All Ears

‘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 West World 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.”

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.  

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

SMOKED OUT SOUL

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

Monarch, SF

Weekly lineups and advance tickets here.

ALLIGATOR SPACEWALK PRESENTS THE LUNAR CONQUEST SUITE

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

SFJAZZ

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.

ENSEMBLE MIK NAWOOJ PRESENTS DEATH BECOME LIFE

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.

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

Bursting into color

Meklit releases a bold new album.

Sat/6 at Rickshaw Stop, Bay Area audiences will have a chance to hear the sound of an artist’s limitations falling away. Local favorite Meklit, who could previously have been categorized as a singer-songwriter, will be giving a sneak peek of her third studio album, When The People Move, The Music Moves Too, out June 23 on legendary local label Six Degrees Records.

Meklit likes to say that, “as a musician, you have no choice but to grow in front of other people.” If that’s so, then this album is like the explosion of wildflowers that has overrun California with color and texture. Meklit has turned from more traditional American songwriting to reinventing Ethio-jazz, her birth country’s greatest cultural export, through an American lens. To do so, she looks back to the rhythms of traditional Ethiopian music and brings them into dialogue with American jazz and hip-hop, all without forgetting her roots as a singer-songwriter.

This transformation has attracted the notice of music industry heavyweights: the album was produced by Dan Wilson, whose songwriting and production credits include Adele’s 21. It features Andrew Bird and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, alongside a host of local hot-shots and traditional Ethiopian musicians.

Meklit describes When the People as many interwoven stories, but the creation of the album is its own epic, one that began six years ago with a challenge from the founder of Ethio-jazz himself.

48 HILLS Can you describe Ethio-jazz for those who aren’t familiar with the genre?

MEKLIT Mulatu Astatke is considered the godfather of Ethio-jazz. He was the first African to go to Berklee College of Music, and then he was in New York in the late 1950s and ’60s, when jazz was just exploding. He was incredibly inspired by the Cuban musicians, in particular, who were leading the development of Latin jazz. He was like, “What they did with Latin jazz – I can do that with Ethiopian music.”

Ethiopian music is pentatonic and has these scales that are entire worlds to themselves. The way Gash [term of respect/affection] Mulatu describes it, his contribution was to take the pentatonic scales and make them the centerpiece of songs that had Afro-Cuban or funk rhythms. It was as much New York as it was Addis Ababa.

48H How did your evolution from singer-songwriter to Ethio-jazz innovator begin?

MEKLIT Starting out as a singer-songwriter wasn’t so much about wanting to be a singer-songwriter. It was like, “I have these things that I want to say.” You don’t need to be a virtuoso to tell your story – the story itself is what will compel people to listen. As one of my early bass players said, “You gotta kill ‘em with vibe.” And that was what I had, so that’s what I did.

Fast forward five years later. My first album included an Ethio-jazz interpretation of the traditional Ethiopian song “Abbay Mado.” I was performing in Ethiopia, and Gash Mulatu came to a show of mine. He took me aside after and was like, “You have a wonderful voice, but why are you playing Ethio-jazz like we played it 40 years ago? A composer’s job is to innovate. You have to take this music and do something with it.”

48H Wow. What was your response to that challenge?

MEKLIT My jaw was open. Because, to a large degree, Ethio-jazz is how the world knows Ethiopia. So I kind of just sat on that conversation for two years. I would think about it, and feel really confused and overwhelmed by it. Then I finally got myself together and ended up getting a grant from the Multi-Arts Production (MAP) Fund to compose the music. And then I actually didn’t do much for a year because I was on tour with The Nile Project. When I came back, I put myself in creative sabbatical and just wrote for 6 months.

Meklit and her band
Meklit and her band

48H The Nile Project is a program you co-founded that brings together musicians from the 11 countries on the Nile River basin to collaborate on an album. How did participating in The Nile Project influence this album?

MEKLIT It was an incubation time. All along that whole tour, melodies would come to me and I would record them, so by the time I got to composition, I had so much to start with.

I was also spending a lot of time with Jorga Mesfin, the Ethio-jazz saxophonist, who gave me theory lessons and helped me understand the rhythmic world in a whole different way. The other thing was just becoming obsessed with the power of having multiple percussionists, which felt really important if this was going to be dance music.

48H How did the Grammy-winning musician and producer Dan Wilson (Adele, John Legend, Dixie Chicks) come to produce the album, and what impact did he have?

MEKLIT I met him at TED in 2013, and we totally connected and talked about music for a week. We stayed friends, and at the end of 2015, I spent two days with him in the studio, and we co-wrote “This Was Made Here” and “Memories of the Future.” Then I asked if he would be involved in the record as a producer.

That’s the biggest musical gift of my entire life – working with him. He taught me how to listen to the small voice that’s easily pushed aside, but actually deserves all your attention. He would say things like, “I think what you’re trying to do is have two bridges. But instead, you have one bridge, and then it kind of changes in the middle. Why don’t you experiment with making the second bridge really different?” And now it’s my favorite part. It was like a diviner’s rod of song.

48meklit3

48H How did you end up meeting Mulatu Astatke’s challenge? What is your contribution to Ethio-jazz?

