All Ears

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.  

Diana Gameros sings lullabies of Mexico

Photo by Cristina Isabel Rivera

ALL EARS The first time I saw Diana Gameros, she was performing Paul Simon’s “Gumboots” with her trio at the UnderCover tribute to Graceland. Great singers bring you into their thrall with not just their tone, but their timing, and with each lilt and turn of her soprano, it was like she was plucking the strings of your heart. By the time she got to the refrain – “You don’t feel you could love me, but I feel you could” – you could almost hear the audience answer, “No, no! We do!”

Sun/12 at Brava Theatre, Gameros releases her second album, Arrullo [Lullaby], and it is a doozy as hearts are concerned: 13 traditional Mexican songs, sung to herald her return to Mexico for the first time in 15 years, and featuring the voices of her mother and grandmother. Gameros has been open about the fact that she was once an undocumented immigrant (she now has a visa) and no one conveys more poignantly the tension between the love of California and the ache for home.

As dusk fell in her garden in Berkeley, Gameros opened a window into the love she has received on both sides of the border. From the family gatherings where she learned the songs as a child, to the surprise grant from Women’s Audio Mission that allowed her to record them, the journey of this album is a series of gifts that now pass from Gameros to her audience.

48 HILLS What are your earliest memories of these songs?

DIANA GAMEROS A lot of these songs I heard as a little kid. These are popular tunes that not just my family sings. For me, they have a special meaning because they take me back to the little farm town where my grandparents lived, and where I’d go every year during summer vacation and during Christmas. I grew up in, not a big city, but it’s still a city: Ciudad Juarez. I grew up on a very noisy street. My mom would always be worried that we would come back home at a certain time. . . . And so just going to the farm town meant freedom, and it meant that we could do anything we wanted to do. I relate these songs to those memories of just being really happy in this farm town.

48 HILLS At what point did you decide you wanted to make an album out of the songs that you sang there?

DIANA GAMEROS I wasn’t really planning on recording this. I was getting ready to record my second album of originals, and I was going to work with Natalia Lafourcade to produce it, and our schedules didn’t align quite well. But in the first stages of our collaboration, Natalia asked, “What would you like to have done in five years?” And I wrote down, “I want to have an album of traditional Mexican songs, and perhaps another album of lullabies.” Strangely, I guess, for people – not for me because this has always worked like this for me – a few weeks later, I got an email from Women’s Audio Mission saying, “Hey, we have this grant, and we would like to offer you six days in the studio to record an album.”

Young Diana with guitar

[A tiny bird lands on a branch near where we are sitting.]

DIANA GAMEROS That’s a baby bird. ¡Chiquitín! [Little thing!] Oh my gosh, it’s so hard to focus.

Originally, I thought I could make it a double-EP with six traditional songs and six lullabies and kill two birds with one stone.

[To the bird:] Sorry, that’s like totally not appropriate for you, my friend over there!

And then Women’s Audio Mission said that they prefer that I would do one album, so I just did the traditional Mexican songs. That’s how the idea originally came.

The energy around it was of a lot of gratitude, too, because I’m being handed this beautiful gift! I didn’t even have to write the grant. It was magical – the whole process. There was just so much ease, so much grace, so much love, so much apapacho [caressing], beautiful and flowery moments, that I think it comes across in the record.

48 HILLS Have you figured out why it makes sense for this album to have come first, before your next album of originals?

DIANA GAMEROS It’s a beautiful question. Now I can see the purpose of it, and I think it’s the fact that I am going back to Mexico for the first time in 15 years next year. I already have an album of originals that I haven’t really promoted in Mexico, so I’ll have my album of originals, the songs that accompanied me through these 15 years. And then these Mexican songs: I made my living out of playing the songs during the first years when I came to San Francisco. So it’s a beautiful combo to bring back home, and also it’s a way for me to say, “I haven’t forgotten about you. I still know your songs.” And by you, I mean Mexico, my homeland.

Gameros grew up singing and playing music at family gatherings. Her uncles (on guitar) and cousins are pictured.

48 HILLS For people who aren’t familiar with the immigration process, can you explain why you haven’t been able to go home in all that time, even once you had a visa?

DIANA GAMEROS I would have been able to go back to Mexico, but then I was not going to be let back into the United States. Each case is different, and this is something that I wish people knew. There’s not a formula at all.

48 HILLS It’s a little bit like: If you’re building a building, the building code says one thing, but it’s quite subject to interpretation, and how it gets enforced is all about which inspector comes out to your building.

DIANA GAMEROS Exactly. And then I think you have to add fear. If you see the faces of the people that are going to immigration offices – I’ve had friends who have come out of their interviews crying.

