All Ears

The raver soul of Yoshi Flower

ALL EARS Two tracks into Yoshi Flower’s debut mixtape American Raver we hear a voicemail from his dad. It’s a shortcut to pathos we’ve heard on a million albums, from Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city to recent albums by Aaron Carter and Mike Posner. It’s easy for the uninformed to roll their eyes—except Yoshi’s “dad” is 26-year-old comedian Brandon Wardell, who regales Yoshi with criticisms in a voice that sounds almost like someone’s happy-go-lucky pops.

“We recorded like 20 minutes of it,” Yoshi told me over the phone—though only a few short snatches made it onto the mixtape. Both performers were quite stoned, and judging by the singer’s tortoise-slow drawl and lyrical fixation on chemical consumption, it’s not an uncommon state to find him in. 

“[Wardell] was like, ‘I don’t want your mother to hear this, but luckily you’re not famous at all, and nobody hears your music unless it’s a Spotify curated playlist,'” he says. “He was going in on me. He’s like a happy cynic.” 

Those words could just as easily describe Yoshi Flower, who’ll be playing at the Rickshaw Stop Fri/22 as part of San Francisco’s long-running weekly Popscene indie dance party.

The Detroit artist presents himself in his music as sort of as half-hedonist, half-guru. “Sometimes I wanna listen to Lil Pump, sometimes I wanna listen to Deepak Chopra,” he tells me, and he comes off a little like both—the former most prominently in how his music is explicitly youth-oriented. “It’s not for people who have guns and mortgages,” he quips.

Born Josh Smith, Yoshi came of age in Detroit’s underground rave scene and saw legendary local DJs like Moodymann and Carl Craig as a teenager while gobbling all manner of drugs: nitrous, molly, acid. 

“None of us had money to go to a festival,” he says. “So by the time we were able to even go to one they were all mad expensive, so we’d just go to warehouses and it was very freeing. Nobody had to be a certain type of way. All you had to do was feel the bass.”

His raver bona fides form a strong part of his artistic identity (the track titles of American Raver spell out a pledge of allegiance to “the rave”). But his music is worlds away from Detroit dance music. He makes pop in an omnivorous, post-Internet sense; he sings, he raps, he strums an acoustic while filling the margins with hip-hop beats and post-Diplo chipmunk vocals. It’s hard to pin down but easy to imagine on pop radio.

He first came to prominence as one-half of goth-R&B duo Gosh Pith before his manager, on a whim, cold-emailed his SoundCloud link to a promoter at Bonnaroo in 2017. They had a spot they needed to fill, and rumors about the identity of the mysterious Yoshi Flower began to spread like wildfire—not least once he and his friends put up signs around the festival grounds reading “TAKE ACID AND GO SEE YOSHI FLOWER.” 

This was the first-ever Flower gig, and he now plays the kinds of festivals he couldn’t afford growing up. But with fame comes public scrutiny, and the Wardell clips on his album could be seen as a reflection of the barrier any celebrity or proto-celebrity crosses where the whole world holds a mirror up to you. 

“A lot more people are asking me to explain myself, and I’ve realized I’m just so fucking extreme in my ways,” he says. “Either Bohemian dwelling or complete utter materialism… I meditated today with diamonds on.”  

YOSHI FLOWER, KENNYHOOPLA, PARENTZ, DJ AARON AXELSEN
Fri/22, 9pm, $13-$15
Rickshaw Stop, SF
More info here 

Exploring the ‘Convergence’ of Yiddish and African American spiritual music

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

ALL EARS There are a couple of reactions that stand out to Black Yiddishist opera singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell when he performs a blend of African American spirituals and Yiddish music with the klezmer trio Veretski Pass. 

“One is what I call the East Coast intellectual response. It’s ‘Oh, very nice, very beautiful, very Obama. It’s a nice project, but it’s not really a thing,'” Russell said. “For lack of a better word, that’s bullshit. Jews and African Americans making music together is the bedrock of American music, and there are numerous examples of this convergence.” 

 Russell calls the other reaction, “the Bay Area liberal response.” 

“They’re like, ‘Of course! Israel is so close to Africa, and Blacks and Jews have suffered, and I had a Black girlfriend when I went to Cal,'” he said. “That sort of discounts all the work I’ve done with Veretski Pass. Like why would we have worked so had to make this if it existed already?”

Russell, who grew up in Vallejo, will be at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley Thu/21 for the Veretski Pass Convergence Revisited album release show, in honor of Black History Month. The band premiered previous album Convergence there in 2014. And then on Sat/23 at Starline Social Club, Russell will perform with pianist-accordionist Dmitri Gaskin as Tsvey Brider (“Two Brothers”). 

As a teenager, Russell won a youth choral contest in Vallejo with a prize of $500. That seemed like a fortune at the time, and he felt he was on his way, concentrating on opera. But after years of performing, Russell started to feel constrained. 

“I decided opera wasn’t for me because it wasn’t giving me the kind of interpretive possibilities I wanted,” he said. “The obligation of an opera singer is to express the composer’s ideas, not the singer’s ideas. When I encountered Yiddish music, it allowed me to do more interpreting.” 

