ALL EARS At turns goofy, touching, mesmerizing, super-funky, and just plain weird, local DJ Platurn‘s just-released, two-part mix of unfamiliar Icelandic rare grooves and pop hits, Breaking the Ice, is a brilliant, painstaking excavation of unheard gems—and of his own past. If your knowledge of that icy island’s scene doesn’t extend beyond Bjork and Sigur Rós, Breaking the Ice will blow your mind with dozens of tunes from the late 1960s through early 80s (and clue you in to what was happening on Reykjavik’s intimate but lively glam rock, space pop, psychedelic, bubblegum, and pastoral folk scene).
Platurn’s a very respected name on the local turntablist and hip-hop scene, laying down beats at parties from Motown on Mondays to Dre Day (which he organizes). But in 2006 he started exploring the musical variety of his Icelandic roots with his cousin, especially inspired by his father.
Platurn’s dad was Magnus Thordarson, a groundbreaking DJ and concert promoter who, in the early 1970s, brought rock and roll to Iceland’s only radio station. According to journalist David Ma, who wrote Breaking the Ice‘s excellent liner notes (buy the two-CD version for some awesome pics and documentation of the early Iceland scene), the national radio station, Ríkisútvarpið, was trying to be all things to all people, and looked down on overseas rock as “too aggressive”—so it ended up a bland morass of traditionalist tunes and propaganda. Thordarson changed all that when he scored a one-hour show and started breaking not only overseas records, but local bands who were adopting and developing new sounds.
“I was super into rock and roll, and its appeal to sexual impulses of young adults,” Thordarson told Ma with a laugh. “But I wanted to take it beyond that, I wanted to speak about the lyrics and take it into the intellectual realm.” Thordarson eventually opened Icelandic ears to everything from reggae to the Kinks, and fed a thirst for connection with the world that sparked Icelandic musicians to take up instruments and make their own noise (even if it was a cover of “Rock the Boat”).
Platurn discovered his own mission regarding the music is father had hyped so well, when he realized how much groove a lot of it had—and started thinking about how the records from that time could be mixed together in a journey through Iceland’s recent past. The seamless result toggles from energizing nostalgia to “WTF what is that?!” inspiration, much like a radio station from the past reaching our own attention deficit disorder present.
I talked to Platurn over email about the records, his heritage, and the Breaking the Ice process that took 12 years to complete.
48 HILLS Where you got ahold of these amazing records? Were there any specific shops you dove into? Were these mostly your father’s records?
PLATURN Many different outlets. My father’s collection (he was a DJ and promoter in Iceland back in the day), my own collection from when I was a kid, digging with my cousin in various places back home since 2006, and a couple of must-have pieces online. Almost all 65+ records came from old school excavation, not to mention the countless hours of educating myself—and maintaining broke status well throughout.
48H You and your cousin started getting really into older Icelandic rock music around 2006. What spurred you to start exploring more?
P Figuring out that said rock music had a lot more groove than expected. Was really that simple. I knew players in the music scene back in the day were bad ass musicians, I just didn’t know to what extent how soulful and interesting a lot of the grooves really were.
48HI love how you’ve talked about how a lot of Icelandic music had funky drumming “almost unintentionally.” Can you give me a couple examples of records that you recognized that on?
P Not really mentioning names, but there are very popular bands back home that many know about, like Hljomar for instance, that had great pocket drummers throughout many of their releases.
48HHow did you make the mix itself, i.e. what software tools did you use, or was it purely turntable oriented? Was there any challenge to working with such older records?
P All recorded in Pro-Tools. All original vinyl pressings, so yeah piecing it all together certainly wasn’t easy. From the time I started to completion I’d estimate it took me roughly two years to complete the actual recording process. Choosing the music and finding all the pieces where I felt like I was satisfied took roughly 12 years. Older records always present a challenge, but that’s what I love about projects like this. I’ve never been one to take the easy-street shortcut.
48H Are there any interesting or surprising connections between Iceland in general (or Icelandic music specifically) and the Bay?
P Not really. There is a Northern California Icelandic Society that gets together a few of times a year to celebrate popular holidays back home, but that’s about it. There’s only about 350,000 of us, and a rough guesstimate of how many live outside of the island would probably be somewhere between 20 and 30 thousand I’m assuming, spread out all throughout the planet.
I did purposely put two records on there that certified the California/Iceland connection for me personally. First one is a cover of The Mamas & The Papas “California Dreaming,” a rendition translated as “Farm Boy’s Dream.” And the other a hokey pop-disco song entitled “Frisco Disco,” not to be confused with the classic B-boy break from Eastside Connection of the same name.
Purchase the Breaking the Ice 2xCD set here.
Follow Platurn here.
ALL EARS You know your Balkan party scene is good when top-shelf Balkan musicians want in on it. The Romani clarinet wizard Ismail Lumanovski now regularly drops in from New York to charm crowds with the Bay’s own Inspector Gadje. Friday, March 9 brings another heavyweight to the Starline Social Club in Oakland: Džambo Aguševi Orchestra, making its US debut at as part of the 21st Annual Romani Music Festival, presented by Voice of Roma.