For these past five years, I probably could have asked for permission to leave, like when my aunt passed. But then when I go to get my actual green card, the officer says, “I know you got permission, but you were not supposed to leave.” I didn’t want to risk it. At this point, I’ve spent half of my life in the United States and half of my life in Mexico, and so the idea of me not coming back ever. . . . So in November, I get to apply for the green card, and hopefully that will all be done.

Diana’s mother, Altagracia Estupinan (left), and grandmother, Leonarda Renteria, both of whom sing on the album.

48 HILLS You brought your mother to San Francisco to sing with you on the album, and I saw you perform with her at the Presidio Sessions. You sang a duet about a baby bird that leaves the nest, and I think I almost died of heartbreak because I live on the West Coast, and my mother’s on the East Coast. If we even started to talk about something like that, she would cry, so how are you able to sing those songs with your mother?

DIANA GAMEROS I did have to record it like three times in the studio because I’d break down, and Patrick [Wolff, clarinetist] did too. He’s very emotional, and it got to us. Sometimes even at rehearsals . . . so I think that’s probably why.

Also maybe also to see my mother – she is sort of a natural performer. You should have seen her the first time she sang with me for my first CD release concert at Brava Theater. She was so calm and present and grounded. I think that just comes with the package of having a badass mother.

48 HILLS You told a great story at the listening party for this album about how tricked your grandmother into singing on it as well. How were you able to do that?

DIANA GAMEROS It occurred to me that I would love to have her for the record, but there was no way I was gonna be upfront and ask her. She used to have a really high voice, and I guess she’s not hitting some of those notes, so she’s started to feel really self-conscious.

So I said, “I’d love if you can record a few tunes for me so I can hear your voice before I go to bed.” Which was true! And, I did say, “sing this song,” that she used to sing during this ritual right when baby Jesus is born at midnight on Christmas Eve. All the kids are grabbing onto a blanket, and there’s the baby Jesus in the middle, and we all get to rock the baby, and then grandma would sing this song: “Alarururu chiquito. . . .” It was a very magical moment because it was the part of the ritual when we – the 30-plus kids – actually got to do something. That song was always so special to me, so I asked her to record it, and I put it on the record.

48 HILLS When are you going to tell her that she’s on there?

DIANA GAMEROS Oh, probably when she hears it.

And that leads us to the title of the album: I’m calling it Arrullo, which means lullaby. I envisioned this to be listened to before you go to bed, sort of at this time [twilight].

It starts with a song that is called “Despierta” [“Awaken”] that’s actually the opening song that the mariachis would sing when they would go serenade women at midnight. I wanted to open up with this song because the last verse says, “Pero no pude más, y esta noche te vengo a decir te quiero – but I couldn’t help it anymore, and so I’ve come to tell you I love you.” And I changed the pronoun to make it plural because, for me, it’s a song that I’m singing directly to my family. This is the opening song that reveals that I made this album for them.

48 HILLS That longing for home and for family is so apparent in your music. As someone who is also not from California, and someone who wrestles with this, I’m wondering: How can those intense emotions coexist with your love for this place and desire to stay here?

DIANA GAMEROS Well, it’s California, right? [Laughs.] In my case, my story of coming to the US was such a positive story, and I have received so much. When you’re so full of love and of gifts, you hang onto them to cope with the pain and nostalgia. These intense lines in my songs, or that really intense expression, is the opportunity I have to release some of that.

I think this story of mine has helped me just be more in tune with the realities of being human, and with the pain, and with the sadness, and with the gratitude, and with the joys. As much as we need to honor our feelings, it really is important to put things in perspective, and when I do – and it’s very often that I do – I feel I’ve received more than I have lost, and so I think that’s where the strength and the perseverance come from.

Featuring Magik*Magik, Patrick Wolff, and Altagracia Estupinan (Diana’s mother)
Sun/12, 7pm, $20-$30
Brava Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here.

To be blunt, a blast

Smoked out Soul: VJ Johnny Diamond (left) and DJ/instrumentalists Will Magid (center) and Zebuel. Photo by Dirk Wyse.

ALL EARS Smoked Out Soul is a dance party for people who like their funk with a side of exquisitely choreographed chaos. At its most stripped-down, Smoked Out Soul (or, cleverly, S.O.S.) is two DJ/instrumentalists with live drums and percussion. That would be enough to distinguish it among DJ parties, but those are just the core members of a collective that includes trumpet, sax, and guitar, and adds guest DJs and musicians to the stew every Thursday night. It’s a recipe that keeps you, not just grooving, but whirling around to see what new treat has jumped onstage, until you find yourself out ’til 2am on a weeknight, again.

48 Hills joined DJs Zebuel and Will Magid and drummer Paul Oliphant at Monarch – during the multi-hour “labor of love” that is setting up a show with so many moving pieces – to find the magic glue that holds it all together. (The prolific Mr. Magid also offered a preview of his Alligator Spacewalk project’s upcoming album release, Fri/22 at SF JAZZ.)

