?, a live multimedia project—inspired by Panahi's story—that runs at the Asia Society from this Thursday through Sunday. It is an ambitious protest for a belittling time. The performance fuses Ladd's depictions of the internal monologues of travelers and laborers in an international airport with Iyer's rumbling, troubled soundtrack. Though the particulars of Panahi's story are never directly invoked, they set the inspiration and context for the show. "He had already checked what his needs would be, what his requirements would be," Iyer explains calmly and coolly, before his voice rises to meet his outrage. "He was just transiting! He wasn't even leaving the airport!"

The airport, with its relentless energy of coming and going, is the perfect site for the pair's commentary on lives in transition. Iyer had long hoped to engage in something that looked at how people of color negotiated globalization, but it wasn't until hearing about Panahi's case that his project found its shape, name, and setting. He applied for a grant through the Asia Society and approached Ladd about contributing lyrics.

Iyer and Ladd first met in 1997 when Iyer was playing keyboard for boho San Francisco hip-hop band Midnight Voices. In the years since, they've distinguished themselves as freethinkers resisting the trappings of their home genres. Ladd's five albums bear the schizophrenic energy of someone equally moved by poetry, hip-hop, and hardcore punk in youth. His hoarse, wandering vocals belie the concentrated vigor with which he approaches and dissects history. Iyer's playing is marked by a dense and deceptively rhythmic style; nothing comes easy in his music but it never feels like an exercise in avant-excess. Instead, it's the injury of collapsing his disparate, sometimes dissonant, influences—African, Asian, and European American—into a single, cross-cultural stream.

The weight of history hangs heavily on each of Iyer's notes, but his music isn't literal about the stories he's telling. The experiences of a self-taught, 29-year-old jazz pianist born to immigrant parents aren't supposed to constitute a neat, accessible story, and that's part of the self-conscious worry Iyer and Ladd bring to the character sketches of In What Language? Ladd explains: "It's that real challenge of trying not to exoticize anyone—trying not to fall into any stereotypes, but at the same time, trying not to universalize the situation. You don't want to end up with this thing where, hey, we're all humans."

The majority of Ladd's 18 poems are told from the point of view of travelers and laborers. The characters are all composed from snatches of conversation Ladd had while traveling or hanging out with the hodgepodge of nationalities and cultures that compose his Bronx neighborhood. Ladd also wrote a series of more personal interludes titled The Color of Circumference that re-examine the story from his perspective as a young African American male. There is also a biting critique of the American empire, "The Density of the 19th Century," that Ladd describes as "the history of conquest in two minutes."

In What Language? succeeds by not wearing its political views on its sleeve but offering them slyly, through the feeling the performance evokes. The music—composed by Iyer and performed by a seven-piece band—glides and swirls with a thick, heartening spirit. Ladd's characters are complicated, and though they emphasize the uniqueness of their positions, there's always something open, even affirming, about them. A Sierra Leonean woman awaiting her asylum hearing and withstanding hysteria retreats into her memories. She shares one of her father, sitting on a faraway beach, sipping an orange soda and listening to a cassette of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." An Iraqi businessman packing his suitcase watches mob movies on cable, trying in vain to mentally parse the insecurities unique to his own character from those the world wishes upon him. "It's just so crucial that people see some depiction of normal people," Iyer emphasizes. "Right now, they're just blips on a screen, they're not real people."

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