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Barbez Celebrates History With ‘For Those Who Came After’

Peter Cunningham

For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War is the latest release by stalwart New York City band Barbez. Joining the collective on this historically charged recording is vocalist Velina Brown, a longstanding member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The material heard on For Those Who Came After celebrates the International Brigades, including the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALB), which pledged solidarity against fascism between 1936 and 1938 in Spain.

Barbez guitarist Dan Kaufman’s relationship with the Spanish Civil War dates back to his youth in Madison, Wisconsin, when he heard a lecture by Clarence Kailin, who’d fought in the ALB. Kaufman, then a high school student, was struck by Kailin’s sense of conviction and his direct connection to history. Coupled with an interest in Ernest Hemingway’s writings on the Spanish Civil War, Kaufman soon found himself deeply enamored with the ALB.

“For some reason I gravitated to that story,” Kaufman recalls now. “I found it quite moving but my interest stayed dormant for decades.”

Then, in 2004, publicist Howard Wuelfing was handling press for a reunion of Lincoln Brigade volunteers. Kaufman was penning music listings for The New Yorker and, recalling his youthful passion for the topic, attended the event. Speaking with a volunteer named Moe Fishman inspired a pitch a piece to The New York Times.

“There were maybe 30 volunteers at the reunion and they were still very active, very committed,” the guitarist says.

“I got kind of obsessed,” Kaufman recalls. “I knew that these guys were in their 90s. The youngest was probably in his mid-80s. I wanted to pay tribute to them and capture them before they were all gone. When I first started writing about them there were probably 100 of them still alive across the country from the original number which was close to 3000.”

Their illegal travel to Spain (the United States remained neutral in the war, though some American businesses provided supplies to Franco) was further complicated by poverty and lengthy travels in less than ideal conditions. These were realities that Kaufman came to appreciate more deeply as he penned a series of articles not only about the volunteers but about the war itself.

“It’s one of those historical events that’s persistent in part because of the historical themes that it represents,” he says. In 2009 “La Despedida: A Lost Memoir of the Spanish Civil War” appeared in The Nation with others, including “A Secret Archive: On The Mexican Suitcase,” arriving in subsequent years.

Kaufman’s relationship with the volunteers continued, and he says that he enjoyed spending time with each of them. “Most of them were working-class immigrants from Europe. A lot of them were Jewish. They were extraordinary people,” says Kaufman. “My motivation was to pay tribute to them and to make sure that their story was not forgotten through the ravages of time.”

The story of the conflict itself and the volunteers has, to some degree, been underplayed in the historical record. “There was a kind of revisionist view of the war that was taking shape, particularly in the United States, that saw the volunteers as dupes. There have been a number of British historians who have offered a kind of counter-counter narrative,” Kaufman says. “I think it’s the most accurate. There were a lot of different ideologies but, in essence, it was a fight against fascism and I think sometimes the moral reasons get lost in a kind of over-emphasized Cold War take on the conflict. All of that was there but I think we kind of de-contextualized what happened. The vets went for a variety of reasons but ultimately they went for moral reasons that I think anyone could admire given what they were fighting against. Basically, they knew that Adolf Hitler was aiding Franco and Franco had a brutal dictatorship for 40 years. He killed half a million people which, proportionally, was more than Stalin killed.”

For Kaufman and his bandmates, For Those Who Came After gets at history in a way that a text or history lesson may not be able to.

“Music is one of the most visceral ways to experience that moment,” he says. “I think these songs are powerful. They embody the spirit of the volunteers so clearly.” The intention behind these new recordings was to update the quality of the recordings and provide a vision of their relevance in a new century. “We wanted to put them in a rock context partly because that’s where we come from but partly because we hoped that different people might hear them in a way that they might be more open to than the Pete Seeger versions [heard on the 1944 release Songs of the Lincoln Battalion],” Kaufman continues. “Those are amazing recordings but they’re very much of their time.”

In the current global political climate one might easily read parallels between the music and contemporary events. Kaufman points to an interview with former volunteer Del Berg, whose voice can be heard on the final track of For Those Who Came After.

“There was a strange poetic symbolism, and not of a good kind, that Del died in 2016 and then, soon after, there was a reappearance of this exact form of fascism that he had fought. I think that, deep down, there was always a motivation to preserve this story a little bit as a warning, a little bit as a testament, but I’d be lying if I said that I knew any of this stuff was going to reemerge.”

If the cliché about those forgetting history being doomed to repeat it is true, then the work of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives exists as a preventative measure. Kaufman points out that the organization trains high school teachers to teach the Spanish Civil War via archival documents.

“Americans have a real problem with historical Amnesia,” he says. “As this older generation dies off, I think music and some of these other methods help keep the memory going.”

That the volunteers ultimately lost is as important reminder about convictions. “They won by resisting,” says Kaufman. “Spain did eventually transition to democracy. Those who fought did it because they felt that they couldn’t not not be there. They made a stand and that’s important. All of the volunteers I spoke to felt that they had not done enough for Spain. That’s heartbreaking when you consider that some people lost their lives and others came back permanently injured.”

Kaufman’s personal desire to preserve history, he says, was in part spurred by his parents. Now in his mid-forties, the musician considers that an appreciation of history and a desire to preserve it may be a generational notion. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic,” he says, “but sometimes I wonder if we’re the last generation to care.”

He adds that his mother’s commitment to family history, especially as a way of remembering relatives who’d perished in the Holocaust, was fundamental to his own passion for tracking events. “It wasn’t so distant for me. I was born in 1970 and certainly for my parents, it was closer,” he notes. “We would go on trips and my mother would be recording some uncle and the story of his escape from a village in Lithuania and how he came to the United States. At the time I may have been a little annoyed but I think maybe some of it did pass to me.”

Kaufman concedes that he did not consider that Barbez would participate in such an important project when the group was founded well over a decade ago. “What happened is that John Zorn was instrumental in directing the band and, I guess me in particular, toward something grander in scale,” the musician says. Kaufman’s affiliation with Zorn resulted in the 2007 LP album Force of Light, which paid tribute to his poetic hero, Paul Celan. In 2013 Barbez released Bella Ciao on Zorn’s Tzadik. That collection chronicled both ancient Roman Jewish melodies and the Italian Resistance of World War II.

“It was a way of tying together strands of literature and music,” recalls Kaufman. “Before that we were an unusual band but not necessarily tied to these other, non-musical inspirations.” He adds, “John adopted us and supported us and was a wonderful presence. I wouldn’t say that I know him particularly well but I can say that he let us do what we wanted to do.”

As for if the next Barbez release will continue the thread of history and literature, Kaufman isn’t sure. “Who knows? Maybe the next one will just be songs. But music is connected to other things, including a person’s larger view of the world.”