S.O.S. began with some technical wizardry in the woods, and it involves a fair amount of mind-reading (as evidenced by Zebuel and Magid’s tendency to finish each other’s sentences). But the collective’s success ultimately comes down to an earthly kind of special sauce: a real community that is as much about mixing people together as it is about mashing up styles of music.

48 HILLS Zebuel, do you remember how you first fell in love with funk and soul music?

ZEBUEL I grew up right outside of Memphis, and I got way into the music from where I grew up, but not until I moved to Alaska. I remember the day I went into a record store, and they were playing Muddy Waters, and I just got chill bumps. It hit me, like, “Holy fuck. This shit was recorded 30 miles from where I was born!” Then when I moved back to Memphis, I started working in blues clubs, saw blues music every night of the week, and just became kind of obsessed.

48 HILLS How did Smoked Out Soul begin?

ZEBUEL Smoked Out Soul started as a mixtape that I made. The whole concept was: I love funk and soul music, but at the time, I was kind of a bass music DJ, and I wanted to fuse those two worlds. The name has a Memphis tie too: this hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia, they’re always talking ‘bout “smoked out this” and “smoked out that.” People really liked the mixtape, so I started DJing that style to bring soul music into the bass world.

48 HILLS When did Will enter the picture?

ZEBUEL I first met Will –

WILL MAGID The origin story of our love is hilarious.

ZEBUEL At a crazy music festival.


ZEBUEL He was DJing and playing trumpet, and you had a drummer too –

WILL MAGID I love that festival and everyone that puts it together, but they were not set up for live music. We had cables that wouldn’t fit into whatever inputs they had. We were waiting for the sound guy – there was no sound guy. And Zeb showed up out of the woods. He’s like, “You guys doin’ alright?” I’m like, “No!” I’m freaking out! He’s all calm, cool, collected. He’s like, “Here’s a beer. I’ll figure it out.” And he has some adapters, and plugs things in, and he’s like, “You guys are good to go.” I’m like, “Who is this guy?”

I’m forever indebted to you for that.

48 HILLS One of the things that really distinguishes this party is that it has live drummers and percussionists. Paul, can you describe your approach to drumming when you’re working with a DJ?

PAUL OLIPHANT If you’re playing along to a track, the track is the ruler, so I have to mold to what the DJ is doing. A lot of drummers – myself included, a long time ago – their approach is to solo a little bit more, do more busy stuff. My approach to drumming in general is more of a groove-based approach: match them [the beats in the track] and accentuate them a little bit, as opposed to playing around them.

48 HILLS How many drummers are regularly part of S.O.S. at this point?

WILL MAGID We’re at a point where, a couple weeks ago, I looked over at the stage: you had Enrique Padilla, Brandon Lee, Diamond Vibes from Afrolicious – like four or five of my favorite percussionists – and Paul onstage playing. It made me so happy.

48 HILLS You also have a lot of guest DJs. It’s cool to be able to go to your regular party and also expect to see an awesome DJ who you haven’t seen before. How do you find the people you bring in?

ZEBUEL A lot of times it’s people who we’re way into their music, like Captain Planet, who does the Mixtape Riot blog, and Jeremy Sole, another L.A. guy. mALaRkEy, who does the jUkE jOiNt party in Sebastopol and does an electro-funk kind of thing.

A lot of DJs don’t have the opportunity to play with live musicians, so it’s fun to bring in DJs who are just in the DJ scene, and then we have our musician buddies who aren’t really in the DJ scene. And everyone gets to mingle.

Percussionist Enrique Padilla (left) and drummer Paul Oliphant. Photo by Dirk Wyse.

WILL MAGID I think that’s such a big part of this project. It started off as a mixtape, and the whole point of a mixtape is to put different things you’re listening to together, and then people might be attracted to one song and discover a new song. That’s how this party is with people.

48 HILLS There are so many musicians who rotate in and out throughout the night. Half those people are guests, and there’s no set list, so nobody has any idea what’s about to happen. How does that work?

WILL MAGID The fact that we’ve all known each other for a long time is really important for that. Beyond just the mechanics of it working, it’s open and can blossom because of that.

ZEBUEL There’s an unspoken connection thing. I can tell by the look on his face if he’s not feeling that song, and then you can just mix another tune.

WILL MAGID Also, mechanically speaking, having a steady beat and keeping the key consistent, sometimes, is a big part of what makes it work. If there’s a horn player up there [soloing] and we’re in [the key of] F, I’m gonna play something in F in the same tempo. Even if he doesn’t notice that the song’s changing, whatever he’s doing will kind of work.

At its core, even though we’re playing dance music, it’s like an art project because there’s this risk associated with it. There’s always the chance that something bad or amazing will happen.

ZEBUEL And the visual aspect too. Gotta give a shot-out to Johnny Diamond for crushing the visuals.