MEKLIT The first way it sounds different is rhythmically. The Ethio-jazz of the ’60s and ’70s doesn’t use traditional Ethiopian rhythms as its point of departure, but I wanted to, because lot of that music is pretty mellow, and this is music for dancing. The traditional rhythms almost target different parts of the body: a certain rhythm will attach itself to your knees, or attach itself to your left shoulder.

The focus on the traditional rhythms gave me the freedom to experiment in other things: for example, the song “Sweet or Salty” has a masenqo [Ethiopian single-string fiddle] solo over an American blues chord progression. Why not? Why can’t they exist together, if you’re telling a story that means something?

48H What does the album title, When The People Move, The Music Moves Too, mean for you?

MEKLIT It’s about the way that cultural shifts follow migration. But it’s also about the circularity between the dancer and the player: the person in the audience can transform the music, too.

And then it’s about this place where we find ourselves: we are all being slapped in the face with these questions of how you define American, and how it needs to include the immigrant. I think of music as a way to carve out meaningful cultural space, an umbrella where people can gather and connect and reflect and grow collectively. After the immigration bans, I needed to make the statement that immigrant music belongs under the umbrella of American music: this album wouldn’t have been made anywhere else in the world, so doesn’t that make it of this place?

48H Why did you want the album to include an Ethio-jazz cover of “You Got Me” by The Roots?

MEKLIT Growing up, man, hip-hop was one of those few places where I felt seen as an African woman. Whether it was The Pharcyde: “Now there she goes again, the dopest Ethiopian” or just being 19 and falling in love with The Roots and Things Fall Apart and that story of an Ethiopian woman. He might be speaking allegorically, but I was like, “I’m gonna take that as real.”

I’m really interested in linking Ethiopian music and African American music and telling that story of inter-relationship, on these shores. I always think about how I’m here as an African woman because of the Civil Rights Act – that’s when the immigration codes were opened up and African people were no longer restricted from coming to the States. Everything that I am stands on the shoulders of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggles of black people in this country for justice and equality.

48H The album features a whole host of local musicians. Who are they, and what did they bring to the project?

MEKLIT There are three traditional Ethiopian musicians: washint [flute] player Tasew Wendim, krar player Mesele Adsamaw, and masenqo player Endris Hassen. They’re all over this record, right next to electric guitar, drums, and horns.

Sam Bevan was my bass player for the record, and he and I did all the arranging together. Sam has since moved to New York, so a wonderful Cuban bass player named Ernesto Kindelan will be playing the show.

Marco Peris Coppola on the tupan and Colin Douglas on the drum kit created this incredible engine for the music. Marco just wants to make people dance, which is key.

My saxophonist, Howard Wiley – he’s a genius. I sent him all the traditional flute stuff that Ethiopian saxophones are based on, and he studied all of it, so he can really go into that feeling.

48H You also have some big-name special guests. What was it like to work with Andrew Bird?

MEKLIT Dan and I were thinking of interesting people to have as guests, and I wanted to represent that singer-songwriter side of myself, so Andrew Bird is on two songs. One is my anthem song, “I Want to Sing for Them All.” It’s in a hard scale called Bati major, and he killed it! He was so intuitive, and he plucks and whistles the same note, and it sounds like a steel drum. Rhythmically, the song sounds triplet-y, which is very African, and he had no problem with the rhythm. He was syncopating!

New Orleans' Preservation Jazz Band
New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band is featured on four tracks.

48H Why was it important for you to go to New Orleans to collaborate with Preservation Hall Jazz Band?

MEKLIT I wanted to plug into the city where jazz was born, where this nation-defining sound was born from African-American culture and the history of slavery, and the grit of the blues. I wanted Addis Ababa and New Orleans to be in a relationship with each other, to have a conversation. We went down to New Orleans and recorded Preservation Hall Jazz Band on four tracks. There is a special power in that city, and everyone who goes there feels it.

48H How have you been able to do what you want to as an artist within the confines of the music industry?

MEKLIT A big part of how I’ve been able to sustain myself as an artist is living in this world of arts and culture, as well as in the typical music industry. It’s about understanding why you’re doing what you do, and being able to connect with institutions and people who are interested in the ideas that bring you to the sound.

It’s hard though. It’s really, really hard. We have to fight for this space to make these messages heard – and to make them heard in a way that is fun! If it’s all heavy and entrenched and difficult, how long can you go on? You need spaces of joy and celebration that still affirm who you are, and still affirm the fights that you’re fighting day in and day out.

MEKLIT
Sat/6, 9pm, $25
Rickshaw Stop, SF
Tickets and more info here. 

 

 

Sax, unleashed

No holds barred: Saxophonist Howard Wiley

Howard Wiley has earned the right to talk. At age 37, the saxophone prodigy (and drummer) has a cool 25 years of professional gigs under his belt. He has toured with the likes of Lauryn Hill. He counts some of the Bay’s great jazz artists as his mentors. His band Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy, which plays at Madrone Art Bar every Wednesday from 10pm to close, is comprised exclusively of shredders with equally stacked resumes: drummer Thomas Pridgen, organist Lionel “LJ” Holoman, and bassist Michael “Tiny” Lindsay.