He encountered it, maybe surprisingly, at the movies. Russell and his husband, a rabbi, went to see the Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man. At some point in the movie, a character puts on a record, and Russell heard a bass voice, like his own, singing Yiddish. He assumed it was Paul Robeson, who sang in many different languages including Yiddish. 

It wasn’t Robeson: It was Sidor Belarsky, a Jewish singer born in the Ukraine. “There he was on this record in this movie, and his voice had this quality that was very dark and very rich and very beautiful,” Russell said. “I did some research, and luckily for me, he published around 70 songs in these bass keys.”

Russell went to synagogue with his husband and started singing the music there. 

“There were people who were surprised at my ability to sing the melodies Jews pray too,” he said. “I suddenly remembered that as an opera singer there were two things I was able to do well—sing a language idiomatically and learn melodies really quickly.”

After studying on his own for a while, Russell went to Tel Aviv University for its Yiddish language program. Israel isn’t the usual destination for people studying the language. “If you ever want to hear a Tel Aviv cab driver laugh like you’ve never heard, tell him you came to Tel Aviv to study Yiddish,” he said. 

Russell performs with Dmitri Gaskin as Tsvey Brider.

Russell decided to convert to Judaism. It was a decision he came to on his own, without pressure from his husband, he says. “I had a strong connection to Torah,” he said. “I grew up in a very religious family that was very strong in biblical literacy, so I was very well versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.”

Spirituals and Jewish music have a lot in common, Russell says, with lullabies, anthems, and songs with a social justice slant. He decided to take elements of each types of music and combine them. At first he was only performing these as encores. Then he met the trio Veretski Pass at a music festival in Toronto, and singing with instruments like a fiddle and an accordion made all the difference, he said.

“They were the ones who fully realized this idea,” he said. “They made it a musical reality.” 

CONVERGENCE REVISITED
Thu/21, 7pm
Jewish Community Center, Berkeley
More info here 

TSVEY BRIDER
February 23 8 PM
Starline Social Club, Oakland
More info here
 

Solate finds lush, soulful music in intimate connections

Marissa Bergmann, Kevin Goldberg, Joel Mandella, and Maya Vilaplana of Solate

ALL EARS I’ve lived in California for 11 years, and feel pretty well-adapted, but the Golden State still springs the occasional culture shock on us frigid East-Coasters. So it was the afternoon I saw Solate perform for the first time. My family was in town, and I took them to what I thought was a regular house show, but turned out to be at First Voice, the home studio of venerable performance duo Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu. 

Inside, we were asked to remove our shoes and offered beaded slippers. Solate performed—a set of lush, soulful songs with the emotional imprint of a tight embrace—and then settled down cross-legged on the floor for story time. We learned how singers Maya Vilaplana and Marissa Bergmann, guitarist Joel Mandella, and bassist Kevin Goldberg each met the others. Then they asked all the audience members to tell our stories of connection to each other. Which is to say, don’t expect to maintain a critical distance at a Solate show. They’re going to steal your heart, and you might as well let them. 

The quartet’s rich sound and disarming performances propelled them to play last year’s Yerba Buena Gardens Festival before even recording their first album. That debut album, Like A River Does, finally arrives this month, with a release show on February 17 at Oakland.Secret. Vilaplana and Bergmann will also be performing in I, Too, Sing America, a new musical reprising its sold-out premiere at the Brava Theater from February 14-24.

The band came together to recreate that sunny afternoon at First Voice and explain how their love for each other influences their sound—and sparked the creation of their first song.   

48 HILLS The story of how the band came together is basically a series of meet-cutes. Maya, can you start with the story of how you and Joel met in college?

MAYA VILAPLANA He was one of the first people that I met at Macalester. There was a freshman class trip to the state fair, and Joel and I got lost from the group. We ended up stopping at all these different musical sites: one of them was a group of seniors who were waltzing, and then another one was a group of kids who were dancing to Michael Jackson. It was just the goofiest few hours.

48 HILLS How did the two of you start writing music together?

MAYA I knew early on that he played guitar, but he didn’t write original stuff yet. Eventually, we ended up writing a really weird, corny, and strange cover of this Melody Gardot song “Good Night,” addressed to this kid in our freshman class named Andrew. Fast forward to our senior year, we had a lot of fun performing at farmer’s markets, playing covers of people like Norah Jones and Adele, and that same Melody Gardot song. 

Then one night, we were up late at our house, and he started coming up with this cool riff. I remember he would face towards the wall, and he’d play it over and over and over again, until I had a chance to sing a melody over it. I would kind of whisper something—because I was really shy about what I was writing—and he would pull it out of me: be like, “Yeah, that’s great! Keep going! Keep singing! Louder!” Then I would kind of let it out, and with his help, I would really sing it. 

So we had our first original song, and we were so proud. We played it for everyone that would listen. Every song that we that we wrote together felt like this feat: me coming up with lyrics that meant something to me, and him coming up with these parts that I have never heard in any other music. It just felt like sharing my soul with someone. I think we both decided when we graduated that we wanted to keep playing, so we followed each other back to where he’s from in California.

48 HILLS When did Marissa come into the story?

MAYA I met Marissa when we were at YBCA. 

