All Ears

A hot-button ‘Ring’ at SF Opera? You bet your Brünnhilde

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde in Wagner's "Die Walküre"—part of the Ring Cycle at SF Opera. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

ALL EARS With great art comes great baggage. And quite possibly no work comes with greater baggage than Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle (opening at SF Opera Tue/12 and continuing through July 1, accompanied by some lively programming). With its Lord of the Rings-inspiring premise, instant recall of rampaging Rubenesque women in Viking helmets and/or murderous Iroquois helicopters, “Kill the Wabbit” musical themes, and dark echoes of nationalism and anti-Semitism, it’s an indelible cultural touchstone. 

Consisting of four full-length operas, the Ring Cycle was first produced in the period from 1848 to 1874: Wagner wrote the libretto and the music in an act of volcanic auteurism, helping to bolster the contemporary myth of the heroic genius, among other fustier notions. But with its sweeping powers and gorgeous score, this archetypal work—with its mythic quests, clashes of Teutonic titans, flashes of chthonic magic, and vivid, often weird chromatic score—continues to fascinate, drawing thousand of jet-setting Ring-lovers to minutely compare each production. 

How can you put a new spin on such an idolized classic, without seeming too desperate for that illusive (and often counterproductive) quality, “relevance”?

Opera director Francesca Zambello brought a revelatory Ring Cycle production to SF Opera in 2011—complete with gold-panning 49ers and corporate CEO-types. Now she’s back, updating the production with “new features, including technologically advanced projections, new imagery and restudied stage action.” But the giant gewgaws we’ve come to associate with the Ring—itself a massive special effect, in a way—pale for Zambello in comparison to the stories of the characters. Her great insight is that honing in on the personal tales of these gods and monsters will spark a fuller connection to the work, and reveal some striking parallels to our own time.

“The world scene has changed drastically in terms of politics, social issues, sex and race, Zambello said in a director’s statement titled “What Has Happened Since 2011?” “Hopefully, at some point in our lives, everything will be born anew. I am an optimist and pray for the country and the world to find its way, the same way that Brünnhilde leads us to positive change at the end of the Ring.”

Zambello elaborated on the phone to me, “For me and many of the performers, the best part of the Ring is that the gods in the story are also mortals, that they grow and change despite having this enormous stature and power, but they’re also called to account as well. You can really delve into their relationships. Wagner gave us these profound characters in the music and words, which he expressed in a sophisticated, poetic German, so it’s both exhilarating and challenging to flesh out all the meanings embedded in them.”

Director Francesca Zambello on the set of ‘Gotterdammerung’ at the Washington National Opera. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I asked Zambello to tell me some examples of how the characters’ growth translates into contemporary issues.  

“One of the great things that comes through, and that directly applies to our #MeToo era, is that the women in this work cover an amazingly broad spectrum, and unfortunately face things we continue to face,” she said.

“For instance, Sieglinde is a demi-god who lives with a hideous mortal named Hunding, who’s like a character directly out of Deliverance. She’s famously abused, and has been forced into marriage. She ends up reuniting with her twin brother—they are two parts of the same soul—but he alone doesn’t free her. They do it together. Watching her go from this abused soul to someone in possession of herself is an amazing journey.

“Another character is Gutruna. She’s psychologically abused by her half-brother and brother. The abuse may have other dimensions as well—Wagner leaves that open. She lives in a very complicated situation. In rehearsals we talked a lot about this, about how has to adapt while accommodating her own ambitions. 

“And then there’s Brünnhilde, one of the main characters, who is truly a woman of our time,” Zambello said. “She’s an amazing free spirit who transforms the world and restores the balance of nature, something even more apparent in the text now, with what we’re facing on a global scale.”

Environmentalism indeed plays into all this. “The story begins with an act of defilement toward nature—the gold for the ring being stolen from a river bed—which sets in motion so many terrifying consequences,” she said. “That sense of the loss of nature is so important in the Ring. Even more important to us, as we watch agencies like the EPA be cut in half. It’s a particularly Californian theme since here people are so conscious of that.

“We see how greed destroys the environment. The Ring is an emblem of that struggle for the natural world, and how one small action can plunge us into catastrophe.”

Tue/12-July 1
SF Opera
Tickets and more info here.  

Homegrown soul sensation Con Brio is back

Con Brio. Photo by Leila Maulen

ALL EARS It wasn’t so long ago that people thought Con Brio was dead. In 2013, its original lead singer had moved on and San Francisco’s homegrown soul sensation needed an update, in the form of new bandmates. Enter two horns (Brendan Liu and Marcus Stephens), a guitar god (Benjamin Andrews), and Ezekiel McCarter: a 20-year-old recently arrived from East Texas with James Brown dance moves and a liquid gold falsetto. The band quickly built a rabid local following that swarmed performances at gigs like the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (which, by the way, opens this Sunday ) with their hands already in the air.

Con Brio’s first studio album, Paradise , propelled them onto the international touring circuit. This Saturday, the group makes a rare appearance at home to headline the Fillmore for the first time. Its second album is due out on July 6 from Transistor Sounds records, and the first single will drop Friday, in advance of the show. (Both the album and single titles are secrets until then.) The Fillmore show is both a celebration and a family reunion: the seven-piece band will play host to Kelly McFarling, Lalin St. Juste from The Seshen, among other local guest musicians.

I met McCarter (who goes by “Ziek”) and drummer Andrew Laubacher at the house two blocks from the Fillmore where Ziek’s grandmother has lived since the 1950s. (It was the only house on the surrounding blocks not destroyed during the Redevelopment Era .) The pair described what the band’s meteoric rise has felt like from the inside, and how they’re still tied to San Francisco and that classic San Francisco value: music as a weapon of love.

48 HILLS Legend has it that Con Brio was a band without a lead singer, and you met Ziek when he was singing Stevie Wonder covers at an open mic night.

ANDREW LAUBACHER Is that the story?

48 HILLS That’s the legend! So how did you guys actually get connected?

Ziek McCarter at his grandmother’s house in the Fillmore. Photo by Joanna Ladd.

EZEKIEL “ZIEK” MCCARTER I met Micah [Dubreuil, Con Brio’s founding keyboardist, replaced by Patrick Glynn] at a jam session. Micah and I would be watching these O.G.s play for like two hours, and then they would let us up for like the last two songs. He and I would spend a lot of time quiet together, just listening intently. He would also play with me at a residency at the Boom Boom Room called the Soul Train Revival—so we were playing Stevie Wonder songs.

I think I was at the Boom Boom Room with him, and Micah was like, “Xandra [the original lead singer] is leaving.”And I was like, “Sure.” I think I saw Con Brio once, on Halloween.

48 HILLS Where were you at that point in your life? You were really young, right?

ZIEK I was 20.

48 HILLS What brought you to San Francisco from Texas, and what were you trying to do at that point?

ZIEK It was music—music brought me here for sure. But I always wanted to live here since I was a kid because my mom’s from here, like grew up in this house, and we came here a lot growing up. There was this music opportunity I came here specifically for, but it didn’t quite work out. And then I was just here, and I moseyed my way into the Boom Boom Room.

Andrew Laubacher at Ziek’s grandmother’s house. Photo by Joanna Ladd

48 HILLS Andrew, where was the band at that moment? Were you trying to pull it back together?

ANDREW Micah and Jonathan [Kirchner], the current bass player, they put a lot of it together with the old singer, Xandra [Corpora]. Around that point when it kind of split up, there was this moment where the three of us were like, “Well, let’s just keep doing it.” And at that point, it was a conscious decision to try to pull people in.

A lot of times when you start bands, you’re all friends, or you’re all in the same music scene. This was really a bunch of strangers that were like, “Let’s play some music and just see what happens.” And there was just an immediate electricity to it. It just felt like, “We gotta put this out there.”

48 HILLS The first time I saw you guys was at the Undercover Presents tribute to Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! at the Independent. I was in the crowd with one of the members of Guy Fox [a local indie rock band], and he was surprised to even see you on the bill. I think a lot of people assumed that the band died when the original singer left, and then saw it completely reborn with Ziek out front at the UnderCover show.

ANDREW It’s funny you say that because—there’s a lot of shows and stuff—but that’s one of the moments in the band that I feel were really defining. It was like everything focused. It was suddenly like, “Oh, this is a band.”

ZIEK Yeah, you saw us at a very special time.

48 HILLS After the UnderCover show, I probably saw you guys six times that year, and each show was just a little bigger than the last, to where now you only play the bigger venues locally: Stern Grove, SFJAZZ. It seemed like such a healthy way to grow the band. Was that intentional, or did it just happen that way?