WILL MAGID And he’s always really thoughtful: When a guest is up, he puts their logo on the wall. Sometimes those little things make you perform better.

48 HILLS What are the trickiest parts of your party for musicians who haven’t played with you before?

WILL MAGID Songs don’t really begin, or end – that’s the biggest thing. When you learn how to play music, those are the two most important moments, and that goes out the window with this because songs just flow into each other. It’s more of a continuously evolving collage.

Also, a lot of great musicians came up playing jazz, and in jazz you can just rip. There’s certainly a time and place for that here. But then there’s other times: when Aretha Franklin’s singing, you don’t really need to play right now. She’s got it.

Will Magid (trumpet) and horns breaking it down on the dance floor. Photo by Dirk Wyse.

48 HILLS Have you ever had a guest who you’d never worked with before, who just got it immediately and nailed it?

WILL MAGID One time a woman named Iva Lamkum showed up, and she wanted to sing, but we didn’t know her. The two hardest instruments to do well with a DJ are bass and vocals. So she’s super-nice, but in the back of our minds is, “This person may be a terrible singer, and in their mind they’re going to be singing tonight.” And then she started singing, and she was a mind-blowingly good singer.

ZEBUEL It turns out she’s pretty well-known. She’s from New Zealand.

48 HILLS What was the most epic night at S.O.S. for each of you?

ZEBUEL Bonobo horns were probably my favorite. Those guys just fucking crushed it hard. They had a blast.

WILL MAGID Nice pun. This was the horn section that was playing with Bonobo when he was in town last year. They’re friends of mine, so I invited them. It was a surprise too: two amazing horn players just pop out of nowhere and lit the place up.

My favorite night was probably the Poldoore night.

ZEBUEL Oh, shit! That was a good one.

WILL MAGID He’s a producer from Belgium. We were playing his shit all the time at our party, not even knowing who he is. Then I went out to Belgium and did some shows with him, and he came to the States and we got in the studio together while he was in town [Zeb and Poldoore later released the song “Hangover Blues” from those sessions], which culminated in a performance at S.O.S. It was his first U.S. date.

ZEBUEL And his first time playing with a full band, too.

WILL MAGID I just love that about music: people that live on opposite sides of the world, you’re all attracted to the same wavelength, and then you can actually connect your wavelengths together and make new things, in front of people who also are on that wavelength.

48 HILLS What’s next for S.O.S.? What else do you have up your sleeve?

WILL MAGID We’re putting out a compilation record real soon – sometime this fall. It’s gonna be a benefit for the ACLU. And it’s largely people that have played this party, many of which we didn’t know two years ago, when this was started.

ZEBUEL Smoked Out Soul is crazy because it started out as a mixtape and then ended up as the party, and then we got booked for Guitarfish [music festival] a few years ago, and then it was like, “Oh, shit. I guess we’re a band now.”

48 HILLS Will, you’re also releasing new music with Alligator Spacewalk at SFJAZZ this weekend. How does that project compare to Smoked Out Soul?

WILL MAGID Alligator Spacewalk is taking the Smoked Out Soul concept, but with three string players and three horn players – a ten-piece group – and with all original compositions. The DJ side of my personality is really satisfied, so Alligator Spacewalk has become an outlet for orchestrating and exploring these more wild artistic concepts.

48 HILLS Tell me about the composer of the piece you’ll be performing.

WILL MAGID Teddy Raven may be the only person who intersects with all these different things from my musical universe: Balkan music and funk and jazz and also electronic music a little bit, and is a really good composer. He plays sax with Midtown Social, different Jazz Mafia projects, Inspector Gadje, and studied Bulgarian flute on a Fulbright fellowship.

So Teddy wrote this piece called the Lunar Conquest Suite [commissioned by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival]. It’s five movements, each about a different time period of what culminates in the U.S. moon landing in 1969. The first movement is after WWII, when the Soviet Union and the United States were fighting over Nazi scientists, one of which was the main guy that made the rocket ship that landed on the moon. It’s this bizarre part of U.S. history told through music.

And it’s also a two-part record. After Trump was elected, I just felt this deep sorrow, and meanwhile I’m really inspired by Teddy’s composing, so I wrote all this other music. It’s a double-disk: Resistance Rising and the Lunar Conquest Suite.


Every Thursday, 10pm to close, $5-$10

Monarch, SF

Weekly lineups and advance tickets here.


Friday, September 22, 7pm and 8:30pm, $25


Tickets and more info here.

Drop the oratorio

Ensemble Mik Nawooj brings its mix of hip-hop and classical to ambitious new work 'Death Become Life,' at Pro Arts Gallery Sat/16. Pictured: MC Sandman (left), composer JooWan Kim (center), and MC Do D.A.T

ALL EARS Ensemble Mik Nawooj is the sort of band that solves problems you didn’t know you had. Problems like: I want to wave my hands in the air at a chamber concert! And: I sure wish this hip-hop show had some opera. A chamber ensemble with two MCs and (yes!) a lyric soprano, the group fuses classical music and hip-hop with the intent to explode expectations of both.  

