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The May Day Orchestra's third album pushes listeners to confront continuing colonialism

Provided by The May Day Orchestra
Cover art for The May Day Orchestra's third album 'Wake'

A Missouri musician and his band are making music that challenges listeners to confront their own complicity in exploitative labor practices and foreign policy while celebrating those who would change things for the better.

Tim Rakel launched The May Day Orchestra in 2008. The band creates self-described folk operas that aim to honor histories of social change. This month, the band returns with its third album, “Wake,” which melds together the story of a 17th century sultan turned pirate in what is now Kenya and Rakel’s knowledge and experience in modern-day Kenya .

Rakel writes music for The May Day Orchestrato provoke people to think.

“I like all sorts of music, but I think there’s enough love songs out there,” he said with a laugh.

Rakel, a KDHX DJ, hopes the album inspires listeners to learn about the history discussed in the music and how they’re affected by the legacy of these histories.

“Whether they go and read religious books or look up old sea shanties - you know I stole from all of it - so if they go off in some direction and discover some thread of that and learn something for themselves that’s fine for me,” said Rakel of Hermann, Missouri.   

The group’s first album focused on the 19th Century labor movement in Chicago. For its second album, Rakel recruited additional St. Louis rock musicians and created the folk opera about Ota Benga. Benga was abducted from his home in the Congo and forced to participate in the 1904 World’s Fair as a living exhibit. 

The third album explores the history of Kenya through the life of the country’s historical figure Yusuf bin Hasan, whose Sultan father was murdered by Portuguese colonizers. Hasan was then kidnapped and brought to Europe where he was indoctrinated to rule as an arm of the Portuguese government. However, once he learned the truth of his father’s death, Hasan took his revenge on the usurpers and fled to sea as a pirate to escape capture. 

Rakel said the new album was inspired by interactions with various immigrant communities in St. Louis, the current histories of East African countries, and stories Rakel heard while studying in Kenya years ago. He was immediately captured by stories he heard while there.

“They’ re sort of modern day pirates, thinking it might be safer to go to sea than to try and stay where you [they] are,” Rakel said. “If you’re out on a boat at sea you might stand a chance, and it’s kind of depressing to think that’s people’s choices even now.”

The album “Wake” is available online.  The band will play a record release show Dec. 30 at the Schlafly Tap Room.

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold