Amid the discord over the war in Iraq, one group strives to bring a harmonious tone to anti-war protests in the Bay Area.
The Musicians Action Group, armed with piccolos, harmonicas, drums, tubas and banjos, exercises a melodic version of free speech. Members range in age from pre-teens to octogenarians. They include students in local grade school bands and professionals who have been playing since the Vietnam War.
Berkeley resident, carpenter and musician Gene Turitz is considered one of the quasi-leaders of this nearly anarchic band simply because he’s been doing it for 30 years. He’s the fellow who usually calls out the songs and counts out the beats.
“We have a book that has 24 tunes in it,” Turitz said. “If you come to the demonstration you get the book. We call out the number of the tunes, we count ‘em off and we play ‘em. Getting more than 24 tunes makes the book a little heavy and difficult to deal with, so when we add new tunes or make new arrangements, we have to take out tunes.”
At the San Francisco peace rally on March 15, the band led protesters in rousing renditions of “De Colores,” which was used by the United Farm Workers, and “Wade in the Water,” a spiritual from the days of slavery. They also played protest standards such as “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” “Down by the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Berkeley pediatrician Bert Lubin plays drums with the band. His son, Danny Lubin-Laden, is a Berkeley High School student who’s been playing trombone for about two years; Danny’s friend, Seth Rosenberg from College Prep, plays saxophone, and the two attended their first MAG performance at the March 15 rally in San Francisco.
“I'm against the war,” said the senior Lubin. “I think you have to do everything you possibly can. I worry about the violence but I think you have to make a statement.”
His son agrees. “I don’t believe it’s a just cause,” Danny said. “I'm against the war and I enjoy music and I think you’ve got to speak out any way you can.”
At the March 15 rally the band’s attire ranged from tie-dye T-shirts to classic, activist flannel plaids. There was also a small mixed-gender contingent in wedding gowns representing the “Brides of March.”
Jeff Mertens, a Berkeley-based painting contractor, has played trombone in the group for the past 20 years.
“I like to play music because music is a renewable resource. War is not,” he said. “Music creates energy and people seem happy when we play. They smile and sing along. At these events there are usually political speeches, and speeches tend to make people feel angry and makes them want to do something. Our music brings people together so people can think about the speeches, but they also hear the music and can feel good. The music creates an action, marching and good feelings.”
Jeff’s wife, Mardi Sicular-Mertens, a Berkeley High School teacher, recently began playing tambourine with the band.
“Music has always been a part of my life,” she said. “I’ve been marching in demonstrations since I was six years old. I guess you could say I was a red diaper baby. We marched for civil rights. We marched for the farm workers. Every year we march on Hiroshima Day. I’ve been marching all my life but it doesn’t feel like I do enough.”
The group’s roots run deep in the East Bay’s activist community.
“Some of us started playing for these marches 30 years ago,” Turitz said. “And we’re still doing it, and people like it. On almost every march that we’ve played people come up and say, ‘Oh this is really great. I wish I could do that with you.’ So they do.”
The band doesn’t have meetings or leaders or an organizational flow chart. The whole operation runs off a mailing list. Turitz said if someone wants to play all they have to do is e-mail Magband@aol.com, provide an address, indicate their instrument and ask to be notified of the next gathering.
“It’s very easy,” Turitz said. “While many of the members are professional musicians, the only audition required is showing up. Mostly, everyone plays pretty well, but there’s no criteria other than a willingness to show up. We had a band in 1973 called the Bay Area Progressive Musicians Association — BAPMA. That was a real organization. We had meetings and rehearsals.”
That association broke up by 1979, but a few of the musicians stayed in touch and continued playing together. They form the nucleus of the current band, which now has about 70 musicians on the mailing list.
At the March 15 rally in San Francisco, about 50 MAG members came to play. They were also joined by other music groups.
“I’ve played at demonstrations with as little as three people,” Turitz said at the demonstration. “It was very hard but we had a good time — the three of us. Generally speaking a functional size is 15. It depends on how people feel about the march. Right now a lot of people are interested in playing.”
More information about the Musicians Action Group can be found on their web site, http://www.musiciansactiongroup.org/.