Composer and pianist JooWan Kim founded Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN, for short) in 2010 and was later joined by spitfire Oakland MCs Do D.A.T. and Sandman. EMN recently completed its most ambitious work to date: a full-length, hip-hop oratorio entitled Death Become Life. The piece premiered at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in June and has caught the attention of Opus 3 Artists, which manages the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Alvin Ailey, and recently added EMN to its roster. Sat/16 at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland will be the first of a few more chances to hear Death Become Life in the Bay before EMN takes it on tour.

Kim, Do D.A.T., and Sandman took time to share the rebellious energy that fuels EMN, an experiment that began as an attempt to destroy concert music and may just be its salvation.

48 HILLS JooWan, in a recent interview with Upworthy, you talked about creating your first hip-hop piece partly to piss off the teachers at your conservatory, which is funny. But how did you know that bringing hip-hop and classical music together would work?

JOOWAN KIM I didn’t know it was going to work at first. My answer on Upworthy isn’t really far off from the initial motive of doing the piece. I have a lot of problems with the postcolonial and Eurocentric concert music aesthetic. It’s absurd that a guy from (insert any non-European country, including America) thinks that the highest form of performing arts is to play the violin at Berlin Philharmonic. It’s fascist, archaic – and most importantly, no longer working.

I wanted to create a new way of doing concert music that reflects the life we lead today. After doing a novelty piece at SF Conservatory of Music, I went through a gradual initiation to hip-hop, which allowed me render the current hybridization. 

48 HILLS Do D.A.T. and Sandman, what made you want to join EMN and experiment with classical music? Were you into the idea from the get-go, or did it require some convincing? 

SANDMAN I never imagined performing with a classical ensemble specifically because I had so often heard promoters of classical music shit on all Black music, going as far as to say hip-hop music isn’t music at all. This didn’t make me biased towards classical music, just doubtful. But I always wanted to perform with live instrumentalists because there is a way that their performance encourages my own and vice versa. 

It’s important to note that hip-hop, from its inception, assimilated many different genres, including classical music, via samples, so it wasn’t an alien idea to me. I felt presented with a challenge, and was eager to meet it.

DO D.A.T. Sandman and I used to be part of a hip-hop group called The Attik, and our unofficial slogan was, “Why imitate when you can innovate?” Joining EMN was the perfect way to live those words. 

I didn’t need any convincing because I liked the music, and I identified with its rebellious energy and ambitious vision. As a writer, I welcomed the challenge of sculpting verses to JooWan’s compositions, and as a performer I loved witnessing people’s reactions to these two worlds colliding. In short, I recognized the opportunity for creative growth. . . . And JooWan threatened me with physical violence. (Just kidding, he’s a sweetheart.) 

48 HILLS How does your collaboration work? Do the MCs ever give feedback on the music, or vice versa, or does everyone pretty much stay in their lane? 

SANDMAN Feedback has always been welcome, and sometimes the feedback comes in the form of healthy debate. JooWan and I have gone back and forth about making dance music. When I first began working with EMN, a lot of the pieces had a heavy classical aesthetic, and I felt the music could be even more potent, or impactful. As we’ve continued to collaborate, I think the music has gotten further from the classical aesthetic and just become good music. I’m not saying his repertoire has become twerk-worthy, but it’s definitely adapted more of a groove. 

JOOWAN KIM As far as the lyrics, I give them the theme of the piece and trust their immense talents to come up with something incredible. And they never fail me.

EMN’s reinterpretation of “California Soul,” commissioned by ESPN for Super Bowl 50:

48 HILLS Your last album was entitled The Future of Hip-Hop, but it seems like a lot of people also think you’re the future of classical music. Why did you choose one title over the other?

JOOWAN KIM We thought in choosing hip-hop instead of classical we’d get more mileage out of it. However, what we continue to do is create a new concert music for the future. Eventually, what we call classical music will cease to exist and be replaced by “hybrids” of different systems. We believe that we’re the prototype of this trend.

48 HILLS Have you ever gone into a situation where your audience didn’t know what they had signed themselves up for (either a classical audience not expecting hip-hop, or vice versa)? How did that go?

SANDMAN The most startling part about performing with EMN has been the crowd demographic. I remember performing at a festival at Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light. Sitting in the from row was an elderly white gentleman, with his walker folded to the left of his seat. I couldn’t help but think, “We’re about to give this guy a heart attack.” After the show, he made his way over to me, needing much effort to do so, and said, “I really enjoyed that . . . with the music, and you all doing the scatting. It was great.” 