But according to his friend and collaborator Meklit, “The only thing you need to know about Howard is that he just wants to go 100 percent for music.” That intensity only grew over the course of an hour-long interview before his weekly Tuesday gig at Harris’ Restaurant. (Wiley will appear at SFJAZZ, Sat/22, to “tackles the music of Billy Strayhorn by way of Joe Henderson’s 1992 GRAMMY-winning Verve masterpiece Lush Life.”) 

In expletive-laden terms, Howard laid out exactly what he sees wrong with pop, jazz, Bay Area nightlife, and even his own saxophone solos. It turns out that Howard Wiley knows how to dish it out because he’s taken his share of licks – and he’ll be the first to tell you all about them.

48 HILLS What are you doing with Extra Nappy that you haven’t been able to do before?

HOWARD WILEY When we started talking to Madrone about having something regular, I was like, “Yo, I want to start a scene.” You used to be able to go to North Beach, and it was some kind of hang. If you wanted to hear some jazz, shoot some pool, grab a slice. The Mission, same thing: hear a Latin band, hear some jazz, grab a taco, have this Mariachi dude sing to you in tight jeans. San Francisco had a vibe, and that’s missing.

Listening to our peers and new music, it’s either super heady and bullshit boring, or it’s A Tribute to Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue. I think one of the best things about our band is, most times, we don’t have a singer; people are dancing and singing along when there’s nobody telling them what to sing. What we’re playing is recognizable enough that they’re feeling that, but it’s still very improvisatory.

48H Is it true that you guys don’t practice or have a set list?

HW Oh, we don’t even talk about music.

48H How do you know what you’re going to play next?

HW When you grow up in church with the gospel quartet tradition, you hear everybody switch parts within the group: the tenor starts singing the alto part, the alto starts singing the bass part, the bass starts soloing. So you’re listening for that, and you’re able to navigate through that. So if we’re playing Rihanna, and I start playing Coltrane changes to Giant Steps, Tiny’s gonna hear that and start playing Coltrane changes to Giant Steps

It can only work with certain [musicians] who are serious, dedicated, and come up in the church. Thomas, Tiny, and LJ tour a lot, and when LJ is out of town with like Dr. Dre, doing crazy shit, there’s only a couple of guys who can play with us and understand: Mike Blankenchip and Mike Aaberg on organ, Darien Grey and James Small on drums, and Marcus Phillips and Vernon Hall on bass

48H What does coming up in the church do for you as a musician that is different from, say, studying an instrument in school?

HW The 20th-century black church had the highest standard of musicality at the time. It’s that brutal honesty: if you’re not playing the beat right, they’re going to tell you to get off. They’ll be, “Hey, thank you, brother Wiley, not today.” You don’t know what key it’s gonna be in, what hymn the pastor is feeling like singing, and it has to go, it has to fit, it has to be within the vocabulary of the music you’re playing. And when you’re doing well, you will be exalted.

48H Describe one of your mentors and how they influenced your music.

HW John Turk — I’m so thankful for that rehearsal he cussed me out, and made me feel stupid, and everybody laughed. I’m grateful. Without the stuff I learned from that, I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a saxophone player.

48H Do you remember what he said to you?

HW Oh, like it was yesterday! I was playing with Faye Carol’s blues band, and I really love old school jazz, and he stops me. He’s like, “Motherfucker, what are you playing? We don’t have all day to wind up while you take this long-ass romantic jazz solo. You need to learn honky-tonk. People are tryna dance!” And I went back and listened and learned honky-tonk. Life-changer. I came back at the next rehearsal, I’m like, “I wanna play honky-tonk.”

48H Do you have any other public embarrassments you’d like to share?

HW There’s a great singer here named Kenny Washington, and I love Kenny Washington, but I hate Kenny Washington, and I’ll tell you why: I’m doing this gig. Kenny Washington is singing. Like, this little motherfucker sings great. My fiancée is there, my new fiancée. We’re playing “What a Wonderful World.” I’m on brushes – it’s beautiful. She’s looking at Kenny, I’m looking at her. I see a tear come out her eye. I almost stop the show. I almost knocked him over. I’m like, “This is the last time y’all seeing each other. Fuck this!” I’m like, “Yo! He is not putting in on that ring at all. That shit was expensive.”

48H You’ve been a professional musician for more than 20 years. Has it gotten easier or harder to make a living during that time?

HW It’s weird navigating the new demographic. We want to charge a door fee at Madrone. I want to pay these guys more, but Madrone has had such a problem with the door fee. I’m like really, you guys [attendees]? Your rent is so much money.

I was making more money playing jazz, which is hilarious. I used to play really crazy Ornette Coleman-style straight-ahead, and then The Angola Project was prison music and slave chants. Making way more money than I am playing dance music.

48H Why are you still doing it?

HW Girl, have you heard that music? That shit is knocking. We barely say hi. I’m at rehearsals [for other bands], and people are going through all this, and it sounds bad. So I feel really blessed that these guys are committed to playing with me.