MARISSA BERGMANN We were working at an after-school program with high school youth. I found out that Maya sang, and I just knew—because she was so humble about it and wouldn’t sing in front of me—that she must be really, really good. Then, one time, we were in this stairway, and I was like, “Maya! I really want to hear you sing.” She’s like, “Well, maybe I’ll sing, if you sing with me.” And so then we sang—I think it was a Corinne Bailey Rae song, and when she started singing, I remember just melting. 

After that, we just sang together at work before the students came. And she was like, “Hey, can you learn this piece?” I think she taught me “Cedar Wood” first, and then we sang it together and she was like, “Oh, this is perfect! Do you want to sing this at a birthday party that we’re doing soon?” I remember literally thinking all my dreams had come true. 

MAYA And then the students would make us sing for them.

MARISSA They were like our cute little fan club.

48 HILLS Kevin, how did you find out about the band? 

KEVIN GOLDBERG I was playing a set at Bissap Baobab lounge in Oakland [where Maya and Joel were also on the bill]. Once Maya and Joel started playing, I just lost it. I was sort of in a trance. We connected after the show, and I was like, “Hey, I hear all these bass lines over what you’re playing. I’d love to do a collaboration sometime.” I loved the harmonies that Joel was putting together, and the timbre of Maya’s voice is really unique.

MAYA I really love how Kevin hears music. Sometimes there will be songs where I haven’t been able to find a musician to play what I’m trying to hear from my layman musician vocabulary. And then Kevin’s playing something, and I’m like, “Oh, that sounds a lot like something I was trying to make up in my head . . . for years.” 

JOEL MANDELLA I don’t know many people like Kevin, who is just able to ride the groove and get into your ear like he’s supporting the entire sound, yet be soloing and riffing at the same time. Without exaggeration, from the moment we first got together and picked up our instruments to try on playing together, it fit like a glove. 

For Marissa and Maya, it’s the same thing. Their voices kind of meld together in a manner that makes me and Kevin stare at each other with delirious expressions while listening to their harmony. Kevin and Marissa have breathed new life into the music of Solate because they are every bit as part of the creative process now as Maya and I. 

Photo courtesy of Solate.

48 HILLS The first time I saw you play was at First Voice, and what was really striking about that concert—besides your obvious love for each other—was that you all had so many family members there!

MAYA Yeah, that was the audience, plus you and your family. We pretty much gave you a standing ovation just for being there.

48 HILLS I was thinking it was a house concert, so I was even worried that my parents were going to be the only older people there.

MAYA Oh, no, no, no, no. My grandparents definitely take the cake on that one at every show. My grandpa will be the only 90-year-old at the bar at 10 p.m. He is the reason why we get invited back to places just ’cause he always leaves really generous tips at the bar. Maybe I shouldn’t be revealing these tricks of the trade. 

48 HILLS It seems unique that all your families have such an active role in supporting your music. Do you think that changes the sound?

KEVIN It really strengthens the feeling of community within this band, and I think that changes the music significantly. Having the support of all of our families is like a catapult.

MARISSA [After the First Voice concert] I think Maya’s uncle spoke about how our journeys were going to just teach us a lot and bring us new experiences and wisdom and knowledge. Something about his little speech gave me the sensation: this is not the end, if you don’t want it to be the end. 

48 HILLS Yes, this is an interesting moment for Solate. You’re releasing your first album, but Marissa just moved to New York, and Maya is living in Cuba. Do you have a sense of what is going to happen next?

MAYA I think that we all share a desire to keep sharing the music and keep collaborating. A lot of what we’ve done has built off of itself. Without really having a plan, we’ll do one gig, and meet someone, and then get an opportunity to play again. So after we share our album, my hope is that other opportunities will come to continue sharing it. Maybe a tour, or some shows in New York. And then, along the way, we can keep creating.

48 HILLS Do the songs on this album date back to when Maya and Joel were in college?

KEVIN As far as the original structure of the songs goes, it does date back to that same period of time when Maya and Joel were playing out in the Midwest. We’ve been sort of building layers on layers on layers with a lot of different harmonies and lines. 

JOEL My favorite part is that looking back, none of the songs seem dated, amateurish, or unsophisticated—even years later, as we’ve progressed as musicians and friends. If I listen to our old songs, I hear how many elements we’ve added since old recordings and how we’ve evolved the parts over time, but I always feel proud of underlying base: the musical harmony, the lyrics, and the melody of the songs. Our music really feels like an extension of who we are and what we want to write. We do some weird stuff with harmony and chord progressions, yet still love that pop sensibility, so I like to think our music reaches people through this combination of familiarity yet unpredictability.

48 HILLS I do think the love and human connection that we’ve talked about come across in your music. There’s a kind of California glow about it. It doesn’t shy away from hard topics, but it presents a way of finding light and being generous in a world that is often not beautiful.

MARISSA That is something that struck me originally when I would listen to Maya’s lyrics: for example, in “Norway,” when she’s talking about the experience of walking down street as a woman, how she can paint it with this quiet strength. Like holding onto the things that are good, and having that be the thing that shines through.

Marissa and Maya on stage during the initial run of ‘I, Too, Sing America.’ Photo by Lorenz Angelo

48 HILLS You and Maya are also in a musical called I, Too, Sing America around the same time as the album release. What is the musical about?