I had an internal jaw drop. Though he was totally not a fan of hip-hop, but rather thought we were scatting, he enjoyed himself. No crowd or setting has since topped that performance in terms of feeling out of place, but either way we’ve found it doesn’t matter. Everyone comes away satisfied, having experienced something standing side-by-side with someone they otherwise never would have shared space with.

JOOWAN KIM People generally like us. Must be the good looks of Sandman & D.A.T.

48 HILLS You seem to have honed in on the work of Wu-Tang Clan, J Dilla, and Snoop Dogg. Why those three? 

JOOWAN KIM As for Wu-Tang & Snoop, we were commissioned to reimagine six classic hip-hop tracks of 1993 by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for their 21st anniversary celebration. For J Dilla, he is one of the main reasons I am doing what I am doing now. His inventiveness, natural talent, and ways of treating samples as pieces of musical motives to build larger ideas really struck me. He is like Monk or Mozart. A natural genius with profound influence on the next generation.

48 HILLS Do you all tend to agree about your favorite MCs, or do you argue about who’s best and who you should cover?

SANDMAN There was an instance in which D.A.T. and JooWan had a debate about a Kendrick Lamar song, which resulted in JooWan composing a piece that sounded exactly like what it was: an effort to prove a point. I asked D.A.T. not to debate with JooWan again, since apparently nothing good can come from it.

EMN’s deconstruction of “C.R.E.A.M” by Wu-Tang Clan, commissioned by YBCA:

48 HILLS Do D.A.T. and Sandman, when you’re reinventing another MC’s work, how do you decide when to play off the original lyrics and when to go in another direction?

SANDMAN I’m an artist, so I tend to want to limit the amount of another MC’s lyrics that I incorporate into my own. Mostly what I try to do is match the sentiment of the verses. What I like about “C.R.E.A.M.” is that both D.A.T. and I took on both the micro and macro perspectives of the subject matter, where in Wu-Tang’s version, they kept the personal perspective throughout the song. 

My first verse, with the more impersonal/macro perspective, began:

We can trace back to cash and fiduciary conflict 

every slug to the bonnet war and conquest

pillage a populace for the ore in the continent

bronze, iron, gold, platinum, oil, or diamonds

The next verse, with the more personal/micro perspective, began:

I ride for the survivors / the god incarnates

who hide god knows what behind their garments

and try to spark it / supply the market

and made their rise in the US of A’s armpit

An example of where I cited an MC’s verse was on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin To Fuck Wit.”  Method Man, who ranks as one of my favorite MCs, had such an iconic intro to his verse, I felt I had to pay homage by referencing it directly and following a similar rhyme scheme.

DO D.A.T. I LOVE WU-TANG CLAN. They pretty much are the reason why I rap, so for those deconstructions, I just choose my favorite lyrics and incorporate them into my verse. For EMN’s deconstruction of “Shame on a N****,” I chose not to use any of the original lyrics but convey the energy of the original work, which is: I’m the illest rapper breathing, and my crew can’t be faded! 

Much of the rap that I enjoy contains these grandiose statements of how much an MC out-classes their competition. These are important declarations for the historically disenfranchised to make because we receive the opposite messages and often times feel unseen in so many areas in our lives. 

So when Method Man says: 

You could never capture the Method Man’s stature

For rhyme and for rapture

Got n***** resignin’, now master

My style? Never! 

Or when I say, “I got em head over heels like a 69, Why I get Deja Vu every time you rhyme? inspiration or imitation a thin line,” we are simply stating that our existence has value, our lives matter, and we want the respect!  

Dancers stepping to EMN during YBCA’s 21st anniversary celebration

48 HILLS JooWan, what makes Death Become Life your most ambitious work to date?

JOOWAN KIM There is a continuous development of common themes from “Death Become Life” (the title track of the work) that appear throughout the work. Also, the work itself is a semi-modular performing arts piece with the music as the central unit. You can add and subtract different components like dance, theatrical narrative, and backdrops. We will also create regional variations.

48 HILLS Can you explain what you want the audience to get out of Death Become Life?

JOOWAN KIM I think this prayer sums up the essence of the work: “May good conquer evil, light banish darkness, and death become life.”

48 HILLS Have you gotten any interesting or funny responses from the kids you’ve met through your educational outreach work?

SANDMAN We were invited to play at The Sacred Heart Catholic School in San Francisco. I felt a little awkward because much of the subject matter in our lyrics is adult, and challenges institutions from policing to religion. We walked into an auditorium full of uniformed kids, silent and staring blankly. I thought, “Uh oh.” As we concluded the first song, they went nuts. At one point, we selected one girl and one boy to come to the stage to do an impromptu performance, and each time they uttered a word or phrase, the auditorium went absolutely crazy. It turned out to be a dope experience. 

EMN will be returning to The Sacred Heart in November to teach creative writing/rhyming, and music composition/musicianship, which will culminate in the students executing their own hip-hop orchestra project.