ZIEK I’d say it’s a mixture of both, but yeah, we’re very intentional with the moves we make. You don’t want to exhaust the fans. You want them stoked every time—want it to feel like a holiday every time we play.

ANDREW Next album, it’s a song: “It’s A Holiday Every Time We Play.”[Everyone laughs.]

48 HILLS A lot of your songs have a “money can’t buy me love” kind of ethic. But at the same time, you’re touring a lot and trying to survive as musicians. How does that value system that’s present in your lyrics play into the decisions that you make as a band?

ZIEK That’s a very good question. I’ve thought about that specifically, since I wrote the song [“Money,” from first album, Paradise]. Yes, we may endure trying times, and you need money, but how are you invested in the relationship with money? Are you investing your money in yourself, in your family’s ideas, in your community’s ideas? Like me being able, for example, to invest in my nephew if he has a basketball team he wants to put together. That type of relationship with money is totally positive. Not just seeing it as something that you have to do appease this value that isn’t innately yours.

ANDREW With this record, we were talking to different labels, and there’s different things we could have gotten from them, based on the size of the label. And some of them were really shiny and exciting, but in looking at it further, it was sort of like, “Well, what will we be giving up?” The labels we’re talking with right now, they understand what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to jump too many steps for the quick adrenaline rush of, “Oh my god, look at what we just got.”

48 HILLS I’ve also noticed that—despite the fact that you’ve been touring—I still see you out and about a lot: at Smoked Out Soul at Monarch, or at Extra Nappy at Madrone. Why is it important to you to be plugged into Bay Area music and culture when you’re here?

ZIEK It just feels good, you know? These are our homies—and not only are they our friends, but these are our friends who have spent years doing this, teaching within the community, been so consistent, and there’s a respect for the craft that they have that we all share. Just going to support that, going to witness that—it keeps my fire lit.

ANDREW It’s inspiring. It doesn’t matter like where you come back from: sometimes we’ll fly back from playing some festival or whatever, and then you land, and you go to some tiny little bar and there’s a band in the corner, and they’re just slaying. And you’re like, “I need to rethink what’s going on. These people, this is the truth right now, and we need to make sure that we’re on their level.” That’s a beautiful thing that the city has to offer.

Ziek McCarter. Photo by Leila Maulen

48 HILLS I wanted to get into the music a little bit, but right at the top of the liner notes for Paradise is the fact that Ziek’s dad was killed at the hands of police. Do you feel like sharing any more about what happened that day and the impact that it has had on your family?

ZIEK What happened? Well. He was unarmed, and he was in the parking lot of his childhood church. The police were called on him, and the police officer was young, inexperienced—I think he was 20. He was my age. He said my father tried to reach for his gun. And he shot him. I found out in the morning. I woke up and my mom told me.

In Texas, that’s so common. I just assumed that nothing was gonna happen, that the police officer was gonna get away—that everything that happened was gonna happen. My whole family is distraught, and like, “Where we go? Who do we hit up at NAACP?” But for me, as, I guess, the next “man” of the house, I just wanted to submerse myself in where my strength was, and that was in music and creativity. I felt like I could be effective—most effective—in that arena.

48 HILLS How do you work with that kind of tragedy? When you talk about those kinds of issues in your music, how do you think about it?

ZIEK Writing and performing music has always been cathartic for me, so in my music I just talk about the dreams and realities of my life, really. It doesn’t haunt me—like we were working on Paradise, we had to record the Paradise outro, and my dad visited me in a dream like the night before we recorded it. I woke up the next day and just wrote everything out and recorded it that day. So that was a very positive push that I felt from that. I see that tragedy as a catalyst for many positive and negative things in my life. I choose to feed off the positive to empower myself and others along the way.

I was writing music and creating and performing—all of that was my essence before he passed away. His death does not immediately saturate everything musically that comes out of me. I’m still human, so I experience other shades and aspects of life. Speaking out against injustice—because the way he was killed was unjust—it comes through when it needs to come through, and there are some of those songs on the new record. 

48 HILLS Thank you for being willing to speak to that. It does come out in your music, and I think it’s part of what draws me to the band.

ZIEK My hopes were that it would speak to those who were affected by it. Whoever it speaks to, I’m glad it speaks to, but that was really my goal: to create some momentum for those whose families have endured—maybe a son who was in my position, or daughter, or wife.

Saxophonist Marcus Stephens and trumpeter Brendan Liu. Photo by Leila Maulen

48 HILLS What was the inspiration behind the new album?

ZIEK We listened to a lot of Anderson.Paak, Tame Impala, Thundercat—all those guys who are doing soul and R&B and kind of funk-inspired music, but in a more modern way.

ANDREW People always say this to us when we go to make a record: “Your live show is so great, and we want to capture that energy!” And I think on this one, rather than actually capture the live show, we tried to figure out sonically: how do you create that excitement of seeing Ziek dancing, or watching Brendan [Liu, trumpeter] jumping around onstage going crazy?

It’s very reflective, I think, of the last year of our lives. The first record, we were wide-eyed, and there’s other realities now: different fears, and different excitement.

48 HILLS What are the fears and excitements that go along with this album?

ZIEK It’s just getting back into the saddle at the time of so much affliction going on, that we’re taking in as creators, and as human beings.

ANDREW We were in the studio the day of the election.

ZIEK That night, and wrote a song. That was all part of the creative window of working on this album: what’s an antidote that we can create that will help people gravitate towards more of a positive, momentous energy? How can you feel motivated to address some of these issues?

Well, you gotta feel good, first. You gotta feel some type of confidence in yourself that you can face these things. Part of that is just simple things, like relationships, and so we’ve got some songs for that. Dance songs: you gotta dance, you gotta love your body. Travel: we got this song about traveling called “United State of Mind.”

ANDREW When we left the country, it was a little nerve-wracking because you’re like, “Is everyone going to hate us?” And then everyone was super—it’s like we had to leave the country to get our heads right.

Ziek McCarter and guitarist Ben Andrews. Photo by Leila Maulen

48 HILLS What does it feel like to be headlining the Fillmore for the first time?

ZIEK The Fillmore is…historic. We’ve opened up for bands there before, but headlining it is something else. And for me, especially, walking past it so much, it’s like my neighborhood, so it’s automatically a dream come true for me.

Featuring Kelly McFarling, Lalin St. Juste, and others
Sat/5, 8pm, $25
The Fillmore, SF
Tickets and more info here.

Funky old Iceland? DJ Platurn dives into Reykjavik’s rare grooves

DJ Platurn

ALL EARS  At turns goofy, touching, mesmerizing, super-funky, and just plain weird, local DJ Platurn‘s just-released, two-part mix of unfamiliar Icelandic rare grooves and pop hits, Breaking the Ice, is a brilliant, painstaking excavation of unheard gems—and of his own past. If your knowledge of that icy island’s scene doesn’t extend beyond Bjork and Sigur Rós, Breaking the Ice will blow your mind with dozens of tunes from the late 1960s through early 80s (and clue you in to what was happening on Reykjavik’s intimate but lively glam rock, space pop, psychedelic, bubblegum, and pastoral folk scene). 

Platurn’s a very respected name on the local turntablist and hip-hop scene, laying down beats at parties from Motown on Mondays to Dre Day (which he organizes). But in 2006 he started exploring the musical variety of his Icelandic roots with his cousin, especially inspired by his father.

Platurn’s dad, Icelandic DJ Magnus Thorvardson (

Platurn’s dad was Magnus Thordarson, a groundbreaking DJ and concert promoter who, in the early 1970s, brought rock and roll to Iceland’s only radio station. According to journalist David Ma, who wrote Breaking the Ice‘s excellent liner notes (buy the two-CD version for some awesome pics and documentation of the early Iceland scene), the national radio station, Ríkisútvarpið, was trying to be all things to all people, and looked down on overseas rock as “too aggressive”—so it ended up a bland morass of traditionalist tunes and propaganda. Thordarson changed all that when he scored a one-hour show and started breaking not only overseas records, but local bands who were adopting and developing new sounds.

“I was super into rock and roll, and its appeal to sexual impulses of young adults,” Thordarson told Ma with a laugh. “But I wanted to take it beyond that, I wanted to speak about the lyrics and take it into the intellectual realm.” Thordarson eventually opened Icelandic ears to everything from reggae to the Kinks, and fed a thirst for connection with the world that sparked Icelandic musicians to take up instruments and make their own noise (even if it was a cover of “Rock the Boat”).