I’m so disappointed in music now. Music used to be the one thing we can count on that’s real. As destructive as gangster rap was, it has that element that you can relate to ’cause it’s real. That element has been lost. Bruno Mars has been coming out and saying, “Hey, this is all black music. Period.” Thank you – because he’s been Justin Timberlaking me to death. But as much as I love the fact that he’s saying it, that shit is frosting. That shit is fake. It’s not Stevie Wonder. It’s not Prince. It’s not Chaka Kahn. It’s not Aretha Franklin. It don’t have that same realness to it.

48H You teach at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and at various schools around the Bay Area. How do you get the kids to pay attention to jazz in a frosting-music world?

HW There’s this Eddie Harris record I love called The Reason Why I’m Talking Shit. It’s just all the [lewd, sexual] stuff he says in between shows. So if I go to ’hood schools and the young people ask why am I into music, I’m like, “I love all the dumb shit about people you love. The reason why I love Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan – they were pimps! Like, how’re you practicing, revolutionizing music, and pimping? Time management.” And so I get the kids’ ears.

48H Is that enough to make them want to practice their instrument?

HW Yes and no. I’m meeting some really talented children and just realizing how economic-based this is. There’s this young man named Angel: he taught himself how to play saxophone after seeing Sergio the Sax Man, and he went around school running into everybody’s classrooms playing “Careless Whisper.” And then he just started getting better at it, taught himself how to read music, started going to class. Very talented young man, loves my music classes, but has to work to help his family.

I work with a lot of young girls. It’s turning me into a damn feminist. I had a reunion with a student in Boston the other day, and all we talked about was institutionalized sexism and racism and the effect it’s having, especially on these young black girls, who grow up hating the way they look. They are so preoccupied with this way of being that they can’t be, and there’s nothing wrong with how they are. So I’m finding a lot of challenges that having a strong community would help, if they had a strong community, if they had more than two black men telling them how beautiful they are.

That’s why I like being there at the community level. Not just finding the next prodigy, but saying this kid could be a great person, and great people create great music.

48H After 25 years in the industry, what more do you want out of your career?

HW I want to release music with Extra Nappy and be able to tour internationally and shine light on the great musicians we have here in the Bay Area. And shine light on the O.G.’s that should really have some attention, like Faye Carol, Chester Thompson, Ed Kelly, Eddie Marshall, Smiley Winters, Morris Atchison. And have people find those people in they community, so we don’t just have to praise John Coltrane ’cause he had a record contract. I would like to take that part of my music to the next level.

And just be a complete, utter, bad motherfucker on the horn. Just be like, bad. When you see me play my horn, I want to make sure dudes never let go of they woman ’cause they scared I’ma go home with they woman when I play the saxophone. That’s my real thing. So I can really be honest with my wife. So instead of in my head saying, “Shut up,” I can say it out loud. I could be like, “Shut up.” And not be scared.

You can find Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy every Wednesday, 10pm-close, at Madrone Art Bar in SF. Wiley will be appearing at SFJAZZ, Sat/22, 8pm-9:30pm. On July 2, Wiley will appear at the Fillmore Jazz Festival to release his new album with drummer Jerome Jennings. 

Synthesizing a legacy

A two-night festival celebrates and remembers Don Buchla at Gray Area, Sat/22 and Sun/23.

One of the last times that Naut Humon saw Don Buchla was at a festival they both attended.

Now Humon has helped plan a festival for Buchla himself.

Don Buchla, who died this past September, was one of the singular early figures in the birth of what we’ve long since come to call the music synthesizer. His Series 100 arrived in 1963, shortly before the debut of Robert Moog’s namesake creation. From NASA to advertising, experimental music to pop, Buchla’s influence as an inventor is widespread and deep-rooted. He would have celebrated his 80th birthday this week.

This weekend, April 22 and 23, dozens of musicians will play in Buchla’s honor at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts on Mission Street. There will be legendary peers, like Suzanne Ciani and Morton Subotnik, and representatives of subsequent generations, such as Alessandro Cortini, Jessica Rylan, and Keith Fulleron Whitman. Also on the bill is Buchla’s son, Ezra, who will have tape work performed; he participated in the Gray Area shows’ planning as well, as did a number of others, with support from the Gray Area staff.

Speaking at his desk in the Dogpatch office of the studio Obscura Digital, Humon described how the event, the Don Buchla Memorial Concerts, came together. There was a gathering in Berkeley of Buchla’s friends and family a couple weeks after his death. Humon himself couldn’t attend because due to responsibilities on another Gray Area event, last fall’s Recombinant Festival, and in his absence the idea arose to do a show. An email thread led to phone calls, which eventually led to this festival. What came to be is “a memorial marathon to Don, and his world, and his philosophy,” as Humon put it.

“He was a pioneer of electronic music, of intentional inventions,” said Humom, who first met Buchla in 1971 as a Cal Arts student. Humon dances around the word “synthesizer” during the conversation. “Don himself was a little ambivalent about the term,” he said, recounting Buchla’s many celebrated inventions and their colorful names, like the Music Easel, and such touch-enabled interfaces as the Touché and the Thunder.