DO D.A.T. [Sandman and] I have also been doing non-profit work with youth since high school. The majority of my time was doing artist development for BUMP [Bay Unity Music Project] Records. I’ve also worked as lead artist for Beats Rhymes and Life, where the focus is getting “at-promise youth” to process trauma and build strong connections to their fellow group members. 

Just the other night I was ciphering (having a rap session) with a couple of young MCs at a fundraiser. I could tell they were newbies because of how hesitant they were to step to the mic and rap. After a couple of rounds of timid mumbling, I essentially started cheerleading and ad-libbing while they freestyled. It was a trip to see how these young men came out of their shell with just a little bit of encouragement! It was night and day in a matter of minutes. They may not show their full, charismatic, witty, artistic, bold selves anywhere else, but that’s who they were in the moment. With enough practice, they could be that person all the time. It made me happy to be a hip-hopper.


Saturday, September 16, 8pm, $5

Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland

Tickets and more info here.

Complete list of upcoming performances here

APART of the scene

LEX leads the stacked A PARTY lineup a Hotel Utah, Sat/13. Photo by Andy Strong

Leave it to a rapper to find a name for her show that has, not one, but three layers of meaning. Sat/13, local “smart rap” artist LEX presents APARTY at Hotel Utah. LEX’s mission is “to highlight Asian American musicians in the Bay Area who are creating diverse and unique sounds, and to show that while we’ve been set APART in the music scene, we are APART of it, and we can throw APARTY.” (The event fittingly coincides with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.)

The APARTY lineup features everything from the “self-help pop-punk” of Sleeptalkers to the “experimental ramen beats” of producer and guitarist Go Yama. Babii Cris, who was recently part of the UnderCover Presents tribute to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and LEX will demonstrate just how diverse Asian American voices can be with their divergent styles of rap. Singer/songwriter Eddy Shin rounds out the show with his soulful licks.

We caught up with all five artists about their latest projects, the way anti-Asian discrimination plays out in the music industry, and how they choose to address it (or not) in their music.

48 HILLS How did the idea for APARTY come about?

LEX In college, I was an active member of Theatre Rice, UC Berkeley’s Asian American theatre group. We produced and publicized our own shows that promoted representation, and when I got into the music scene, I wanted to create a similar experience with the awesome musicians I knew.

48H How did you choose the lineup, and why are you stoked about each of the acts?

LEX I wanted a roster that would celebrate the multidimensionality of our community, and show the world that we can be rock stars, rappers, and producers. I’ve personally seen all of them live: I watched Babii Cris tear it up at her 23rd birthday throwdown in Berkeley and Eddy Shin shred on the guitar at Neck of the Woods. I shared a bill with Go Yama where he sent the audience into a trance. And I regularly see Sleeptalkers frontman Gerard [Cabarse] singing at Hotel Utah and Neck of the Woods, and his passion and energy make my heart soar. So take it from me: this show’s gonna rock.

Babii Cris
Babii Cris. Photo by BreadSliceDesign

48H I’m curious about how you’re already putting together and promoting your own shows (and blogging about it) when you’ve been in the industry for less than a year. How have you been able to step into that role so quickly?

LEX You caught me! I think it comes from two years of working in startup marketing and sales, where any work that isn’t being done fast is seen as useless. My experience with content marketing and PR in a tech environment has also been very helpful in doing blogs and press for the LEX project.

That being said, the most crucial factor in my progress has been the incredible people I’ve met who have helped me make my way into the scene in a very short time. Meet-ups like Balanced Breakfast SF and music industry mentors like Doctor Striker allowed me to rapidly learn the ropes of event planning and promotion; and musician communities like Conscious Hip Hop at 924 Gilman opened doors to many influential connections.

48H There’s been a ton of press this year about the lack of (non-stereotyped) roles for Asians in the film industry. What would you say to those who claim that the music industry is equally tough for everyone?

GERARD CABARSE OF SLEEPTALKERS I’m having trouble naming an Asian or Asian American musician that really broke out in the US. The last person I can think of is Psy. Before that, it was probably William Hung, who I think set Asian artists in America back a couple hundred years. There are a few artists with mixed Asian descent like Bruno Mars, but I don’t think the general public would consider them Asian because they don’t fit the stereotype of what “Asian” looks like. 

A personal incident I had playing in Sleeptalkers happened at a recent show. Someone came up to me after our set and said, “You guys are like the Asian Green Day.” One, I much prefer Jimmy Eat World to Green Day. Two, why couldn’t this person just say, “You guys are like Green Day?” I don’t think he meant to be malicious at all, but it’s a small window into how the general public will see us from the outside. 

Eddy Shin
Eddy Shin

EDDY SHIN Asian musicians, in particular, have to overcome the stereotype of only being classical musicians and not having the “soul” or “feel” for certain genres: funk, R&B, blues, hip-hop, or even rock. I think people start with a negative perception of Asian artists in these genres, which affects the artists’ own perception of the possibility of success: many promising young musicians just don’t pursue music.