Platurn discovered his own mission regarding the music is father had hyped so well, when he realized how much groove a lot of it had—and started thinking about how the records from that time could be mixed together in a journey through Iceland’s recent past. The seamless result toggles from energizing nostalgia to “WTF what is that?!” inspiration, much like a radio station from the past reaching our own attention deficit disorder present.  

I talked to Platurn over email about the records, his heritage, and the Breaking the Ice process that took 12 years to complete.    

48 HILLS Where you got ahold of these amazing records? Were there any specific shops you dove into? Were these mostly your father’s records?

PLATURN Many different outlets. My father’s collection (he was a DJ and promoter in Iceland back in the day), my own collection from when I was a kid, digging with my cousin in various places back home since 2006, and a couple of must-have pieces online. Almost all 65+ records came from old school excavation, not to mention the countless hours of educating myself—and maintaining broke status well throughout.

48H You and your cousin started getting really into older Icelandic rock music around 2006. What spurred you to start exploring more?

P Figuring out that said rock music had a lot more groove than expected. Was really that simple. I knew players in the music scene back in the day were bad ass musicians, I just didn’t know to what extent how soulful and interesting a lot of the grooves really were.

48H I love how you’ve talked about how a lot of Icelandic music had funky drumming “almost unintentionally.” Can you give me a couple examples of records that you recognized that on?

P Not really mentioning names, but there are very popular bands back home that many know about, like Hljomar for instance, that had great pocket drummers throughout many of their releases. 

48H How did you make the mix itself, i.e. what software tools did you use, or was it purely turntable oriented? Was there any challenge to working with such older records?

P All recorded in Pro-Tools. All original vinyl pressings, so yeah piecing it all together certainly wasn’t easy. From the time I started to completion I’d estimate it took me roughly two years to complete the actual recording process. Choosing the music and finding all the pieces where I felt like I was satisfied took roughly 12 years. Older records always present a challenge, but that’s what I love about projects like this. I’ve never been one to take the easy-street shortcut.

48H Are there any interesting or surprising connections between Iceland in general (or Icelandic music specifically) and the Bay? 

 P Not really. There is a Northern California Icelandic Society that gets together a few of times a year to celebrate popular holidays back home, but that’s about it. There’s only about 350,000 of us, and a rough guesstimate of how many live outside of the island would probably be somewhere between 20 and 30 thousand I’m assuming, spread out all throughout the planet. 
I did purposely put two records on there that certified the California/Iceland connection for me personally. First one is a cover of The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreaming,” a rendition translated as “Farm Boy’s Dream.” And the other a hokey pop-disco song entitled “Frisco Disco,” not to be confused with the classic B-boy break from Eastside Connection of the same name.
Purchase the Breaking the Ice 2xCD set here.
Follow Platurn here

21st Romani Music Festival lights up with electrifying horns, cultural openness

Award-winning trumpet phenom Džambo Aguševi plays the 21st Romani Music Festival. Photo by Kosta Jovanov

ALL EARS You know your Balkan party scene is good when top-shelf Balkan musicians want in on it. The Romani clarinet wizard Ismail Lumanovski now regularly drops in from New York to charm crowds with the Bay’s own Inspector Gadje. Friday, March 9 brings another heavyweight to the Starline Social Club in Oakland: Džambo Aguševi Orchestra, making its US debut at as part of the 21st Annual Romani Music Festival, presented by Voice of Roma.  

The powerhouse eight-member brass band offers a straightforward reason for wanting to start their West Cost tour here: “The Bay Area is known for its lively Balkan scene.” That’s high praise coming from a group that regularly wins prizes on the competitive Balkan brass festival circuit, including the most prestigious international festival in Guča. Just last week, Džambo Aguševi Orchestra took the Best Trumpet and Best Band awards at the Bubamara Festival in Macedonia. 

Džambo Aguševi, the band’s namesake and front man, is a trumpet prodigy with musical lineage. He has been performing professionally since he joined his uncle Kočo Aguševi’s brass band at age 11. Now 30, Džambo is known for dazzling improvisation—a key feature of Balkan Romani music—and innovative arrangements that draw on modern dance beats. His band includes his father, other family members, and childhood friends who grew up playing together and training with older generations of Romani musicians. 

The increasing recognition of their music has unfortunately not protected the Roma (the preferred term for “gypsy”) from the rising xenophobia in Europe and the US. Ironically, Europeans continue to characterize the Roma as uncivilized, untrustworthy outsiders, despite the fact that Roma have lived in Europe for over 700 years. 

The Romani Music Festival distinguishes itself from other Balkan parties by placing Džambo Aguševi Orchestra’s musical prowess in its cultural context. In addition to the show, the festival features a Balkan dance workshop with Voice of Roma president Šani Rifati and a panel discussion with Dr. Carol Silverman of the University of Oregon, who won the 2012 book prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology for her work on Romani music.   

Dr. Carol Silverman will moderate a panel on Roma arts and culture featuring members of Džambo Aguševi Orchestra. Photo by Tess Freeman

Dr. Silverman points out the connection between the marginalization of Romani people and the quality of their music: “Music has served as one of the viable economic niches for Balkan Roma—one arena where they are respected. There are a huge number of Romani musicians all trying to make a living, so competition is fierce.” That explains a festival culture that crowns winners—hard to imagine at Outside Lands or Hardly Strictly. 

It also makes it clear how infuriating the stereotype of the free-spirited, artistic gypsy must be for a people who have been prevented from pursuing other livelihoods. Šani Rifati is a Roma from Kosovo who immigrated to the US in 1993, and he says that it was these romantic stereotypes, as well as the negative ones, that moved him to found the non-profit Voice of Roma to promote authentic representations of Romani culture. In particular, he calls out a certain well-loved Balkan dance party that features non-Romani belly dancers with bare skin: “The irony is that this type of belly dance—it’s for sure not a Roma thing. It comes from Middle East.” Dr. Silverman notes that Romani women use more modest dance attire.

The Voice of Roma has been generous in opening its community to non-Roma who are interested in Romani culture. Rifati explains this impulse by saying, “Remember, Roma have survived for all these centuries thanks to this: as always being together as a group, not as an individual.” This openness goes beyond the annual Romani Music Festival: In 2009, Rifati and his wife, Carol Bloom, wrote a grant to allow a group of local musicians to train with Bulgarian Roma drum master Rumen Shopov. That group went on to become Inspector Gadje, one of the Bay’s premiere Balkan brass bands, whose name denotes their status as “gadje,” or non-Roma.

Šani Rifati, president of the Voice of Roma, the non-profit advocacy group that organizes the annual Romani Music Festival. Photo by Ezra Ekman

Rifati believes that non-Roma can be critical allies in changing stereotypes of Romani culture, and so far, it seems to be working: Inspector Gadje co-founder Marco Peris Coppola says, “We try to always give props to the culture—like, we play this music, but also check out these other players who have made an impact on us.” That ethos was on display at Inspector Gadje’s recent show at the 11th anniversary party for Kafana Balkan (which, Peris notes, removed the term “gypsy” from its name after Inspector Gadje joined the lineup). Inspector Gadje took time onstage to promote Džambo Aguševi Orchestra and the Romani Music Festival, calling it a once-in-a-decade chance to see a Balkan brass band of this caliber in the Bay Area. 

You know your Balkan party scene is good when your hometown Balkan brass band stands ready to promote the Roma big-shots when they come to town. The Romani Music Festival promises not just to be a blast, but a vision of intercultural understanding—fueled by electrifying horns. 

w/ Džambo Aguševi Orchestra
Fri/9, $15
7:30pm – Panel discussion on Romani music and culture with Džambo Aguševi Orchestra, led by Šani Rifati and Dr. Carol Silverman
8:30 PM – Dance workshop with Šani Rifati
9:30 PM – Dance party with Džambo Aguševi Orchestra
Starline Social Club, Oakland.
Tickets and more info here.

Rapping the ‘Housing Crisis’

ALL EARS “With the passing of Ed Lee, I think we’re at a crossroads in terms of the future of housing in this city, which will be largely determined by his successor,” local rapper and longtime music scene presence SCS tells me over email.

“Will our next mayor continue to give our city away to big businesses and short-term rental services? Or will they act on behalf of their constituents, advocating for stronger tenants’ rights? As we’ve seen with Lee, the mayor can have a profound impact on our city’s housing situation, and it is my sincere hope that our next one stands up for the people and curbs the displacement of so many working and middle-class San Franciscans.”

