Music Review | Flowers of the Revolution

Nahash’s new EP uses harsh industrial sounds to create a sonic response to America’s role in installing dictators in Central and South America.

Changement de Régime, a song on Nahash’s Flowers of the Revolution, feels like it thrives on tension. Yet, as it moves from slow, distorted drums into passages of skittering breakbeats and back again, it becomes clear that this chaos is an illusion. Like its subject matter – the installation of dictators in Central and South American countries by the US government – Changement de Régime exists in a world of smoke and mirrors. It is immediately followed by A Better Future, a haunting, ambient piece that leaves the listener asking, “Is hope meant to sound this unsettling?”

This one-two combination from the Shanghai-based producer illustrates the shattered dreams of a failed revolution or a captured struggle for freedom. These two songs from his new EP leave the listener feeling that nothing is as it seems – which could equally be applied to American foreign policy.

Shanghai club land

Flowers of the Revolution, which dropped in June, is one of the latest releases from the Shanghai-based SVBKVLT label run by Gareth Williams, which began in 2013 as an offshoot of a dubstep party co-founded by DJ Blaise Deville from Switzerland. Williams launched Shelter, a now defunct club at the heart of Shanghai-produced club music. 

In 2016, the label started to gain major global attention with releases from Tokyo-based grime artist Prettybwoy and Shanghai resident Eli Osheyack, an American artist who first visited in 2012 and never left. Since then, SVBKVLT has gone from strength to strength.

Nahash’s EP, his first on SVBKVLT, was written during a period when he was researching the role the US has played in installing dictators in Central and South America. “I was reading and watching documentaries about Haiti and Cuba and trying to imagine what those countries would be without any Western influence,” he says on Bandcamp. “[I used] harsh and industrial sounds … as a way to talk about what happens when the … reality of neo-liberalism takes over a country that could do very well without it.”

Nahash says the “flowers of the revolution’’ are the “flowers that never grew, the fields that were burnt down, the plants that were trampled by boots”.

Flowers that never grew

Haiti – one of the countries Nahash mentions – suffered under the rule of Machiavellian dictator François Duvalier. Duvalier, facing multiple coup threats from the Haitian army, turned to the US for help in the wake of the Cuban revolution, playing up his anti-communist stance to get access to money and weapons.

The result was Duvalier’s own private militia, the notorious Tonton Macoute, trained and armed by the US. They terrorised the Haitian population, killing between 40 000 and 60 000 people during Duvalier’s 14-year reign. He was succeeded after his death by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled until 1986, when he was overthrown by a popular uprising.

But the US’s role in Haiti was also economic. The Carribean country has been in the grip of International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment policies since the early 1980s. When trade restrictions were lifted in the 1990s it became easier for US food products to enter the Haitian market, crippling the local agricultural industry and forcing farmers off their lands and into factories.

In February 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest who had emerged as the leader of Fanmi Lavalas, the popular movement against the Duvaliers, was elected as president. Inspired by liberation theology, he aimed to bring the impoverished into the centre of political life. But in September 1991, he was removed by a US-backed coup. 

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After Aristide’s return to power in 1993, the IMF and World Bank pressurised his administration to privatise state entities. Despite this, modest progressive gains were achieved and impoverished Haitians were brought into the political life of the country. Aristide was reelected to the presidency in 2001 with overwhelming popular support. But in 2004, he was abducted from home by US marines and flown out of the country. The modest progressive gains achieved under his presidency were rolled back. Fanmi Lalvalas was prevented from participation in the next election and after the 2010 earthquake, the country came to be largely run by American and European non-governmental organisations.

With a subject matter like this, it is no wonder Flowers of the Revolution is such a ferocious listen.

Drawing on genres including drum ’n bass, techno, industrial, gabber and dembow, Nahash uses severe tones to create a unique audio world, which impressively manages to convey the violence of his weighty themes through his pure sonics. The pummeling kick drums, monstrous bass, scraggy synths and industrial percussion all cohere to present this disturbing look back at South and Central America’s troubled past. 

The ‘monetarist mambo’

In drawing the correlation between installed dictators and neoliberal reform, Nahash reminds the listener that these two are just opposite arms of the same form of oppression.

This is especially pertinent for South Africans as the ANC-led government looks to jump into the IMF’s debt book in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. 

In his 2002 book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, journalist Greg Palast outlines what he describes as the IMF’s “four-step monetarist mambo”: privatisation, capital market liberalisation, market-based pricing and free trade.

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Palast says step one, privatisation, is in fact “briberisation”, where local politicians receive kickbacks on the sale of state-owned entities. Step two, capital market liberalisation, allows speculative investors to pour money into the country, but also withdraw it at the “first whiff of trouble”, which has real economic consequences for the local economy. Step three sees food prices and utility prices for electricity, gas and water increasing, which squeezes the local population and leads to what he refers to as step three-and-a-half, the “IMF riot”. “When a nation is down and out, the IMF takes advantage and squeezes the last [drop] of blood out of them. They turn up the heat until, finally, the whole cauldron blows up.” Step four is free trade, which Palast describes as “Americans and Europeans kicking down the barriers to sales in Asia, Latin America and Africa, while barricading their own markets against third-world agriculture”.

Bearing this in mind, will spiralling electricity, water, gas and food prices be South Africa’s immediate future? 

Remixed flowers

Flowers of the Revolution comes with three remixes. Label mates Gabber Modus Operandi take Nahash’s A Secret Christian Influence and turn it into a tension-ridden dance floor obliterator. While Australian DJ Plead conjures a beat for A Better Future, which becomes a deconstructed drum ’n bass vision. Welsh producer Elvin Brandhi, better known for her rap/​noise project Yeah You, rounds off the remixes with her take on Flowers of the Revolution’s opener, The Horns.

While the original The Horns, which features Nahash’s label mate Osheyack, is an industrial-strength breakbeat clanger, Brandhi’s remix hurls the listener headfirst into the visceral chaos and violence of Nahash’s subject matter. By the time it draws to a close, there is not a flower in sight.

In our present world, Nahash’s Flowers of the Revolution is a reminder of what happens when global powers use developing nations as their ideological battleground.

Correction, 26 February 2021: This article previously stated that Blaise Deville ran the SVBKVLT label and launched Shelter. 

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