MARISSA It’s named after a Langston Hughes poem, and it’s basically a compilation of poetry by artists of color, interpreted through song and dance, and performed by mostly artists of color as well. It’s a story of hope and resilience and strength for the future, coming out of places that are not so joyful, or out of pain and struggle and hardship. Some of the poets that are featured are Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Frances Chung, and then we even did a Beyoncé song.

48 HILLS I know it’s being performed by the SF Bay Area Theatre Company (BATCO). Is the composer local as well?

MARISSA The concept and music is by Othello Jefferson, and he is Bay-Area-based. He taught music to most of the people that founded BATCO. And then, at some point, he had helped them so much that they were like, “What’s your big dream musical or music project? Let’s see if we can make it happen.” And so, this was his dream. 

SOLATE
Like A River Does album release
Sun/17, 8pm, $5-10 suggested donation
Oakland.Secret
More info here.

I, TOO, SING AMERICA
Thurs/14 – Sun/24, $15-$45
Brava Theater, SF
Tickets and more info here.

DJ Spooky spins the Web in YBCA’s ‘Quantopia’

DJ Spooky

ALL EARS For many, the Internet has come to seem ominous in recent years: It now represents, among other things, gentrification, invasion, surveillance, weird SpongeBob memes that make you feel ancient…. Certainly a far cry from those innocent days when you were stoked to find an entire affinity community obsessed with the same 1960s Japanese pop singer. But hey, you can order a lot of stuff now—and it might even arrive! </crankyoldman>  

So one of the delightful things about upcoming world premiere multimedia performance “Quantopia: The Evolution of the Internet” (YBCA, January 25, 7:30pm) is its potential to restore some wonder and artfulness in this pervasive technology, through music, visuals, collaboration, and a bit of fascinating history. DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, has been at the forefront of thoughtful electronic music since 1996, when his releases, drenched in philosophical overtones and bristling with provocative ideas, became must-haves for any intellectual listener. If anyone can examine the impact of the Internet on our lives in a dynamic musical setting, it’s the DJ/producer nicknamed “That Subliminal Kid.”

“Quantopia,” a collaboration between Spooky and data artist Greg Niemeyer of Berkeley’s Digital Media Labs,  is certainly ambitious, promising “a multi-sensory journey illuminating ever-present issues of inclusion and exclusion, echo chambers and small-world phenomena”—and includes musicians from Classical Revolution and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, “enveloped by data visualization and interactive video design.” In it, Spooky breaks down foundational Internet algorithms into components for musicians to play, and references such texts as the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The hour-long, three-movement piece is commissioned by the Internet Archive—itself a ray of hope in our eternal-present, memory-hole times—via the Hewlett 50 Arts Commission, and takes as its starting point the 50th anniversary of the first sound transmission on the Internet, when “two young programmers working together by phone attempted to ‘LOGIN’ from the UCLA computer lab to a Stanford Research Institute computer. The system crashed, but with those two momentous keystrokes, ‘L-O,’ the world would never be the same.”

World premiere | QUANTOPIA | Jan 25 San Francisco

Tickets available NOW for QUANTOPIA: THE EVOLUTION OF THE INTERNETA Multimedia Hip Hop Concert Experience About the History and Exponential Growth of the Internet, Commissioned by Internet Archive QUANTOPIA World PremiereJanuary 25, 2019 at 7:30pmYerba Buena Center for the ArtsTICKETS: www.quantopia.infoComposed and performed by Paul D. Miller aka DJ SpookyVisual design by Greg Otto Niemeyer Additional visual design by MEDIUM Labs and Roger Antonsen Featuring Classical Revolution and San Francisco Girls Chorus, conducted by Valerie Sainte Agathe –QUANTOPIA, defined as the utopia of quantification —the dream that we can count, measure, and weigh everything and reach a perfect understanding of the world despite its paradoxes— brings new, fresh perspectives on the 50-year evolution of information technology. Philosopher Marshall McLuhan said that the new media “works us over completely. It is so pervasive in its personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that it leaves no part of us untouched, unaffected, un-altered.” Teaming up with The Internet Archive and data artist Greg Niemeyer, composer and multimedia artist Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky created QUANTOPIA, an hour-long multi-sensory journey illuminating ever-present issues of inclusion and exclusion, echo chambers and small-world phenomena. A celebration of the history of the Internet, QUANTOPIA is a tribute to the depth and high stakes of free speech and creative expression involved in our daily use of media.The Internet Archive commissioned work by DJ Spooky is among the first 10 recipients of the Hewlett 50 Arts Commission funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, an $8 million commissioning initiative that is the largest of its kind in the United States. Presented in association with YBCA, and produced by Sozo Artists with additional support from Sozo Impact.

Posted by DJ Spooky on Wednesday, December 19, 2018

In anticipation of Quantopia’s dawn, I spoke with Spooky via email about how the piece was composed, what influences he drew from, American amnesia about technology, and how on earth he would compress the evolution of the Internet into an hour. 

48 HILLS The Evolution of the Internet is, obviously, a huge subject to take on. How did you first approach the topic in terms of compressing Internet history into an evening, and what was your general process working with Greg?  

DJ SPOOKY I’ve been thinking about “what is an instrument?” for a while. How people think of tuning systems is pretty wild—but what if we expanded the definition of an instrument? When you boil it all down, it’s just patterns. So is the Internet. So you take it from there and think about patterns in everything.