LEX I experienced disregard and aloofness from a local hip-hop figurehead who will probably never book me at his shows – part of why I started organizing my own. But I do have to mention that, because I live in the Bay Area, I’m often able to leverage my Asianness as a marketable advantage. Most people see me do my thing and say, “Asian girl who raps? Dope! We want more.” Many artists struggle with their Asian identities, and I’m lucky to be somewhere where I can use it to propel me further.

GO YAMA It’s kind of crazy: I can remember growing up and having no musical heroes or role models that were Asian or Asian American. The internet-based micro-genres that have overtaken the music scene in the last 10 years allow for different faces to shine that haven’t had the chance before. I’m pretty excited about what the beat scene has brought for Asian Americans. It’s the first time in my life where there is a “genre” in which a lot of my musical heroes and peers are Asian.

Go Yama
Go Yama

48H On the positive side, what (if any) parts of your heritage do you bring to your music?

LEX It’s a central part of my work. I celebrate my Asianness while making sure my content is still relatable to a wide audience. For example, “Glasses” is an anthem for the four-eyed that also takes ownership of the Asian nerd stereotype. My identity as a third culture kid from Taipei also plays into my choice of imagery, hometown shoutouts, and even language: I just wrote a remix/cover of a classic Taiwanese rock song about asking your parents for money and made it about the starving artist life. I’m going to perform it at APARTY and get the audience to sing it with me. In Chinese.

BABII CRIS I started writing as an 8-year-old with a mom fleeing her baby’s father and her first generation Filipino mother. My other grandma came to America from Peru after she was born in Japan. I fight because my grandparents had to fight to come here and to survive on these cold streets to make a better life for their children. I want to inspire people from different backgrounds to be passionate and persistent about what they love.

GERARD I don’t think that my heritage has played a role in my music. I’m a first generation American and my folks wanted me and my siblings to grow up “American,” so I’m not super connected to my roots as a Filipino. I do listen to a lot of Japanese and Korean pop and rock music, which isn’t necessarily my heritage as an Asian person, but those genres have had a significant impact on my songwriting. 

Sleeptalkers. Photo by Sam Madnick
Sleeptalkers. Photo by Sam Madnick

48H Gerard, the Sleeptalkers album took me right back to my alt rock days in the late 90s/early aughts. What part of that era do you think is ripe for a comeback, and can you describe the twist you put on it?

GERARD I was very heavily influenced by the old-school Warped Tour scene growing up. I think that it’s an integral part of the Sleeptalkers charm. Our music has that nostalgic factor, but I feel that we add a more polished pop music sensibility to it.

I think pop music is slowly returning to live instrumentation. Artists like Ed Sheerhan and Adele have made piano and acoustic guitar cool again, so I think that eventually rock music may find its way back to the Top 40.

48H LEX, “Undateable” off your new EP has so much truth about contemporary dating and its effect on women. What do you think that level of frankness/vulnerability does to an art form that can be so based on bravado?

LEX For me, the bravado comes from being incredibly frank and blunt. I’m confident enough in my own identity that I can own up to and brag about being undateable, and reclaim the word as a source of empowerment. I think my focus on realism brings a level of humanity and relatability to the genre. Also, because I subvert the stereotypes of passivity and submissiveness in Asian women, the bluntness augments my persona on stage.

48H Babii Cris, I’m blown away by your engineering and production value and the fact that you do it all yourself. Why is that level of creative control or self-sufficiency important to you?

BABII CRIS I fell in love with writing lyrics at a young age, and when I learned to play the guitar at 13, I fell in love with being able to play any melody my heart felt like. Then I fell in love with producing music as a teenager, which led to learning about the way music was recorded, mixed, and engineered. Having that level of creative control is important to me, not only because you save money, but because the growth and learning from being self-sufficient is second to none. To be able to imagine something and then bring it to life is making your dreams come true.

48H Go Yama, you made an album inspired by Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki. Can you describe what of his work is present in your album?

GO YAMA I used samples from the soundtracks (shout out to Joe Hisaishi) to make a variety of different beats. It was both a tribute out of gratitude and an exercise to try and work out the same sort of creative muscle that Miyazaki has massively built up and flexes consistently.

48H Eddy, can you talk about your latest single “All The Same” and what inspired it?

EDDY SHIN All The Same” was inspired by the 2016 election and the divisiveness caused by it. The hostility and “with us or against us” mentality was overwhelming on both sides of the election. I wrote the song in an effort to send a message to people that we are all on the same side and are ultimately all human, whatever our nationality, ethnicity, or culture may be.

w/ LEX, Sleeptalkers, Go Yama, Eddy Shin, Babii Cris
Sat/13, 9pm, $10
Hotel Utah, SF
Tickets and more info here.