That kind of forward-thinking critique comes through in the long-awaited (and gorgeously shot) video for “Housing Crisis,” released on his label Richland Records. In the video, shot in various locales around the city, he calls out tech billionaire Ron Conway and political corruption, and asks “What happens when the bubble bursts?”

As artists with a political edge are forced out of the city, it’s refreshing to get such a direct take on the current state of things. I talked to SCS about hip-hop’s ability to engage with our moment, the struggle to survive in SF as an artist, and the need to speak out about the inequality that’s torn the city apart. 

48H You’re taking on some big, timely issues with “Housing Crisis”—and several tracks on the album directly confront political crises. Why do you feel it’s important to do this through hip-hop, and how are you hoping to inspire other kinds of activists?

SCS I’m someone far to the left on the American political spectrum, and I feel like it’s often an uphill battle to deliver my hard-hitting messages or critiques through conventional channels like scholarly articles or op-ed pieces. Rather, hip-hop provides a liberating medium for me to express my views through rhythm and poetry. Depending on how you inflect certain lines or where you place certain words and syllables, you can freely manipulate meaning.

Hip-hop is a global phenomenon, empowering its artists to deliver their messages around the world. With the way that music and videos are so accessible these days via the Internet, it’s relatively easy for me to get my content out to the masses and reach people who traditionally would be less inclined to read a relatively dry article in some academic journal. I certainly don’t set out to inspire other kinds of activists, but if I do, that’s fantastic. I honestly don’t even really consider myself much of an activist; I’d call myself a concerned citizen who loves using hip-hop as a platform to get my messages out there.

48H It’s become harder and harder to stay in SF as an artist, musician, writer… Hip-hop has felt especially stung. (It feels like we’re missing an entire generation of Fillmore rappers.) What’s it like for you and the people you work with to survive as hip-hop artists these days? What are you seeing that’s giving you hope for the hip-hop scene? 

SCS Most of the hip-hop artists I know are funding themselves or working with boutique labels. As audio streaming has completely changed the landscape of the music business, it’s much more difficult for artists to sell thousands of copies of their CDs out of the back of their cars. It generally benefits artists to learn as much as they can about the music business and various income channels that may be open to them whether it’s digital album sales, YouTube monetization, synch licensing or something else entirely.

Certainly there are ways for hip-hop artists to make money out there, but by and large, artists typically have to invest in themselves (or have someone invest in them) prior to “making it” in the biz these days. I’m fortunate because my bartending work typically enables me to pay the bills and still have some left over to invest in my music and videos, and I’m confident that if I and my label continue to improve by increasingly stepping up our content, we’ll eventually find the success that we’ve been seeking.

48 Hills I know you as a fixture of the Lower Haight scene. Tell me a bit about your background as a hip-hop artist and history 

SCS I fell in love with hip-hop when I was in grade school in the ’80s in New York hearing songs like “Rappers Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang, “Jam on it” by Newcleus, and “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa. When Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime” came out in ’91, I fell completely head-over-heels with the genre, and by the time high school was wrapping up in the mid-90s, I was freestyling with friends at a neighboring school. Later when I was in college in the outskirts of Philadelphia, my friends and I would freestyle for hours in dorm stairwells, and I later broke out my pen and pad to start writing down rhymes and developing a bit of a persona.

However, it wasn’t until after graduating college and moving out to San Francisco in ’99 that I really pursued my goal at the time to start a little recording studio. I started recording myself and other local artists in my Lower Haight studio while working at Bean There café and later bartending up the street at The Top. When I moved out of the Lower Haight to Bernal Heights in 2005, I started to record more people and decided I wanted to start releasing their music. As such, I founded my label Richland Records the next year, the name inspired by the street that I was living on at the time in Bernal: Richland Ave.

In the years that followed, I put out music from some different hip-hop artists and was even working with a talented artist outside of Philly at one point, but I kept asking myself, “Our label’s music is good, but the way the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket right now, can’t we be using our music in a more positive way to try and create change in the world around us for the better?” It was actually a dream I had in Vancouver a night or two before New Year’s 2016 that really encouraged me to start putting out my own music in earnest. I took an audio recording class at City College that Spring Semester and was able to impress upon my wonderful instructor that I intended to make a hip-hop album for a good cause, and she essentially believed in me and my goal and gave me the keys to the recording studio for the semester.

I basically locked myself in there for half a semester to record and by the time summer came around, my debut album First Day of School was finished. Unlike many mainstream hip-hop artists who drone on incessantly about drugs, cars, women and money, I addressed what I felt to be more substantive issues: racism, child labor, corporate welfare, central banking, animal rights, and prison-for-profit schemes. I really consider my music to basically fall into two camps: “sticking it to the man” and “watering the seeds” (you know trying to provide the youth with some positive messages instead of the negative ones they’re constantly being bombarded with.)

The album I released last year called Leaps & Bounds has more social justice-related songs (calling out 45, Paul Ryan, Big Oil, Mainstream Media and the Federal Reserve) as well as some positive tracks for the youth. I’ve already started writing my third album, that I’m planning on dropping next year.

A new guerrilla folk opera immerses you in 2014’s Ukrainian revolution

ALL EARS Protests are a form of performance, of course—even the most spontaneous ones. The attempt is to seize the public stage to proclaim certain ideas as (at least temporary) fact.

Two upcoming performances intend to immerse audiences in the “polyphony of protest,” making them part of the action, as all hell breaks loose around them. February 22-March 22 we get the exciting The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, “an original, interactive theater piece directly inspired by the historic riots that launched transgender activism in San Francisco.” That’s co-written by Tenderloin ladies who may not have been at the pivotal Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, often called the original Stonewall, but who’ve lived through several decades of the neighborhood’s changes. 

But first we turn toward another more contemporary, highly charged instance: The 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. Can the experience of this monumental event half a world away, the implications of which are still roiling through our own politics, be conveyed via a guerrilla folk opera occupying the massive Oakland Metro Operahouse? 

Counting Sheep (Fri/16-Sun/18), tells the story of a very recent street protest—one which took over downtown Kiev and involved violent confrontations with riot police and still unidentified shooters, culminating in the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych—through traditional Ukrainian folk songs. 

Audience members are invited “to dance, sing, and eat—and hurl foam bricks, dodge men with guns, witness violence, and join in the rituals of public mourning” in an attempt to recreate the raucous, thrilling, panicked, and very dangerous environment of the protest itself. Found footage is projected on the walls. Masks are worn. Joy mixes with sorrow. All to great music.

Counting Sheep is performed by Toronto “guerilla-folk party-punk band” Lemon Bucket Orkestra, which usually performs Romany-inspired Balkan and klezmer tunes (hugely popular in nightlife these days, as evidenced by SF’s own Inspector Gadje brass band and beloved Kafana Balkan party, which turned 11 last weekend with lines around the block).

But the traditional Ukrainian folk turn—winter-solstice songs, marching songs, wedding songs—isn’t such a far cry from the band’s regular sound, which becomes especially poignant in the revolution’s context: It was born of the conflict between staying in the Eurozone or become more closely allied with Russia. (The revolution was soon followed by Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and it all still remains a very messy situation.) This music can transcend borders and conflicts, Europe and Asia, cities and mountains, history and imagination, all while being firmly rooted in tradition and, best of all, beauty. (And a good bit of dancing as well.)  

Counting Sheep was written by two people who were actually there for the Kiev protests, which started out peacefully but then became a battle zone: Marichka Kudriavtseva, a Ukrainian French chanson singer whose band’s gigs were canceled by the eruption of street protests against the president’s move towards withdrawing from the European Union on January 21, 2014, and Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s Mark Marczyk, who had just landed in Kiev to work on a film score. 

“My director said, ‘Don’t even think about going down there. Everybody has to stay in the hotel,'” Marcyk told writer Mark Fisher of Playbill about the experience. “As soon as he said that, I went down. I just wanted to see what it was.” He recounted being amazed by the size of the protest site, with its makeshift library, medical center, kitchens, and barricades, and how the urgency of the situation that was springing up around him compelled him to help. 

Kudriavtseva, meanwhile, didn’t think of herself as a political person, but once she heard people were being shot in the streets she joined the protests in 20-degree temperatures, and was soon shoveling snow into barricade bags. “When this happened in my country, I could not sit by and watch.”

The experience brought Kudriavtseva and Marczyk together (The two were married in 2015 and Kudriavtseva now lives in Toronto) to figure out how to turn what they had witnessed into theatre. After clunky attempts, they finally hit on the immersive model: “For me, community was the Number 1 important thing,” Marczyk told Playbill. “I came to Ukraine, I didn’t know anybody and my language was not that good, and I found a connection to people through music.”