“We’re inviting people not just from Don’s circle,” said Humon “but also those who were inspired by Don.” In addition to the live performances, there will be panel discussions, among the speakers such electronic-music visionaries as Roger Linn and Dave Smith. One of the panels will be moderated by Geeta Dayal, author of a book on Another Green World, the Brian Eno album.

Musical invention, both hardware and software, is an inevitable thread running through the scheduled events. Among the performers is Peter Blasser, creator of the unique Ciat-Lonbarde line of instruments, along with others who have made their own equipment, including Jessica Rylan and Laetitia Sonami. There will also be tape work presented by individuals who can’t make the show, including Sarah Davachi, Carl Stone, and Zeena Parkins — as well as work by Buchla himself, along with other Bay Area figures who died in recent years, notably Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Warner Jepson.

Sonami, best known for her sensor-laden Lady’s Glove, spoke from France via Skype in advance of traveling to San Francisco to participate in the Buchla event. Much as Humon first met Buchla as his student in the early 1970s at Cal Arts, Sonami first met Ezra, Buchla’s son, when he was her student at the same university.

She received a request from Humon, Sonami said, about her or composer Éliane Radigue, or both, participating in the events. “I had a piece that Éliane composed with and for me for a new instrument that I had built,” said Sonami. “It seemed to fit the spirit of the festival. Someone had told Éliane many years ago that Don felt her music was the closest to the spirit and expression of electronic music, in terms of bringing together all principals and all ideas.”

Sonami’s new instrument, the Spring Spyre, is the result of a long development process. “It uses neural networks,” she said, “to analyze the audio signal from three pickups that are on a wheel. All the synthesis is happening in real time.”

Somami says one thing that distinguished Buchla was his emphasis on the creative use of his tools: “How do we perform? How do we take full advantage of the sounds, and how can we control them? He was also thinking of how we use the body, so it’s not just the sound that’s opening a different language, but how we access those sounds is also a different language.”

Asked to connect her inventions to Buchla’s, Sonami was hesitant. “I couldn’t compare myself to Don at all,” Sonami said, “because he is so much more beyond anything I could have done.” She does recognize a kinship, though, in regard to a strong underlying curiosity: “What kind of new sounds can we make, what kind of new sonic landscape? It’s kind of like an adventure: Instead of replicating what we know, how can we go into an unknown sonic space?”

DON BUCHLA MEMORIAL CONCERTS
Sat/22 and Sun/23
Various times, $10-$33
Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, SF
Tickets and more info here

Balkan bonanza

From the cover of Inspector Gadje and Ismael Ludowski's new "Live at Kafana Balkan" album. Photo by Sefa Karatekin and Anastasia Kuba, with editing by Serina Koester.

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Kafana Balkan, a raucous quarterly dance party founded by the Serbian DJ and master promoter Željko Petković. And the celebration Saturday, March 4 at the Rickshaw Stop promises to be one the best yet.

DJ Željko’s fervor for Balkan music’s polyrhythmic, whirling and stomping sound has propelled Kafana Balkan to routinely draw sold-out crowds, so it’s no surprise that there’s a special treat in store: local Balkan brass band Inspector Gadje — fresh off a rapturous reception at UnderCover Presents — will be there to celebrate the release of its debut album in collaboration with the clarinet superstar Ismail Lumanovski. Lumanovski was one of the first Roma students to be awarded a scholarship to Juilliard and has gone on to found the New York Gypsy All-Stars and lead orchestras all over the world. 

All of this raises an obvious question: How did Balkan music become so cool? And how did Inspector Gadje—whose very name denotes their status as gadje, or non-Roma—come to collaborate with Lumanovski, one of Romani music’s greatest luminaries? Over two evenings, DJ Željko and Inspector Gadje’s co-founder Marco Peris and trumpeter Will Magid told 48 Hills a series of wild tales that made it all make sense. For the story of how to keep culture alive through partying, read on.

48 HILLS Željko, what was the Balkan scene like when you first arrived in the Bay Area, and what was it missing?

ŽELJKO PETKOVIĆ It was older generations, more of a circle dance scene. That kind of music is my art, but I didn’t think you could start a party with it.

I was always very lively myself, and I remembered the parties in the kafanas [taverns] back home, and how wild they can get: I was 12 years old. I’m in the bar with my father, and the singer is heating everyone up. Everybody is just dancing wild and smashing the glasses on the floor. Back in the day, it was customary: you drink a shot, and when you’re ecstatic and drunk, you smack the glass on the floor. The bartender would not say, “Hey, you have to stop.” No. He would just charge them later for the glass.

Kafana Balkan founder Željko Petković (second from left) during his youthful partying days in Serbia.
Kafana Balkan founder Željko Petković (second from left) during his youthful partying days in Serbia.

48H How did you create the kind of Balkan party you were missing?

ŽP I decided I need to spread the Balkan brass, the high-energy, powerful music with the pounding beats. So in 2001, I started passing out free compilations of Balkan music. I must have passed out several hundred — if not a thousand — CDs. I would go to my favorite coffee shops and bars and say, “Hey, can you play this?” And people would come up to me and say, “The barista just told me you gave him that CD. Where can I find this music?” And I would give them a free compilation because I would have always several in my pocket. That way, I created an interest in the music.