America has always had a weird thing about amnesia: If you asked your average person about how long they think the Internet has been around, you’d probably get some wildly different responses. I wanted to use the idea of the “archive” as a record collection (after all, that’s all a record collection is), but so is Internet Archive—it’s a record collection of every website ever made. A great way to start the project. 

Greg is an artist and so am I, so I look at the whole scenario as a conversation between creatives and we batted ideas back and forth while independently generating materials. It’s a conversation of different styles and approaches to how to visualize the massive impact of the Internet on all of us.

48H I love that Quantopia celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first sound transmission on the Internet. You’re one of our most astute readers and researchers into the cultural impacts of electronic sound. What were you thinking of particularly—influences, writers, theory, other sound artists—when you made this piece? 

SPOOKY I’ve written books for MIT Press for a while and have always thought of DJing as a form of information, not just music. I’m a huge fan of people like Nicholas Carr whose book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains influenced a lot of my thinking on this project, and James Gleick’s The Information. Or science fiction writers like Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson etc etc there are so many influences. Like the Internet itself, you can’t really appreciate how vast that archive of influences is until you actually try to quantify it. 

48 HILLS I’m struck by the theme of the first movement, “Information is a human right.” Can you elaborate on that theme in the context of the piece—and the wider context of where we’re at in the evolution of a medium that seems more and more to be controlled by a few people with immense wealth and power?   

DJ SPOOKY It’s been 50 years since the first two hubs of the Internet were made between Stanford and UCLA. During that time, we’ve had so many evolutionary developments in digital media and culture. We’ve made more data in the last couple of years than all of human history—hundreds of thousands of years in the blink of an eye. How would you turn that into a composition?

The other day I read an article saying over 40% of all activity on the Internet is “fake” and most of the traffic is bots, automated messages and non-human traffic. That affects how you think of all patterns coming out of that abstract machinery? Some of my favorite things right now are stuff like Black Mirror’s new Bandersnatch episode where you can remix the film or stuff like what’s been going on with “mixed reality” projects like Team Lab or the artist Ryoji Ikeda’s Installations. Love it!

48H It seems at this point we’re grappling with the more nefarious side of the Age of Information—over-information, misinformation, social media manipulation, privacy issues…. 

DJ SPOOKY It’s a dark time. I’m just trying to shine some light on the beauty of this wild and crazy thing we call the Internet.

QUANTOPIA: THE EVOLUTION OF THE INTERNET
January 25, 7:30pm, $29.50
YBCA Theater, SF.
Tickets and more info here.  

Somi sings of Harlem immigrants (and gentrification’s effects) on ‘Petite Afrique’

Somi. Photo by Glynis Carpenter

ALL EARS The sound of Harlem during its jazz heyday is so indelible that it jumps to mind instantly, almost a century later. For me, it’s Ellington playing rent parties in the early 1920s, with street noise filtering in through the window. But what is the sound of Harlem as gentrification works to erase its history?

Harlem-based jazz vocalist Somi set out to make that music when she wrote her latest album, Petite Afrique—which went on to win the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album, over major players like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Cécile McLorin Salvant. On Sun/13, Somi makes a rare appearance in Oakland to bring this masterpiece to The New Parish. 

The album is as much an intellectual endeavor as a musical one. Somi began the songwriting process by interviewing members of Harlem’s West African immigrant community, who are often absent from portraits of the neighborhood. Those perspectives provide a potent entry point for questions of displacement and belonging, and Somi is uniquely qualified to explore them. She’s a first-generation immigrant herself, and she brings an education in anthropology to her songwriting.  

But before Somi could set her cultural critiques to music, she had to decide to become a musician. The journey took her to East and West Africa, before landing her back in Harlem with a renewed sense of what stories to tell, and how to tell them. 

48 HILLS You grew up playing cello (and chasing other creative pursuits), without the expectation that you would make a career out of it. How did you transition from classical music to improvisation and songwriting? 

SOMI Yes, I loved playing the cello, and I always like to think of it as one of my first voice teachers. I never aspired to be a professional classical musician, but I did daydream about becoming a professional singer. In retrospect, I think it is hard for a first-generation American child to consider the path of an artist, knowing how much your family sacrificed for you to be in this country. (My family is originally from Rwanda and Uganda.) My transition from classical music to improvisation and songwriting probably began with writing poetry and experimenting with the vocal sounds I could make in response to or in imitation of my cello.  

48 HILLS Was it scary to become the person at the center of the music?

SOMI I think finding the courage to stand in the center of anything you love is always a process. I definitely did not show up confident that I could call myself a singer—let alone make a career out of it. All I know is that songmaking feels good. That alone is what gives me the courage to keep showing up for my voice and this journey.  

48 HILLS What happened during that year between college and grad school that made you start to think that a career as a singer was possible for you?

SOMI I moved to Kenya and Tanzania for a year. It was the first time in my life that I was experiencing my homeland as something other than a tourist. I had been studying cultural anthropology with the intention of becoming an MD and medical anthropologist. That year abroad gave me unexpected answers about who I was both as an American in Africa and an African in America. It might sound cliché, but I finally felt like I knew where I was from and, therefore, where I wanted to go . . . towards the music.  