That sentiment spurred the idea to jettison all dialogue, and let the story tell itself through the country’s traditional melodies. “What if we just tell the story using these 1,000-year-old songs in which the weight of Ukrainian history is embedded in every single note?,” Marczyk said. 

Ultimately the success of the show depends not just on the performances but the willingness of the audience to empathize with the people in such fraught situations. “The show is a choice,” Marczyk said. “How do you choose to react when you’re faced by these kinds of questions? If we’ve done our job correctly and activated your emotions then you will open yourself up to answering those questions for yourself.”

Fri/16-Sun/18, $12.50-$25
Oakland Metro Operhouse, Oakland.
Tickets and more info here.

DJ David Harness gathers his soulful house ‘Friends in Harmony’

David Harness's new 'Friends in Harmony' album was more than two years in the making.

ALL EARS “Am I still black? Yes. Am I still gay? Yes. Am I still making music for the children? Oh yes, honey. And there’s your interview.”

David Harness and I had that brief, hilarious kiki when I ran into him a few days ago, but I still wanted to pin him down to talk about his lovely new album, Friends in Harmony, more tha two years in the making. Harness is our guru of soulful house music — the kind of melodic, multi-instrumental, take-a-puff, put-your-hands up sound that draws the dance floor family together and, always giving new life to that old cliche, “takes you on a journey.”

Friends with Frankie Knuckles, DJ for more than two decades (and music-maker for 15), Harness held it down for many an early morning at the End Up with the Fag Fridays and Sunday T-Dance parties, and late nights at legendary Club Universe in the 1990s. His own roving club Taboo, one of the most intimate and diverse dance floor experiences I’ve known, went on for almost 10 years. And his Mighty Real parties at Club Mighty (now Great Northern) and poolside at the Phoenix Hotel brought absolute house legends to adoring SF crowds.      

Now, he he’s finally releasing Friends in Harmony—featuring some of those house legends—and of course a throwing a big Friends in Harmony Record Release party, Sat/27 at Halcyon, with special guests Ultra Nate and Mark de Clive-Lowe.

I spoke with Harness over the phone about making the album, gathering so many musical friends, and the meaning of “soulful house” in a post-EDM dance music world.  

48 HILLS Listening to the new album I can tell a lot of care went into it. I know it’s been a journey…

DAVID HARNESS Yes, almost two-and-a-half, three years of care. [Laughs] Some of the tracks I’ve sat on for a long time. It was definitely a labor of love, and I wanted it to be something that represented me, to be the essence of what I’m all about when I play the Bay Area — and even all over the world — now. I’m all things soulful whether I’m playing for the progressive kids, or the black kids, or the gay kids, the Burning Man children, or the circuit kids, or all of it at once. All these different facets of my musical journey, I wanted to reflect on this album.

48H How did you record the album? It’s out on the legendary Moulton Music label, which I know you’ve been a part of for a long time. But Moulton recently had to leave its headquarters in SF …

DH Moulton Studios is here in Oakland now — and it’s funny to recall I’ve been making music with Moulton since it was at its original location, on Moulton Street in Cow Hollow in SF.

There were a few of the tracks that I worked on at the studio itself, but for the most part everything was recorded in my home studio. I worked directly with singers Tobirus Mozelle and Mark de Clive-Lowe. With pretty much everyone else I sent the music to them and they sent me back their contributions and ideas. And then I did my “I want this, I don’t want that” thing on it, with remixing and producing.

I learned so much watching my musical partner Chris Lum from the time we were producing together as Harlum Muziq. I would bring in the ideas and he would execute everything. So I would sit and watch him. And when he decided that he wasn’t going to do any more music production is when I had to put on my big boy shoes and test my knowledge. You know, I’m still learning things as I go, and maybe in some cases I’m using the basics of basics. But with my ear and my eye on the industry and the music scene, I’ve been able to project the ideas into reality. 

48H The album is called Friends in Harmony and it’s obvious that you have so many friends in harmony on this. You worked with some amazing people like Inaya Day, Ultra Nate, Capital A, Joi Cardwell, Homero Espinosa, even Eric Kupper, who produced RuPaul’s “Supermodel.” 

DH I loved working with so many people, and there are multiple stories of how it all came together. As far as people in this industry go, I’m pretty humble and often stay in my own lane—so it was a joy to reach out to people I dreamed of working with and getting so much love and enthusiasm for this project back. Certain people I’ve done projects with, like Ultra and Inaya, but I just never acted upon the friendship. I never just opened my mouth and asked. And that’s all I had to do!

The first one was Ultra Nate, and believe me I think I was biting nails. But once I asked her, she was like, “Yes honey, of course! I don’t know what took you so long!” And of course she laid some amazing vocals, and from there it was just a domino effect; the more people I would tell about this album, the more people wanted to contribute something. And to me, that really showed the value of friendship and love we can form through this music, and so the album was also a journey, my journey, in seeing that in real life.

48H You’ve got a big release party on Saturday — have you played a lot of these tracks out? 

DH I have been playing a few of them out, but this is the first time that I’m really going to showcase everything from this album. Mark de Clive-Lowe and I performed the “Harmony” track together at a Moulton party from last year. And I’m going to leave it up to Ultra Nate if she wants to perform our track or not. If she wants to do it or not, I’m just going to play it between the live sets and have the kids gag over it, because honey, Ultra Nate is leeeegendary, she can do whatever she wants to do.

48H You talked about how you wanted the album to showcase what you do because you stay true to soulfulness when you play out to certain crowds. In the past two decades, we’ve gone from a lot of people playing soulful house to really just a handful, especially San Francisco. At this point, it seems “soulful house” is a brand more than an actual scene.  What do you see as the place for this music now, and the power it can have over all the different crowds you play for? 

DH I think kids within the EDM culture are growing up a bit, and it never fails: different music genres always experience a re-emergence of a scene and a sound. One thing I can say is that the soulful scene has always been around, but it’s had its ups downs. Those diehards are there because they live the music, and they really feel it. That’s how you know it’s a real thing for people.  

What makes me unique from the bunch is that no one can bring it on a level of how I do. It’s my roots, my culture, my history. A lot of young people hear music differently, and I think with how I hear music and how I’ve brought it to the table for people is what distinguishes me. With a party like Saturday’s — which is kind of like a relaunch of our big Mighty Real parties — I’m bringing more of the big-room soulful sound.

And that’s the thing: Don’t just think when you hear soulful that’s it’s going to be all church-wailing mamas, because we can go deep, we can go dark, we can go very sexy. Soul is a feeling, and it’s whatever moves you. It can be disco, it can be classic, it can be New Wave. It can be very old or the latest thing. With me, you get all of that. I am all of that. 

Sat/27, 10pm-4am, $10-$20
Halcyon, SF
Tickets and more info here 

‘Women in Jazz’ bookends Women’s March with musical solidarity

Photo of Caroline Chung by Dennis Hearne

ALL EARS This isn’t the first time Caroline Chung has raised hell and fought back. The Bay Area bass player and 20-year veteran of the Bay Area jazz scene considers herself an activist at heart, advocating at City Hall for living wages for jazz musicians. 

Recent events have made it abundantly clear that it’s not easy to be outspoken, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated field like jazz. Chung’s latest project, a way to claim space on the scene, is a two-night concert series entitled Women in Jazz, Fri/19 and Sun/21 at the Red Poppy Art House, that bookends Sat/20’s Women’s March. The series features musicians like drummer Ruth Price, vocalist Kimiko Joy, Chloe Jane Scott on flute, and many more. 

The inspiration for the shows came from a one-line Facebook post Chung wrote about sexism in the San Francisco jazz scene that went viral among local musicians: 281 comments and counting. The post and the response to it put a spotlight on the fact that sexism, in all its multifaceted forms, is alive and well in music – even here, in the Bay Area.

Thankfully, Chung has funneled the frustration from that outburst into two lineups of all-female musicians that she hand-picked from genres spanning jazz, Latin/Brazilian, soul, and funk. The series is a gauntlet thrown down for those who say they support women in music: Here’s the venue. It’s time to show up.

48 HILLS How did you get started playing bass?

CAROLINE CHUNG I grew up in Jacksonville Florida, and I went to the arts high school in Jacksonville. I actually was in there for visual arts, but my mother made me and my sister take classical piano lessons as we were growing up. I started doing music on my own when I was in high school and taught myself to play guitar, and eventually I switched to bass. And then I got into jazz through listening to hip-hop and learning hip-hop bass lines and stuff. When I moved to San Francisco, probably 20 years ago, I was lucky enough to save money to buy an upright bass, and I’ve been focused on jazz ever since.

