Billy Bang was asleep in his Upper East Side Manhattan home on the morning of Sept. 11. That was until he got a disturbing telephone call from saxophonist and longtime friend Frank Lowe. Screaming frantically in an uncharacteristic high-pitched voice, Lowe instructed the violinist to quickly get out of bed and turn on the television because an American Airlines plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
“I turn on the TV and I see the World Trade Center burning like hell,” says Bang. “As I’m talking with Frank, the other plane came in, and that really wiped me out. Right then, I got nervous. I became afraid—again.”
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put insurmountable fear in the hearts of Americans, and for some, like Vietnam War Veteran Bang, it reopened some deep-seated psychological wounds. “I was totally confused for a few days [after the attacks], like everyone else, but we all have our different references in our confusion,” says Bang. “My confusion was directly related to Vietnam. Soon as that happened, I’m looking for my weapon or trying to find my bunker. I’m freaking out.”
Six months prior to the attacks, Bang had recorded his latest CD, Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time). It’s his most personal album and a heart-wrenching portrait that evokes the psychological, emotional and physical violence Bang witnessed and endured during the war. The horrific memories of Vietnam constantly haunt Bang, but after many years of antiwar protesting, self-medication and professional therapy, making this record has perhaps given him the most sense of resolve. Vietnam: The Aftermath didn’t come easy, though. Bang wasn’t really ready to face his inner demons regarding his harrowing experiences until Jean-Pierre Leduc of Justin Time Records urged him to do an album dealing with it.
The eerie coincidence of releasing an album about Vietnam as America entered another war gives Vietnam: The Aftermath additional poignancy. Bang even sees some similarities between both conflicts. “The word nebulous is a great comparative analysis to the Vietnam War, because basically I find out that we [America] create a lot of these problems,” explains Bang. “That’s what threw me off about Vietnam. I find out only years later that it wasn’t really about a nationalistic war. I got upset because I was representing that. I was not only upset because I was representing a negative; I became a negative when I got home. Cats that didn’t go [to Vietnam] had better jobs than me. I couldn’t get my own job back. At that time, the Black Panther party was happening. A lot of guys got militant. I did too out of my hatred for this country, because they sent me over there as this 19-year-old kid without really knowing why.”
Bang’s violin playing has always had a guttural, deep-blues sensibility, but on this record, there’s a deeper sense of exorcism. When he bows a melodic phrase or unfurls an improvisation, Bang animates them with stinging lyricism that wails like tortured souls. On compositions like the smoldering “Bien Hoa Blues,” the Motownish “Saigon Phunk” or the foreboding “Yo! Ho Chi Minh Is in the House” his bittersweet violin saws through dark, evocative, yet rough-hewn soundscapes created by an all-star ensemble comprised of drummer Michael Carvin, trumpeter Ted Daniel, percussionist Ron Brown, tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, bassist Curtis Lundy, flutist Sonny Fortune and pianist John Hicks.
For a session dealing with so much personal anguish, carefully choosing musicians to participate is paramount. Finding gifted musicians is simply not enough when someone is trying to channel the dark emotions related to a war. Bang gathered an ensemble of mostly Vietnam veterans. “I knew Frank Lowe went to Vietnam,” says Bang. “Michael Carvin was at Vietnam, but I didn’t know that. When I found out that he went to Vietnam, he was automatically the number one choice for the drummer chair. I didn’t know Ted Daniel went to Vietnam either. I didn’t know a piano player that spent time in Vietnam, but I was very happy to share any experience with John Hicks; it’s the same with Curtis Lundy.
“The other guy who I really wanted to be on the record was Henry Threadgill,” continues Bang. “He’s also a Vietnam veteran. I’m going to do a sequel to this record and I need Henry Threadgill on that record. He will be on that next record. I’ll see to that personally.”