48 HILLS How did you come to be mentored by Hugh Masekela? How did working with him shape you as an artist?  

SOMI I had the good fortune of meeting Hugh Masekela after a performance of his in New York. I gave him a demo, and his office contacted me six months later. Over time, he became my closest mentor, and I miss him dearly. He was always challenging me to step outside of my comfort zone for deeper artistic growth, and he taught to me to trust in the implicit global citizenship of a musician’s life.  

Photo by Robert Adam Meyer

48 HILLS What made you want to remove yourself from the music industry after your second album to go incubate in Lagos? 

SOMI I lost my father in 2009 when my second album came out. There is a particular type of sobriety that casts itself on life when you go through that type of personal grief. When a former graduate advisor of mine asked me to do seven-week international teaching artist residency at a provincial Nigerian university, I jumped at the opportunity to reset my broken heart. Little did I know that that residency would turn into a deeply inspired 18-month sabbatical in one of Africa’s greatest cities. My time there was a great example of Hugh Masekela’s lesson on global citizenship.

48 HILLS Did that experience change the way you approached the industry or your music-making? 

SOMI The experience shifted my creative process to become more explicitly anthropological with the research that ultimately informs the stories I’m trying to tell. I also think that experience reminded me to trust that the African continent and its nascent cultural economy have room for transnational voices like my own, which was a welcomed salve to the often limited notions of African narratives and images in traditional Western music industry models. 

48 HILLS What crystallized during your sabbatical or while you were writing The Lagos Music Salon, the album that came out of it?

SOMI I am ever-committed to voicing the nuance of African identities, and only a fraction of our stories have been told.

48 HILLS Did your time abroad help you bring a more anthropological lens to Harlem when you returned to New York? 

SOMI Absolutely.

48 HILLS What did you want Petite Afrique to communicate about this moment in Harlem? 

SOMI Petite Afrique was simply meant to be a compositional meditation on the dignity of Harlem’s longstanding African immigrant community in the face of rapid gentrification. In an age of rampant xenophobia and Islamophobia, I am thankful that this work allowed me and a diverse array of audiences to have honest conversations about the times we live in and our shared humanity.

48 HILLS The album begins with “Alien,” a reinvention of the Sting song “Englishman in New York.” The original song has a hard edge: Sting seems to be defining himself in opposition to New York. What about “Englishman in New York” pulled at you and made you want to riff on it? 

SOMI When I was a child, I thought it was so strange that legal residents of this country, including members of my family, had to carry cards around that called them “legal aliens.” That song was a huge hit back in the ‘80s and I remember thinking Sting must think it’s strange, too. 

As I became older, I realized that, as much as I loved the song, it was told from a very Western point of view. The original lyric is almost smug or, as you said, “in opposition to New York.” That is a very different experience than that of most immigrants of color in this country. Our journey is mostly aspirational in that we usually arrive wanting to be a part of American life, not in opposition to it. Most of us do not have the privilege of knowing that the opportunities are the same back home should we decide to leave. So I wanted to write a version of the song that not only demonstrated the stark experiential differences within the immigrant communities while still pushing back at the fact that, to this day, we still call human beings born in another country “alien.”

48 HILLS Your songs “Black Enough” and “The Gentry” are both searing social commentary wrapped in such delightful music. Does approaching these conversations through music help get past people’s defenses or take the conversation to places it might not otherwise go? 

SOMI Absolutely. It was the conversations that audience members wanted to have after each concert of this music that made me decide to produce a national performance and dialogue series through American cities with the largest African immigrant communities. The series tried to create room to unpack the narratives inside this work with more time and intention. In fact, the last time I performed in Oakland was at Impact Hub for an installation of that series.  

48 HILLS You’re also writing a modern jazz play on the life of Miriam Makeba. What about her story makes you want to tell it? 

SOMI My response is: What isn’t it about her story that it is not more widely told?

SOMI
January 13, 8pm, $25-30
The New Parish, Oakland
Tickets and more info here.

Review: A very full evening with Erykah Badu at the Warfield

ALL EARS Things were not looking good at the Warfield on Friday as we waited for Erykah Badu. Though the billing advertised “doors at 7, show at 8,” there was no word on an opener, and we arrived to find a DJ holding the crowd over. People had been there for hours and were grumbling loudly, some evacuating their seats perhaps for good. Eventually came the sinking feeling that the singer might not show up. 

Then someone came onstage to absent-mindedly cue up a few more songs. The band appeared and went into a lite funk groove as the keyboardist worked the crowd. The instrumentalists took showy solos; someone had to dazzle the audience. A lot of people went apeshit, but I could see others who weren’t buying it. The band was clearly trying to kill time while harried venue goons searched frantically for the singer. 

At around 10pm, Badu drifted out from the corner of the stage, face hidden behind Klingon-length hair and an oversized gold hat, each footstep illustrated by the plod of the drummer’s tom, as if she were shaking the earth with the weight of her footfall like Godzilla. It was a good trick, but she seemed to be testing us, as if asking if another minute was gonna kill us.

Photo by Dan Karkoska

It was a relief to sink into her voice. Still, a whiff of discontent lingered around the room. She spent most of the first part of her set on arty numbers like “Out My Mind, Just In Time,” which didn’t do much to unclench the teeth of people who’d come for “Tyrone.” She spent minutes between songs fucking around on a drum pad, and when she flipped the crowd off during “Me” and declared that you had to see her live to get what she’s about (she hasn’t made an album since 2010), it seemed as if the audience was totally outside her sphere of concern. About half an hour in, she announced she didn’t have much more time, so she “wasn’t going to waste it.” 