48 HILLS Why were you drawn to jazz, as opposed to other styles?

CAROLINE CHUNG I feel like jazz is the ultimate challenge for a musician. It’s so rich in history – you could spend your whole life being a student of jazz – and it’s related to a lot of music that we listen to today. So it’s kind of like the history of American music.

48 HILLS For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you describe your career in the Bay Area so far?

CAROLINE CHUNG I’ve played in a bunch of bands throughout the years. I’ve always played in Brazilian and Latin bands as well [as jazz]. I played in a band called Brazuca Brown for many years. We were one of the rotation of Brazilian bands when they had Brazilian Night at the Elbo Room. Then I started my own project called Citizens Jazz. I gig around, playing jazz under that name, with a rotation of musicians. And then I played in a band called Sang Matiz, and we opened up for the Buena Vista Social Club at Mountain Winery on their last US tour. Currently, I’m just playing gigs and putting on events like this, and hopefully trying to get involved in another original music project because I feel it’s important to be making original music.

48 HILLS I have to ask you about the Facebook post you wrote that started a huge discussion of sexism in jazz, and in Bay Area jazz in particular. It was a one-liner: “Sexism in the white boy jazz scene in SF is real and it is gross.” You’ve said there are a career’s worth of snubs that feed into that feeling, but what was the spark that made you write it?

CAROLINE CHUNG Just not being recognized or treated like a musician when you’re in a room full of musicians. That night, it was a special occasion because we had some musician friends from out of town who were in town, and I was playing a private gig down the street, so we all met at this bar where our other friends were hosting a jam session. These [the hosts] are guys that I’ve known for many, many years – they’re the ones that I grew up around within the jazz scene. I knew that they weren’t going to ask me to play. They’ve always been that way.

And I show up and carry my upright bass in the bar, and everyone notices me: I’m dressed up, I’m carrying this huge instrument. Throughout the night, some other friends of ours show up, and after being there for a few hours, I realized that every one of them got asked to play, except me. And that’s when I just grabbed my instrument. I was like, “Fuck this,” and I left, and I wrote that post. It’s nothing new, but I was just fed up.

48 HILLS That post was just a primer on sexism. For anybody who doubted that sexism was rampant in the white boy jazz scene, all they have to do is read your post and all the responses to it. It’s all in there: from guys telling you to just play your instrument better, to artists like Scott Amendola and Howard Wiley standing up for you, and everything in between. What was your take on the response?

CAROLINE CHUNG Well, I definitely got a lot of support from people: There are people who sent me private messages apologizing if they ever gave me that vibe. But usually those aren’t the guys that are giving me that vibe in the first place. Like with that guy who said, “Just play your instrument better,” he’s actually a friend, and he’s someone who I play with on occasion.

We had just played a private gig, and it was not a good gig. I had a friend in town who’s a drummer, and I had hired him for the gig to be nice, even though he hasn’t been gigging or practicing. So he was shaky – his time was off. So then, [name redacted] says to me later, “I think you need to work on your time, though, because it was really off that night.” And I had just played a week of great gigs with various other musicians. So even when a man is off and not playing well, they will still assume that it’s the only female on the gig who’s at fault.

Caroline Chung at a gig at the University Club, San Francisco. Photo by Surya Prakasha.

48 HILLS You mean, he couldn’t even tell it was the drummer and not you whose timing was off?

CAROLINE CHUNG Yeah, and that’s kind of how it has always been. It’s like, you can either start to believe them – which for many years, I did believe that I was not good enough, and I would never be good enough, and that I should just give it up – and I know women who have. Or you can just choose not to believe them, and create your own path.

And I do agree that men play differently from women. They are definitely more aggressive: louder, and play more notes, and all that. That’s their sound, so in their mind, that is what is considered good, and everything else is not.

48 HILLS That reminds me of something Diana Gameros was talking about: She worked with Women’s Audio Mission to record her latest album, and she said that the feminine vibe and the sense of supportiveness in the recording studio really opened her up musically and produced a better album. It makes you wonder how much good music we’re missing out on by not having female sound engineers, or by not appreciating a more feminine aesthetic in jazz.

Do you think the sexism is worse in jazz and than in other genres?

CAROLINE CHUNG Jazz is definitely the worst.

48 HILLS Why is that?

CAROLINE CHUNG Because it is the most challenging style, and I think that men like to claim those challenges to be theirs. Even in the schools. There’s been articles about the really well-known jazz schools in New York: students coming out about sexual harassment and just not being treated equally, and not being recognized for things when they deserve it – all that kind of stuff.

48 HILLS I also wanted to ask about the race intersectionality piece of it. I think part of the rabid response to your post was that you called out white jazz musicians in particular. In your experience, how does race interact with sexism in jazz?

CAROLINE CHUNG I can say for a fact that, in all the years of me playing jazz, the only guys that have hired me are the black jazz musicians. I think that speaks volumes right there. The black community, I think, they’re also brought up in the church, they’re brought up in this environment where you mentor people, and you uplift them. So, I think that they see me as somebody that they can help.

That’s not how it is with the white boy jazz scene at all. They’re very much an all-for-yourself kind of thing. I think that part of why they don’t ask me to sit in in these scenarios is they don’t want me to get all the attention. If I sat in where it’s all white dudes, and I’m playing just as good as them, then all the attention goes to me. They don’t want that, right?

Chung with Dan Neville (vibraphone) and Rodney Ruckus (drums). Photo by Michelle Campbell.

48 HILLS It’s so great that you channeled the frustration from that conversation into a new Women in Jazz series at the Red Poppy. This is the second time you’re putting on this series. What was your impetus for doing it the first time?

CAROLINE CHUNG I just felt like not enough women were being recognized, and I wanted to have something where they can all come together. I was actually not thinking about even doing it again because it’s a lot of work with little pay, but then that sexist comment post kind of sparked the energy.

48 HILLS The lineup is a who’s who of female vocalists, but are there any instrumentalists you’d like to highlight, in particular?

CAROLINE CHUNG There’s quite a few of them. Some of these women I’ve known about for many, many years and never met. For instance, Ruth Davies, who is also an upright bass player, and Tammy Hall, who’s playing piano. They’re older than me generationally, so they’ve played with a lot of the older jazz cats from the Bay Area. It’s a mix of ages because then I have Ruth Price on drums, and she’s a really badass young jazz drummer.

Even with all of them, it was still hard for me to find certain – I found one horn player, but it was hard to think of many women who’ve been doing it. And so I have Madeleine Duran on sax, and she’s a great veteran player.

48 HILLS What do you hope that both the musicians and the audience will get out of these shows?

CAROLINE CHUNG Some of these women have never met before, so I think this is a really great opportunity. Last year, it was amazing to just bring all of them together, and to just have that energy is really nice. It happens to be on the weekend of the Women’s March, so hopefully it will inspire women to keep playing and keep pursuing their dreams.

48 HILLS What are the other bright spots? Do you see other communities or venues that elevate women musicians?

CAROLINE CHUNG There’s an independent jazz non-profit that sprung up called the Neighborhood Jazz Association, and they put on their own shows and do their own promoting. I feel like a lot of people are taking charge a little bit more with house concerts – being more creative with how they can present their music. And I also believe that there’s more solidarity happening amongst women in general that I think will inspire women to do more and to stick with things that they’ve been passionate about.

Featuring Caroline Chung, Adriana Marrero, Kimiko Joy, and many others
Jan/19, 8pm, $20-$25
Jan/21, 7:30pm, $15-$20
Red Poppy Art House, SF
Tickets and lineup for Jan/19 available here
Tickets and lineup for Jan/21 available here

A historian watches ‘Girls of the Golden West’

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley in John Adams' 'Girls of the Golden West.' Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Opera-lover Elaine Elinson is the coauthor of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, winner of a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.


It was a driving, restless population

It was the only population of its kind…

brimful of push and energy, 

And endowed with every attribute

that makes a peerless and magnificent manhood. 

Forty-niner Clarence (Ryan McKinny) swings his pick, as he sings among towering, stylized redwood trees when the curtain rises on the premiere of new opera Girls of the Golden West (through Sun/10 at SF Opera)  by John Adams and Peter Sellars. His words, adapted from Mark Twain’s “Roughing It,” pretty much sum up the idealized view of the Gold Rush that California students are still taught in school. 

The bass-baritone’s boastful description, “It was the only population of its kind,” is followed by a scenic  — if rather bumpy — journey by Dame Shirley (Julia Bullock) to the mining town of Rich Bar in a wagon is driven by Ned Peters (Davóne Tines), a fugitive slave turned cowboy.

