Politics without preaching on new Ben Sures album

Ben Sures would like people to know that he is not some angry protest singer, though he still wants to spread an important message: ‘We are all in this together.”

This obvious but often forgotten truth could be the theme of his new album Gone to Bolivia – the CD release tonight at the TransAlta Arts Barns – which was created by a singer-songwriter who’s part journalist, part humanitarian, part activist and just happens to love Woody Guthrie (Ben was born the year Woody died. Coincidence? Yes). Whether he likes it or not, Ben Sures – recent recipient of an Edmonton Arts Council grant (story here) – is turning into a political folk singer. Don’t believe it? Consider the lyrical evidence:

“Everybody matters, even you” (Everybody Matters)

“When it happens in your own back yard, sure do take it hard” (American Shantytown)

“The children of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara are tired of his image offered up like soda” (Gone to Bolivia)

“If the Junta doesn’t get you, the cyclone will” (In Burma)

As you can see, a good half of the new record is a travelogue of trouble. You could also say that a good half of it is personal and/or romantic songs. Sures says he doesn’t think people care what he does, nor does he have a big hit or a record company waiting for the next one, “so I can do what I want.” Half political, half personal, it’s a fine line.

“I would love to achieve the ideal of learning to navigate a very personal issue without making anyone feel icky, or being able to navigate a political issue without taking sides,” he says. “The songs might come across as political, but they’re more like social observations. They never exclude the narrator from what’s being said. I’m the narrator. It’s just speculation and observation. No finger pointing.”

Oh, really? What about people who think they’re better than everybody else because they’re white and rich? (You know who you are.)

Sures has been to a few of the dozen places depicted in Gone to Boliva (America, Panama, Costa Rica, Grenada, half of Central America and Winnipeg), but says that most of his inspiration comes from reading – and thinking. Considering a trip to visit his sister in Beirut, Lebanon and hearing people express worry, he says, “There’s people there! People with the same dreams as ours and the same will to survive. And Beirut is the Paris of the Middle east. You can get killed on 118th Avenue.”

Pondering 9-11 and the recession that followed, Sures read reports about American “shantytowns” popping up, which isn’t news in third world countries whose cities have been surrounded by filthy donuts of poverty for decades. He says, “It’s as if nothing bad had ever happened before it happened in America – as if it matters more because it’s in our backyard. It doesn’t. We’re in this world together. Blood spilling in your backyard is the same that is spilled in China.”

But aren’t we more likely to get fired up if something bad does happen in our backyard than if it happens in China? Ben keeps coming back to his mantra: We are all in this together. It seems an enormous responsibility – and a relatively new one at that since instant global communication has spread bad news far and wide – that makes even the most compassionate among us feel paralysed with helplessness. What can one ordinary person possibly do to help?

Sures responds, “There’s a lot you can to. You can make your immediate surroundings better, you can be environmental, you can think about what you buy, think about how you treat people. It comes down the smallest thing. If someone pushes me when they pass by me on the street, I can get pissed off, or I could say, maybe they’re having a bad day and let it go. Every one of those little choices affects the big picture.”

Tickets to the CD release show are $20, on sale here, or call 780.420.1757.