That turned out to be only about a quarter of the way through the set. 

Photo by Hokulani Beale

Instead of dipping out early, she hung her hat up—literally, letting her full length of hair fly—and stayed. And the show kept building and building and building. The songs got fuller, faster, and funkier. She stopped trying to look untouchable and bounced around the stage with abandon. Even her stage banter got funnier; she ordered food for no one in particular at one point (“extra large drink, extra large fries, extra large everything!”) and at another improvised a list of about a dozen increasingly outrageous aliases for herself. The show peaked when Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) wandered out from the wings and started spinning in circles as Erykah egged him on: “Come on, Yasiin!”

She repeatedly expressed a desire to “go back to Baduizm,” her first album. Compared to her newer music the songs from that album are tighter and hookier, snappy rather than slow, delivered in a patter that’s practically rap. But these were songs by a different Badu. It was hard to reconcile the slow-talking, slow-moving woman onstage with those songs, which crammed in so many witticisms and observations which now seem outside the cosmic bubble in which she floats. 

She didn’t play much from her New Amerykah records, which was disappointing. I prefer those albums to her older work, and she seemed more at home performing from them. “Tyrone,” “Window Seat,” and the unbelievably funky New Amerykah Pt. II cut “Love” were all teased but never delivered on. But against all odds, she delivered a surplus of music rather than a drought—almost two hours in total, wrapping up around midnight. When her band ended with the same theme they’d opened with to hold the crowd over, it felt like their way of saying “gotcha!” 

“Buildings demolished on your cellphone”: Ratskin Records’ experimental resilience

Ratskin Records artist Tyler Holmes

ALL EARS Michael Daddona never thought he’d own a dog. 

“What’s a dog even gonna do at a noise show?” he asks. “Or sit around while I’m tinkering with electronics? They’re gonna hate it.” 

But when a stray dog wandered into his house, flopped down on the couch and made itself at home, what could he do? “I guess I have a dog,” he figured. Blade is now sort of the unofficial dog of Ratskin Records, the experimental label Daddona co-founded in 2003.

Sudden, no-turning-back decisions seem to be a constant in Daddona’s life. A week before the dog showed up, Ratskin co-founder, Jsun McCarty, died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that took 36 lives in Oakland in 2016. Daddona knew and had worked with many of the deceased, and he almost shut the label down: “I think I just felt so overwhelmed and confused I didn’t feel physically I could even really think about that kind of stuff,” he says. 

But he soldiered on—“and that was kinda when I decided I was gonna do [Ratskin] for the rest of my life,” he says. “I don’t really believe in destiny, but I’m good enough at it, and it brings me enough passion that I think it’s worthwhile.”

Ratskin released mostly noise music early on but quickly expanded to acommodate artists across the the experimental spectrum, many of whom are women or people of color. The label’s become known for its gargantuan compilations: 2008’s Triskaidekaphobia—a 200-song album of 13-second songs by assorted artists—and the 10-disc, 183-song Ghost Ship benefit Rogue Pulse/Gravity Collapse. This weekend, Fri/7-Sun/9, Ratskin is curating Stasis: A Festival of Sound, Performance, Video, and Art at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, featuring dozens of participants including Auscultation, Las Sucias, Piano Rain, and E. Hernandez. 

Daddona lives in Oakland but maintains a day job at a homebrew supply shop in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Amid the frenzied barking of Blade and several other shop dogs, we met up with Daddona to discuss the now nearly 15-year-old label and the practicality of running a small experimental label in the Bay Area, hardly the friendliest place for DIY artists.

48HILLS: How’d you get your start in music?

MICHAEL DADONNA I grew up in the hardcore/metalcore scene in Connecticut. Most of the shows were at this place called the Hanover House [in Meriden, CT], which was this old Hell’s Angels bar. On one side was the Hell’s Angels bar where the bathroom was, and on the other side was the all-ages club. If you wanted to go to the bathroom most people would pee outside because no one wanted to go into the Hell’s Angels part.

I was getting in a lot of trouble, all my friends were getting into hard drugs, so I said OK, San Francisco, this is pretty much the complete opposite side of the country. The first house I lived in turned out to be a Russian Mafia trap house. I was just trying to go to school and I’d come home and there were 900 Ecstasy pills on the table, so I moved out and about five days after I moved out the feds raided the place. Needless to say, I never got my security deposit back.

48H What attracts you to experimental music?

MD For me it’s an appreciation of the sounds themselves. I remember even when I was a young kid hearing a sound and hearing music in it, even if it turns out to be a radiator. And I appreciate the accessibility of it. If you want to play drums in a death metal band you have to have a certain skillset. With experimental music it’s about the idea. You can be technically proficient playing experimental music, but it’s not a necessity. You can just record the sound of a building being demolished on your cellphone, that could be an album.

48H Speaking of accessibility, many of the artists on the Ratskin roster are queer/non-men/people of color. What challenges do artists of marginalized identities face in experimental music?