The powerhouse eight-member brass band offers a straightforward reason for wanting to start their West Cost tour here: “The Bay Area is known for its lively Balkan scene.” That’s high praise coming from a group that regularly wins prizes on the competitive Balkan brass festival circuit, including the most prestigious international festival in Guča. Just last week, Džambo Aguševi Orchestra took the Best Trumpet and Best Band awards at the Bubamara Festival in Macedonia.
Džambo Aguševi, the band’s namesake and front man, is a trumpet prodigy with musical lineage. He has been performing professionally since he joined his uncle Kočo Aguševi’s brass band at age 11. Now 30, Džambo is known for dazzling improvisation—a key feature of Balkan Romani music—and innovative arrangements that draw on modern dance beats. His band includes his father, other family members, and childhood friends who grew up playing together and training with older generations of Romani musicians.
The increasing recognition of their music has unfortunately not protected the Roma (the preferred term for “gypsy”) from the rising xenophobia in Europe and the US. Ironically, Europeans continue to characterize the Roma as uncivilized, untrustworthy outsiders, despite the fact that Roma have lived in Europe for over 700 years.
The Romani Music Festival distinguishes itself from other Balkan parties by placing Džambo Aguševi Orchestra’s musical prowess in its cultural context. In addition to the show, the festival features a Balkan dance workshop with Voice of Roma president Šani Rifati and a panel discussion with Dr. Carol Silverman of the University of Oregon, who won the 2012 book prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology for her work on Romani music.
Dr. Silverman points out the connection between the marginalization of Romani people and the quality of their music: “Music has served as one of the viable economic niches for Balkan Roma—one arena where they are respected. There are a huge number of Romani musicians all trying to make a living, so competition is fierce.” That explains a festival culture that crowns winners—hard to imagine at Outside Lands or Hardly Strictly.
It also makes it clear how infuriating the stereotype of the free-spirited, artistic gypsy must be for a people who have been prevented from pursuing other livelihoods. Šani Rifati is a Roma from Kosovo who immigrated to the US in 1993, and he says that it was these romantic stereotypes, as well as the negative ones, that moved him to found the non-profit Voice of Roma to promote authentic representations of Romani culture. In particular, he calls out a certain well-loved Balkan dance party that features non-Romani belly dancers with bare skin: “The irony is that this type of belly dance—it’s for sure not a Roma thing. It comes from Middle East.” Dr. Silverman notes that Romani women use more modest dance attire.
The Voice of Roma has been generous in opening its community to non-Roma who are interested in Romani culture. Rifati explains this impulse by saying, “Remember, Roma have survived for all these centuries thanks to this: as always being together as a group, not as an individual.” This openness goes beyond the annual Romani Music Festival: In 2009, Rifati and his wife, Carol Bloom, wrote a grant to allow a group of local musicians to train with Bulgarian Roma drum master Rumen Shopov. That group went on to become Inspector Gadje, one of the Bay’s premiere Balkan brass bands, whose name denotes their status as “gadje,” or non-Roma.
Rifati believes that non-Roma can be critical allies in changing stereotypes of Romani culture, and so far, it seems to be working: Inspector Gadje co-founder Marco Peris Coppola says, “We try to always give props to the culture—like, we play this music, but also check out these other players who have made an impact on us.” That ethos was on display at Inspector Gadje’s recent show at the 11th anniversary party for Kafana Balkan (which, Peris notes, removed the term “gypsy” from its name after Inspector Gadje joined the lineup). Inspector Gadje took time onstage to promote Džambo Aguševi Orchestra and the Romani Music Festival, calling it a once-in-a-decade chance to see a Balkan brass band of this caliber in the Bay Area.
You know your Balkan party scene is good when your hometown Balkan brass band stands ready to promote the Roma big-shots when they come to town. The Romani Music Festival promises not just to be a blast, but a vision of intercultural understanding—fueled by electrifying horns.
21ST ANNUAL ROMANI MUSIC FESTIVAL w/ Džambo Aguševi Orchestra Fri/9, $15 7:30pm – Panel discussion on Romani music and culture with Džambo Aguševi Orchestra, led by Šani Rifati and Dr. Carol Silverman 8:30 PM – Dance workshop with Šani Rifati 9:30 PM – Dance party with Džambo Aguševi Orchestra Starline Social Club, Oakland. Tickets and more info here.
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.
48HYou’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.
48HIt’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 HillsI 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.
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.”
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.
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 HILLSListening 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.
48HHow 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.
48HThe 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.
48HYou’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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.)
A couple years ago, Sellars was contacted by La Scala in Milan to direct a production of Puccini’s belovedly creaky 1910 La Fanciulladel 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 whenstaged 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.
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.
“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!”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
GIRLS OF THE GOLDEN WEST 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.
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 HILLSWhat 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.”
[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 HILLSHave 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.
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.
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.
DIANA GAMEROS Featuring Magik*Magik, Patrick Wolff, and Altagracia Estupinan (Diana’s mother) Sun/12, 7pm, $20-$30 Brava Theater, SF. Tickets and more info here.
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 HILLSZebuel, 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 HILLSHow 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 HILLSWhen 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.
TOGETHER Wood Womp.
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 HILLSOne 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 HILLSYou 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.
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 HILLSThere 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 HILLSWhat 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.
48 HILLSHave 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 HILLSWhat 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 HILLSWhat’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 HILLSWill, 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 HILLSTell me about the composer of the piece you’ll be performing.
WILL MAGIDTeddy 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.