But by Act II, the glories of the Gold Rush and even the wonders of nature have fallen prey to greed, racist violence, and misogyny.

The stage is dominated by the huge stump of a downed tree, no longer majestic.  Its gigantic trunk is now a stage for a bawdy Fourth of July celebration, featuring barroom girls dressed in skimpy red-white-and-blue tutus and the infamous Spider Dance of Lola Montez (Lorena Feijoo). A raucous crowd of drunken men threatens Chinese miners, shouting “Yellow-skins, get out! Get out!” They whip, beat and slash the ears off Latin Americans, with cries of, “Death for all Chileans, Mexicans and Peruvians.” 

Clarence’s words now reveal the miners’ bigotry: “We’ve got more gold than all the world…and prisons too, we’ve got the best.  And smarter men to make us grow, than England, France or Mexico.” Though he sings “To one and all, both young and old, you’re welcome here, the land of gold,” the mob’s brutal actions belie his words.

Ah Sing (Hye Jung Lee) doesn’t feel welcome. She, like thousands of other girls, fled China to escape war, disease, and famine. In a liquid soprano voice, she tells of being bought for $7 at the age of 10 and sold into prostitution. With bitter pride, she relates that 10 years later she is now worth $700. A bill of sale from found in San Francisco library archives attests to  the truth of her tragic history, it lists “Rice – 6 mats, $12., Salt fish, 60 lbs. at 10 cents — $6.00, Girl — $250.” Ah Sing’s aria, “A traveler on this shore, since coming to this frontier land, I bear all kinds of abuse…” is derived from the poetry carved into the walls of the immigration station at Angel Island. 

Chinese and Latin American miners were not welcome – they were subjected to the Foreign Miners’ Tax of 1850, forcing them to abandon claims or go broke. Vigilante violence claimed many lives. An estimated 10,000 Mexican miners were driven from the gold fields.

In Downieville, Mexicans could not stake claims, so Ramon (Elliot Madore) and his wife Josefa (J’Nai Bridges) work in a gambling den. Josefa warns of the disaster she foresees in the tiny mining town, her velvety mezzo-soprano pulses with an undertone of fear. The Fourth of July celebration turns into a drunken brawl, and miner Joe Cannon (Paul Appleby) breaks down their door and tries to rape Josefa. In defense, she stabs and kills him. When the miners find Cannon’s body, they stampede to her adobe cottage. There she sits with a calm dignity, dressing and putting on her jewelry, to face the crowd. 

Ryan McKinny as Clarence, J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia, Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, and the San Francisco Opera Chorus in John Adams’ ‘Girls of the Golden West.’ Photo: Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera

It was fitting that Sellars included in the bedraggled mob a few rich fellows in fancy black suits and top hats. At the actual Downieville Fourth of July celebrations that year, there were many of those swells — including Colonel John B. Weller, a future governor; William Walker, who declared himself president of Nicaragua few years later, and, no doubt, several bankers ready to take the miners’ gold. None of them rose to Josefa’s defense.

A kangaroo court “tries” Josefa, and in the most heartwrenching moment of the opera, she takes the noose, singing in Spanish and English, and concludes with “Dios te lo perdone” (God forgive you).

Josefa was hung in a makeshift gallows over the Yuba River, the first woman to be lynched in California. 

The original libretto by Peter Sellars was crafted from historical sources, the primary one being “The Shirley Letters,” by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, aka Dame Shirley. In addition to “Roughing It” and the Angel Island poetry, he also relied on miners’ ditties compiled in the “California Songster of 1854” and “Songs of the American West.” Frederick Douglass’s 1852 oration, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” is the basis of fugitive slave Ned’s stirring Act II aria.

I was fortunate enough to hear Sellars talk about his work prior to the performance. He explained that he used the letters of Dame Shirley because he found that not only did she write with grace, style and wit, but also because “she humanized all around her.”  

When asked what relation his opera had to Puccini’s famous 1910 romanticized “Girl of the Golden West,” Sellars replied “Zero! Zip!” But if that is the case, I wonder why he and Adams did not call their opera “Women of the Golden West.” Surely, given the insight and literary talent of Dame Shirley, the resilience of Ah Sing, the compassion and dignity of Josefa and the sensuous agility of Lola Montez, that would have been a much more accurate title.

John Adams’ orchestration incorporates sounds of the California Gold Rush: cowbells, accordion, and guitar. In the program notes, the composer explains that because the Gold Rush lyrics are “as simple as can be…. It needs to have music that respects its own simplicity. My first impulse was that the sound and the orchestration should be as simple and as homely as the tools the miners use…”

Adams said he was inspired by the “ups and downs and flat areas and jagged shapes” of the topography of northern California to recreate those shapes “in musical time.” His dissonant and sometimes jarring signature sounds mean that audience members will not be humming memorable tunes when they exit the theater. Even familiar old chestnuts like “Camptown Races” and “Pop Goes the Weasel” are rendered unhummable in Adams’ unique score. 

A scene from Act I of John Adams’ ‘Girls of the Golden West.’ Photo by Cory Weaver

Sellars readily concedes that he took some poetic license with the historical facts. The real Josefa Segovia (also known as Juanita) was hanged over the Yuba River in Downieville in 1851, and there was one person — Stephen Field, then alcalde of Marysville and later a justice of the California Supreme Court — who tried to speak in her defense. He was violently silenced by the mob. Dame Shirley may have heard about her murder, but she didn’t witness or write about it.

And the Ned of Dame Shirley’s letters did not drive her in his wagon to Rich Bar, but was hired there as her cook. He played the violin so beautifully, they called him Paganini Ned.  He would not have known Douglass’s speech, as it was not written until 1852, but he definitely would have feared for his life since slavery was still practiced in California. The poetry that is the basis of Ah Sing’s aria comes from the walls of the immigration station at Angel Island, which was not opened until half a century later, in 1910.

But though the facts may have been manipulated, the essence of the stories are very real:  a Mexican woman was lynched by a mob of white miners, Chinese women were trafficked by the thousands, Latino and Asian workers were brutally beaten in the minefields, and the freedom of fugitive slaves in California was not guaranteed by law.  

In Girls of the Golden West, Adams and Sellars debunk the dominant narrative of the history of the Golden State. In the unlikely setting of the San Francisco Opera House, we hear the powerful voices of the women and people of color who both endured and defied bigotry and injustice. And for that, we shout, “Bravi!” 

Through Sun/10

War Memorial Opera House, SF.
Tickets and more info here. 

‘Girls of the Golden West’: a new opera’s fresh take on the Gold Rush

J'Nai Bridges, Julia Bullock, and Hey Jung Lee in San Francisco Opera's 'Girls of the Golden West.' Photo by Kristen Loken.

ALL EARS After two decades of well-worn Gold Rush metaphors about Silicon Valley, we’re long overdue for a fresh take on a time period calcified in most peoples’ minds as some boisterous, Disney-esque romp, rife with (mostly white) 49er bromances, shady stereotypes, and lusty Madames with hearts of, well, gold.

While current HBO series Westworld adds dark, sci-fi undercurrents to the Wild West trope and recent HBO series Deadwood gave the frontier people of the 1800s some realistic curse-words and filthy predicaments, the California Gold Rush remains more of a sanitized theme park ride than the hugely consequential, environmentally degrading, murderous and politically momentous clash of cultures and value systems it was. 

It was partly this frustration with the hokeyness of previous representations that drove director and librettist Peter Sellars to team up with minimalist composer John Adams and create Girls of the Golden West, a new work premiering at the San Francisco Opera (Tue/21-December 10 at the War Memorial Opera House, more info here.) 

Peter Sellars (librettist, director) and John Adams (composer) of ‘Girls of the Golden West.’ Photo by Jacklyn Meduga

A couple years ago, Sellars was contacted by La Scala in Milan to direct a production of Puccini’s belovedly creaky 1910 La Fanciulla del West, aka The Girl of the Golden West, which did much to cement the stereotypes of the time in the international popular imagination.

As Sellars told the Washington Post, “Now anybody who knows me would not call and ask me to do that, but I did the research … and that libretto is pure popcorn. So I said to John, ‘Let’s have the great American opera about California.’”

For his part, Adams — whose 1987 Nixon in China was an absolute triumph when staged at SF Opera in 2012 — was drawn to the idea by his actual proximity to the subject matter. “I have a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains not far from where these events in the opera took place. I know the terrain. I have hiked through those valleys and along those hillsides. This is home to me,” he says in the opera’s production notes. 