My friends Joe Airone and Slobodan Djurković and I started the first party, promoting to the Mission artists and musicians. The door opens that night, February 3, 2007, and so many people came in! We packed the place! And it was a young, energetic crowd. At some point, people were hanging from the rafters. People were climbing on top of each other’s shoulders. From there, it just grew bigger and bigger. The place sold out, and it stayed sold out.

48H When did Inspector Gadje come on the scene?

MARCO PERIS The founding members of Inspector Gadje all played with the Brass Liberation Orchestra (BLO), a politically aware band that plays a lot of benefits and marches. One of these benefits was for a non-profit called the Voice of Roma, and the president Sani Rifati and I hit it off. In 2009, he, his wife Carol Bloom, and the Voice of Roma team wrote a grant to train the BLO in Romani music.

For six months, we spent six hours a week with the Bulgarian-Roma master Rumen Shopov. The players involved in that project went on to be the founding members of Inspector Gadje. We’ve been more or less the house band for Kafana Balkan since 2013, and then Željko and I started co-producing this and other shows together in 2015. Inspector Gadje used to do strictly traditional Balkan brass. Now we’re changing and going in a new direction, especially since we met Ismail.

Željko and Marco, chilling with coffee.
Željko (left) and Marco hang posters all over SF to advertise each show.

48H How did your collaboration with Ismail Lumanovski begin?

MP He was playing at Yoshi’s with the New York Gypsy All-Stars, and Inspector Gadje did a workshop with him. Then he was free that evening, so I threw a party. Within three hours, I had 70-80 people at the house, just by saying, “Ismail Lumanovski’s around with a couple band members.” We had a great party, and he was also impressed by our level of playing. So I asked if he would like to perform together, and he said yes.

It was February 2015, the eight-year anniversary of Kafana Balkan, and I figured Željko was going to sit me down and say, “Look, man, we need something bigger for this one.” So before we got to that point, I proposed the collaboration with Ismail, and I didn’t even finish the sentence before Željko said yes.

48H What was it like to be at your first concert together at Kafana Balkan?

MP That night, something changed for both the band and Ismail. We were not expecting him to do what he did that night, and he was also not expecting us to support him the way we did. We had a full house until 1:30 am, and everyone was drenched in sweat and smiling. Ismail was used to playing classical music and Balkan jazz, which are pretty sober parties, and the wild energy that the crowd gave him just made him a beast. I think he discovered his wild side.

WILL MAGID I was at that show, but as an audience member. I had to go to the bathroom the entire time and didn’t want to miss a moment. The whole room was just in this symbiotic heaven of energy. And I was like, “I have to figure out a way to join this band.”

Roma clarinet luminary Ismail Lumanovski. Photo by Sefa Karatekin.
Roma clarinet luminary Ismail Lumanovski. Photo by Sefa Karatekin.

48H Can you explain Ismail’s importance internationally?

WM There’s no one that I’m aware of that has the same cultural identity that he has, as someone who grew up in Macedonia and the United States, with such virtuosity and such deep roots in Romani and Turkish music. And he’s young! So he grew up with the same music we grew up with: hip-hop, funk, EDM, house music. The songs he brings in will often have house backing tracks.

MP And he’s inspiring a younger generation in Macedonia to study classical music. He’s actually pointing different cultures in different directions.

The bandleader of [legendary Roma group] Fanfare Ciocârlia heard that we were playing with Ismail, and he just turned around and said, “He’s the best clarinet player in the world right now.” And walked away. And he’s a clarinet player! They don’t give those comments lightly. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and he’s somehow disarming the whole scene.

The ever-lively Will Magid.
The ever-lively Will Magid. Photo by Heather Hryciw

48H What impact has collaborating with Ismail had on Inspector Gadje?

WM When he’s rehearsing, it sounds just like he’s at the show. In some ways, he tries crazier stuff in rehearsal: triple-tonguing in registers that he’s never performed in before. But through it all, he’s smiling on his horn. You can see it, not just hear it — you can see the passion in the way he plays and the way he moves his eyes and his face and his shoulders, and the way he looks around at the band. He’s not just playing to the space in the room, he’s playing it to the humans on stage with him. Even if I’m not playing a note, he’ll be looking at me like, “What do you think about this? Have you heard me do this before?”

MP When he does that, he’s basically charging the players. All of a sudden the player lights up, and he’ll move on like, “Ok, you’re on. Let’s turn somebody else on.”

48H How did you decide to make an album together?

MP Ismail wanted to make a video of that first show at Kafana Balkan. So I called sound engineer Eric Moffat two days before the show. Eric wasn’t even terribly familiar with the music before, but when he listened back through the whole show at home, he called me and said, “You know, we should make an album.” I’d been at home thinking the same exact thing.

So we recorded four shows at Kafana Balkan, flying in Ismail from New York. It was two years’ worth of work, and about 10 hours of music. We took the best songs out of each show and compressed it down to one hour. The name of the album is Live at Kafana Balkan. It’s an homage to Kafana Balkan, saying, “We could not have done this without you—let’s do this together!”

