The connection between music and politics bears the same nuances as any standard relationship: It can be complex and messy, yet symbiotic. Between protest songs, benefit concerts and artists serving as activists, music and politics have long inspired and fueled one another. Portland, Oregon, pianist Thomas Lauderdale sought to marry the two when he founded the celebrated orchestral ensemble Pink Martini in 1994. With aspirations to one day run for mayor of Portland, he was regularly attending political fundraisers when he realized that the music at these events left something to be desired.
“I started the band actually to play at political gatherings to provide kind of a more Breakfast at Tiffany’s soundtrack,” Lauderdale says. “And then we became sort of the house band for progressive causes in Portland.”
Pink Martini’s Holiday Spectacular
The Paramount Theater
These causes ranged from civil rights and affordable housing to public parks and the environment. The next year, Lauderdale recruited his Harvard classmate, singer China Forbes, to join the group. With their combined songwriting prowess, the band quickly climbed the ranks and has now played with symphonies all over the world. Combining classical, jazz, pop and world music, the self-described “little orchestra” has garnered a reputation for its ambitious sound that’s as enchanting as it is eclectic.
Released last month, the 15-piece’s ninth studio record, Je dis oui! (that’s “I say yes” in French), is a multilingual extravaganza combining originals with standards from America, Armenia, Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Across seven languages—English, French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish—and an array of guest vocalists, it’s a celebration of cultures and the raw emotions that unite us all. In what is perhaps the most delightful surprise on the record, fashion guru Ikram Goldman sings on the iconic Fairuz song “Bint Al Shalabiya,” while Portland civil rights activist Kathleen Saadat takes on “Love For Sale.” Operatic pop singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright incorporates the rare introductory verse on “Blue Moon,” and NPR’s Ari Shapiro, who has appeared on Pink Martini records since 2009, sings “Finnisma Di” and “Ov Sirun Sirun,” an Armenian folk song about unrequited love.
“On everything, whether it’s music or the band or anything else, I just generally try to follow my gut instinct from moment to moment,” Lauderdale says. “And in terms of figuring out who’s going to sing what, it’s purely gut instinct.”
According to Lauderdale, this album came together faster than other Pink Martini records. In the past, the group workshopped pieces of music together or came up with ideas and arrangements on the spot. But going into this recording session, they had an idea of what they were going to do.
“When the band first started, half of our income really came from album sales,” Lauderdale explains. “Now, people aren’t really buying albums very much. Album sales are sort of on the decline and so, just to be able to break even, I had to be much more sort of efficient in the studio.”
This strategy paid off. The album’s overarching themes of inclusivity and community are especially poignant given the current political and social climate in the United States.
“One of the great things about the band and one of the things I’m most proud of is that we have an audience which is very, very diverse,” Lauderdale says. “Because there’s so much divisiveness everywhere we look, the band should be a place of refuge where people who have different opinions politically can actually be in the same room and sit together and hopefully be a part of the conga line together at the end of the night.”
Before playing some of the most prestigious stages in the world and livening up audiences with participatory conga lines, Lauderdale came to music on a much smaller stage, the way many musicians do: through the church.
“I started piano when I was 6 years old. My father was a Church of the Brethren minister in rural Indiana, so I grew up amidst cows and hay—a very pastoral upbringing,” he says. “And after church services, I would go up to the piano and try to pound out the hymns that I heard during the service.”
From there, his parents enrolled him in piano lessons and, as he puts it, he never stopped learning. While he may not be hitting the campaign trail as a candidate these days, Lauderdale has found a way to exist in the balance—to showcase the ways in which politics and entertainment can positively inform each other.
“Music shouldn’t be an escape. I think what would be great is to have a way so that we could all sort of calmly discuss what the issues are and try to understand the other side. I wouldn’t want entertainment to distract from the issues. …[We need an] earnest discussion which is respectful and dignified and empathetic,” he says. “And hopefully the band can, in a small way, demonstrate what that might look like. That’s a lofty goal for a band out of Portland, Oregon, but, you know, I really sort of see us as musical ambassadors at this point and hopefully like diplomats.”