The San Francisco Opera in rehearsal for “Girls of the Golden West,” a world premiere opera with music by John Adams and libretto and direction by Peter Sellars. With Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines, J’Nai Bridges, Ryan McKinny, Paul Appleby, Hye Jung Lee, Elliot Madore, and Lorena Feijoo.

And while Girls of the Golden West may not completely change our idea of the period, it certainly adds necessary complexity, foregrounding stories of women and people of color inspired by actual historical record. The main thread is that of Dame Shirley, an educated woman who chronicles the rugged and tragic goings-on of a mining camp in 1851-52.

(Sellars’ libretto draws from The Shirley Letters, a collection of 23 letters by Louise Clappe penned under the name Dame Shirley — as well as the diary of Chilean miner Ramón Gil Navarro, Mark Twain’s Roughing It,  memoirs of fugitive slaves, Chinese immigrants’ poems, and the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, among other texts.)

But there are several other characters, whose often-overlooked stories take center stage to Adams’ naturalistic, driving music, among designer David Gropman’s innovatively rustic sets. “The true stories of the forty-niners are overwhelming in their heroism, passion and cruelty,” Sellars says. “Telling tales of racial conflicts, colorful and humorous exploits, political strife and struggles to build anew a life and to decide what it would mean to be American.”

I spoke with two of the people who embody those tales in the production, J’Nai Bridges and Davóne Tines, about their unique characters, what it took to prepare to play them (Zumba! Who knew?), and the lessons this new opera about the Gold Rush can teach us today. 

J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia in ‘Girls of the Golden West.’ Photo by Kristen Loken

J’Nai Bridges, a mezzo-soprano from Washington who pivoted from a professional basketball career to opera, plays Josefa Segovia, a young Mexican woman who entertains at the Empire Hotel — and who also happens to be the first known woman lynched in California. 

“This is a very special piece, one I’m connecting to deeply,” she told me over the phone. “I’m feeling a lot of pressure in terms of creating a brand new role — but I’m also not feeling pressure: I was specifically requested to be here for this role, and I’m excited and relieved because no one else’s voice is in my mind from previous performances.

“Josefa is involved in one of the love stories of the opera,” Bridges continued. “It’s not clear at first that I am in a relationship, but I am. For the first act I’m mostly silent. Josefa is onstage, observing and sitting back. She spends a lot of time listening to all the people in this opera, what’s going on in this mostly chaotic process of everyone looking for gold. She’s very observant and almost foresees what’s going to happen, the future and the outcome of the characters.

“But when she does have something to say, you don’t forget it! She reminds me of my grandmother in that way. She would sit back and observe, but when she said something I’d hear it in my head a few weeks later and say, wow!” 

J’Nai Bridges. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

What was Bridges’ impression playing such a real-life person, freighted with such tragic significance?

“Her fate, in the opera as in life, is to be hanged, and I think she perceives that,” Bridges told me matter-of-factly. “It’s an interesting moment because she goes to her death with pride and resilience, and the feeling that she will be in a better place. Her predicament that she’s in is as a Mexican woman at the bottom of the totem pole of that society — telling her story is a very powerful statement that applies today.

“Josefa urges the people of that time to take a look in the mirror and rid themselves of darkness, to see themselves not just as humans with flesh in the world but also a human soul, Bridges said. “With all the violence in the world, then and now, that’s what we need to do.”

Girls of the Golden West tells so many stories of the Gold Rush that we’re unfamiliar with, especially those of women and people of color — was that something that attracted her to the part?

“I was attracted to the intersectional aspects of the story, the way so many different kinds of people came together in different ways, and also to the basic history and of course the music. We didn’t learn very much about the Gold Rush in school, we weren’t taught about the dark side of American history, but we’re where we are today because of the it. I’ve learned so much about this history. And being on this journey with colleagues I admire so much — not only singers, but real intellectuals — has been a spiritual experience. 

“The music, too, is the story. John’s music is a compilation of so many styles: folk music, naturalistic music, the music of many times. I feel like I’m getting back to some of my roots while singing my piece. I’m an opera singer but I feel I can access different styles while still be categorized as a classical singer. I listen to my colleagues and I hear an individual experience that is so special through this music.”

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters in rehearsal for Girls of the Golden West. Photo by Stefan Cohen

One of those colleagues is Davóne Tines, a bass-baritone originally from Virginia, now based in Baltimore. He’s worked with Sellars before, most recently on a production of Stravinsky’s Oedious Rex in Europe that was fully staged in a headlong three days. Tines plays Ned, “an African-American cowboy and fugitive slave who is drawn to the promise of the frontier.”

“Ned is a really interesting guy,” Tines told me over the phone. “Like many of Peter’s characters, he’s a concoction from different sources. One part is Paganini Ned, known as a kind of hustler in the general Wild West folklore. Then there’s a very real man named James Williams who was a fugitive slave: There’s an incredible book called The Fugitive Slave in the Gold Rush which is a first hand account of his life, and a lot of Ned’s words come directly from James Williams’ story. But it’s also combined with Frederick Douglass — Ned’s final aria is taken from Douglass’s “What to the slave is the Fourth of July” speech. So he’s quite a mix of things.

“Ned’s first song is a kind of Wild West nursery rhyme tune. It’s very playful, talking about stagecoach driving and fighting Indians. But then later on he becomes a more serious character who’s dealt with a lot of movement and adversity as James Williams’ words become more the focus of the character. And then he transforms into a great orator of the rank of Frederick Douglass, he’s got a breadth existence.”

How did Tines, who has been drawn to contemporary music, handle the music for this multiplicity of character?  

“There are a lot of Gold Rush miners in the show, and they sing these amazing songs with text taken from very simple mining songs like ‘Doo-dah all the livelong day’ and the like,” Tines said with a laugh. “But John said he purposely got rid of the music; he took the rhythm and the words and breathed his own Adams life into them. There’s snippets of these tumbling, rhyming texts with colorful textures.

Davóne Tines. Photo by Etude Arts

“For Ned, that means the playful words turn into the narration of driving a stage coach. There’s a part where the stagecoach goes off the rails, the horses go crazy, everything goes haywire, and Ned has to reel the whole thing in again in a clear and musical way. The first time I looked at the music I thought it was impossible. But as with a lot of John’s music, on the page it can seem crazy or a little different, because he’s really trying to capture a certain naturalism — which oddly, all by itself can look inorganic. But if you invest in it, it can feel really comfortable.

“The Frederick Douglass aria is a whole different side of John, akin to his famous “Batter My Heart,” where he takes very strong texts and allows it to speak naturally, but wraps it in interludes that are driven and powerful.”

With haywire stagecoaches, tumbling texts, and declamatory oration, Ned seems like a very physical role. What has Tines been doing to prepare?  

“Working with Peter in general is a physical process,” Tines told me. “A lot of times he works in a very choreographic manner, and this time we’re trying to capture a natural style, with the help of incredible choreographer John Heginbotham. Also, a lot of people from the cast and production team, we go to Zumba together. Doug DaSilva at Fitness SF is our teacher, he does something special and intense.

“It’s necessary for me to do cardio every day in order to take on this role. One rule of thumb for me during rehearsals is that I get my heart rate to the place it’s going to be during the show. For this show, I need to do a whole workout in the gym so I can have a frame of reference for where the physicality can happen in performance.”

Girls of the Golden West” rehearsal with tenor Paul Appleby and soprano Hye Jung Lee. Photo by Stefan Cohen

When most people think of the Gold Rush, there are usually a lot of hokey stereotypes involved — how is the production complicating what we think of that time period?

“This period is familiar in the worst way,” Tines told me. “The gold miners are akin to the seven dwarves, it’s a cartoonish way to think about the wild west. But Peter and John’s project — like Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West in his time — is to capture a certan kind of Americana. This time, as with the pluralization of ‘Girls,’ there’s a multiplicity of perspectives. 

“This piece brings full color and 360 degrees to what it really might have been to live in this time, Tines said. “Part of the reality is diversity of experience, although everybody together is dealing with this strange environment, with trees that are bigger than anything they’ve ever seen and golden rocks in the ground. They’re dealing with each other, with so many people coming from all over the place, from different societal structures to the ‘Wild West’ with no rules, and hoping for the same thing.

“Everybody sorting themselves out is complicated, but they’re all on a trajectory that has so many depths and consequences that we still feel today.”

A new opera at the San Francisco Opera
November 21-December 10
Tickets start at $26.

War Memorial Opera House
Tickets and more info here.