48H What are your thoughts on how the Bay Area Balkan scene has grown during these past ten years?

ŽP Now San Francisco and New York are the cities with the biggest Balkan scenes.

MP Seattle’s got it, Chicago as well. Those are the top four in the country, with San Francisco and New York being toe-to-toe.

ŽP After all those years of work!

48H What’s next for Inspector Gadje and Kafana Balkan?

MP In the next year, we’ll be working with Frank London, a trumpet player who founded the Grammy-winning klezmer band The Klezmatics. Now that the reeds have got their fix with Ismail, let’s let the trumpet players get their fix with this amazing trumpet player, and then let’s bring Ismail and Frank together and see what happens.

KAFANA BALKAN 10TH ANNIVERSARY
w/ Ismail Lumanovski & Inspector Gadje CD Release
Saturday, March 4
9pm, $20
Rickshaw Stop, SF
Tickets and more info here. 

Ding-dong aesthetics

Resounding meaning in the ubiquitous. Photo by Marc Weidenbaum.

ALL EARS Bay Area experimental music composer and legend Pauline Oliveros, who passed away last Thursday, once described her famous Deep Listening practice as seeking to “inspire both trained and untrained performers to practice the art of listening and responding to environmental conditions.”

Extending Deep Listening (and another of Oliveros’ theories, Sonic Awareness) into a culturally informed, laser-attentive meditation on everyday technological encounters, local writer, teacher, and electronic music community organizer Marc Weidenbaum’s latest project looks and listens deeply into the social history, jury-rigged aesthetics, and political implications of SF’s doorbells — an instantly recognizable yet overlooked class of appliances we all find ourselves fumbling with.

Weidenbaum, whose incredible sonic diary disquiet.com was one of the first blogs on the Internet and whose recent 33 1/3 book on seminal Aphex Twin album Selected Ambient Works Vol. II met wide acclaim, is giving a talk Thu/1 at Oakland’s Futuredraft called, naturally, “For Whom the Doorbell Tolls.”

"Many attempts to jury rig the fix of a doorbell would qualify as art as much as craft." Photo by Marc Weidenbaum
“Many attempts to jury rig the fix of a doorbell would qualify as art as much as craft.” Photo by Marc Weidenbaum

Taking a special interest in “the look of sound,” Weidenbaum has been posting his photographs of local doorbells, among other curious objects, for several years on his disquiet Instagram account. In Thursday’s talk, he’ll “discuss the intercom’s development in Japan, the rise of the domestic surveillance apparatus, the consumer-product soundscape of everyday life — and, ultimately, what lessons the humble, ubiquitous doorbell provides in regard to the Internet of Things, the smart home, and the role of sound in user interfaces.” He also brings up questions that will ring a bell in all of us, like “How long until you ring again?”

I talked to Weidenbaum via email about how such a tiny buzzer can cause enormous cultural reverberations.

When is a doorbell not a doorbell? Photo by Marc Weidenbaum
When is a doorbell not a doorbell? Photo by Marc Weidenbaum

48H You’ve been photographing and posting doorbells from around SF for how long now? What are some of the curious things you’ve noticed? 

MARC WEIDENBAUM I looked back and found that my first doorbell shot on Instagram (/dsqt) was April 25, 2012. Previous to that I’d been focusing on images that looked like speakers but weren’t speakers, such as circular drains and air vents. The caption to that first doorbell photo is, presciently, “Warning: increasingly smitten with intercoms and doorbells.”

Disrepair is at the top of the list. I don’t need to go looking for the broken doorbells that largely populate my Instagram account. They’re everywhere. Doorbells are in all states of shoddy shape, from being outright broken, with the wires hanging out, to being repaired in a manner that looks like it was a quick fix, but then a decade or three passed. I’m amazed, as well, by the poor user experience of almost all multi-unit dwellings, from inconsistent ordering of buttons to clumsy menu-driven apparatuses. A close second to the widespread disrepair are situations where there’s a sign with the word “doorbell” and an arrow pointing to the doorbell. If a doorbell isn’t clearly a doorbell, then whose fault is it? The doorbell manufacturer, the developer, the general contractor, the landlord, humans in general? 

Why does a bell make sense in an elevator? Photo by Marc Weidenbaum.
Why does a bell make sense in an elevator? Photo by Marc Weidenbaum.

48 HILLS Describe your very first encounter with a doorbell that sparked such an interest.

MW It’s not a specific geolocated-temporal memory, but I can piece together the circumstances that led to it. It happened while I was wandering around my neighborhood, the Richmond District. I spent 20-odd years working at a desk — various desks, that is, at various large companies. Shortly before my kid was born I quit full-time employment, and then slowly built up a freelance operation that balanced well with being a parent. I was out and about a lot with the stroller, and then after daycare kicked in I was out and about a lot because I could be, because I was no longer tied to a desk. That has been great for various reasons, a key one being that my single greatest addiction may be walking.

Meanwhile, I’ve long had an interest in how we represent sound visually, and that is always in the back of my mind. I edited comics about music for over a decade — primarily in Pulse! magazine, long ago the house publication of Tower Records — and I teach a course at the Academy of Art about the role of sound in the media landscape. In class I have my students do an exercise where they take photographs of things that “signify” sound, which leads to a discussion about the distinction between signifying sound and having an association with sound — why, for example, a megaphone or speaker symbol makes sense on a computer keyboard and a bell on a phone or in an elevator.

At some point I came to focus on doorbells as unique musical gadgets, as everyday pushbutton objects. I didn’t intend to peer deeply into them. I just started taking pictures, and then thinking about the pictures, and then writing about the pictures, and then researching deeper and further.

"Things decay differently down by the ocean." Photo by Marc Weidenbaum
“Things decay differently down by the ocean.” Photo by Marc Weidenbaum

48H What are some highlights you’ve come across from the development and cultural history of doorbells?

MW There’s a pretty direct regal vibe connection, at least in Western culture, from the horns resounding in castle turrets to the retro-simulated grandfather-clock dong of many contemporary doorbells. That continuity of pageantry defines the home — no matter its size, from studio apartment to McMansion — as a castle. That isn’t merely a metaphor. It’s built into American law as the “castle doctrine,” which has come to the fore in recent years due to its connection to  “stand your ground” lawsuits.

Anyhow, among the major highlights in the history of doorbells are the move from door knockers to bells to electric doorbells, the introduction of intercoms and video, and the so-called Internet of Things, bringing us up to the present. I’d add text messaging to that list, as it just may do away with doorbells entirely. I’d fold in, on the cultural side, door-to-door salespeople, religious missionaries, political canvassers, and, more recently, the on-demand economy, which is a subset of or corollary to what is called the gig economy or, generously, the sharing economy.

Photo by Marc Weidenbaum
Photo by Marc Weidenbaum

48H In your Thu/1 talk, you’ll be connecting the doorbell to methods of surveillance and the ambient sound of consumer capitalism — can you talk a little about that?   

MW Sure thing. On the surveillance side, we’re well through the looking glass in terms of entering a new world where there is ubiquitous technology capable of listening to us and taking our pictures. You know how in many versions of the vampire legend it’s a rule that the vampire can’t enter your home unless invited by the inhabitant? We have welcomed surveillance into our homes, eagerly, sometimes in the name of convenience, often simply out of novelty, rarely with an awareness for the sheer pervasiveness of the technology — all those “always on” devices that let us ask questions, the proliferation of microphones, of voice-enabled technologies.

The consequences as to what that means for privacy is yet to unfold, yet to be taken stock of. However, the doorbell is a useful harbinger, a canary in the panopticon coal mine. The major recent advances in doorbells have been almost entirely about domestic surveillance, about having a camera, for example, that takes a photo or activates a video camera every time the doorbell is rung. What, I wonder, does it mean that the bell intended to welcome someone into your home automatically treats them as a suspect? One thing’s for certain: we’re currently more suspicious of our visitors than we are of our technology.

As for the consumer-appliance soundscape, and the doorbell’s role in it, there are a lot of ways to look at the situation. Proliferation provides a useful vantage. Give thought to how many beeps there are in a home today with all modern conveniences, versus 20 years ago: not just the doorbell and the alarm clock, but the cellphone, the dryer, the dishwasher, the alert from the fridge that you left the freezer door open, the voice-enabled AI bot on your dining room table, the whir of your DVR, the pinging of cellphone alerts, and so forth. That is the low-level ambient cacophony through which the doorbell might be heard.

The doorbell was, once upon a time, pretty much alone with the telephone as a way that an individual outside your home caused sound in your home, putting aside things like TV and radio, which inhabit a different category. Today our homes are beacons of communication. They’re both more secure and more porous. The ancient doorbell has to navigate this new normal. When it’s easier just to text someone from the car or from down the block as you approach the front door, I sometimes wonder if the doorbell as we’ve known it has much of a future.

The ornate, broken doorbell outside Weidenbaum's home. "The vestigial doorbell. The doorbell emeritus."
The ornate, broken doorbell outside Weidenbaum’s home. “The vestigial doorbell. The doorbell emeritus.”

48H What is your doorbell? 

MW I kind of have two doorbells. The building I live in was built in the early 1920s, out in the Richmond District, the same year as the Legion of Honor, though my home is a tad more humble. Next to the front door is a somewhat regal-looking doorbell, except it doesn’t work. The button is missing. By the time I moved into the place, in late 2008, there was a gate at the front of the house, across a postage-stamp-sized tile porch from the front door. I don’t know when the gate was installed, but there it is. They’re on so many buildings in the city, buildings that were initially not designed to have gates.

Anyhow, there’s a functioning doorbell on the gate itself, just a little white button in the black iron. It’s funny we call that thing the “doorbell,” when the real bell is, of course, inside the house, in my case above the entryway to the kitchen. The bell is loud. Even when I know someone is dropping by, the hair goes up on my arms when the thing is rung when they hit that button. Sometimes I jump out of my seat. I think there’s a reason it’s difficult to get a truly “pleasant” doorbell sound, which is that even in the best of circumstances, the bell ringing is an annoyance. 

“FOR WHOM THE DOORBELL TOLLS”
Thu/1, 6pm, free
Futuredraft, Oakland
More info here