MD Ultimately it’s about who’s in power to write about the music, put out records, put on shows. A lot of the representation was always white men, but who’s playing the music wasn’t always necessarily white men. There would be women and people of color performing, but they wouldn’t have the same accolades, they wouldn’t have labels reaching out to put out their records. A lot of experimental music comes out of abstract jazz, from Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane. But when you look at the “history” of noise, it’s Whitehouse—it gets colonized. 

48H In the last, say, five or 10 years, what’s improved and what hasn’t as far as representation?

MD One problem that’s developed is tokenization. Maybe you have a show where they’ve booked four male artists and they think, “oh, we need to put a woman on here,” so they start reaching out to women artists who at that point are being used as pawns to make the promoters look good. What’s getting better is more women and people of color are having their work seen, and that’s in part because of the political climate. When white supremacy is addressed and talked about, we realize how it permeates all aspects of culture. Music is an extension of daily life, so what affects who a cop arrests when they go to a bar also affects who gets to play a show.

48H What are the biggest misconceptions about experimental music?

MD I think it’s brushed off as “they dont know how to make music, they never learned scales,” but I don’t think that’s true. Noise is not an excuse to not have to learn. It’s just a different investigation of things. Most of the noise musicians I know come from punk or metal or hip hop and have a certain skillset. Lots of artists we work with reference soul and pop and R&B and rock and all of that, but they do it in a way where the approach and philosophy and politics are as important as the sound, and that’s where the experimentation comes in. 

Michael Dadonna and Blade

48H What’s the biggest challenge of running a small experimental label?

MD It’s financially almost impossible to run a small label. It has to be a labor of love. If I’m not at my normal job or making music I’m doing label stuff. Every year we’ve lost money, we’ll continue to lose money next year, but if it can come close to breaking even I’m OK with that. I’ve put enough work into it that at this point there’s no turning back. 

48H What makes it worth it?

MD What makes it worth it is when someone goes up to the artist or comes up to me and says “I really love this record, thank you for putting it out,” or “I had a great time at this show, I felt safe, thank you for putting it on.” And when I see friends of mine make it to the next level, playing music festivals, opening up for X or Y band—seeing my friends thrive. 

STASIS: A FESTIVAL OF SOUND, PERFORMANCE, VIDEO, AND ART
Curated by Ratskin Records 
Fri/7-Sun/9, $25.
Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland. 
More info here

After the mudslides, Kendra McKinley’s musical dispatch from ‘Big Sur Island’

Kendra McKinley. Photo by Staci DeGagne & Sarah Jaffe

ALL EARS In the high season of May to October 2017, Big Sur was ghost town. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was under construction in the north when mudslides wiped out Highway 1 in the south, leaving 35 miles of majestic coastline accessible only by a winding, three-hour detour through the Santa Lucia mountains. 

Big Sur Island—as the locals called it—disappeared with the reopening of the bridge, but you can hear its echo in Henry Miller Memorial Library Sessions, the new EP from Bay Area singer-songwriter Kendra McKinley. For five weeks starting that September, McKinley was the artist-in-residence at the Henry Miller Library—though “residence” perhaps oversells the living conditions, which involved tent camping and boiling her own shower water. McKinley returns to the Henry Miller Library on December 7 for an EP release concert that will weave together the songs she wrote and recorded there with tales of her adventures and the characters she met along the way. Diana Gameros will open the show with songs from her own recent album, Arrullo.

McKinley offered a deep dive into the transformative power of an experience as rare as a trip to Big Sur Island: the chance for a Bay Area artist to step out of the hustle and just create art. It took battling rodents, and facing down her own demons, for the chanteuse to finally “peel back the bullshit” and delight in her own first takes. 

McKinley performing in front of the library during her residency. Photo courtesy of Kendra McKinley.

48 HILLS How did you come to do a residency at the library in the first place?

MCKINLEY I played at Henry Miller Library twice before, so I had a relationship to the place. Every single time I go to Big Sur, I just always felt like the fullest version of myself. Everything makes sense. Mental knots untie. And that was very attractive for someone who’s a songwriter to imagine what it would be like to go there and be creative. And my friend Sarah Shashaani who works there, told me that, because it was basically a ghost town, that it would be a great time to do a residency. 

48 HILLS Did you live on-site? What was the setup?

MCKINLEY I lived in a tent, for five weeks, on-site. I would work in the bookstore three days a week. I performed free concerts there every Saturday, for whichever guests managed to take the brave trek. I would just have the door wide open, and I would be playing piano, and then a cyclist would come in, and they’d be enchanted by this weird place, and they would sit down and forget what time it was. That was the default setting.

And other than that, I just got to make music there. And I could not be peeled away from my instruments. It was the first time in my life that I actually got to approach songwriting like a full-time job. Having that freedom was fabulous because that’s what I would love to be focusing on at all times, but the realities of being a musician means that you have to hustle and have a lot of jobs. On a creative level, it just was so nourishing.

It’s also really intense because there’s no internet, there’s barely any people, and you’re just kind of there with yourself. That degree of introspection can be extremely uncomfortable because you have to accept these things about you that you don’t want to accept. And one of those things about me was that I am an absolute perfectionist when I make things. And when you let that perfectionism win, you don’t get to enjoy the process. 

48 HILLS What were your goals going into the experience?

MCKINLEY I had a goal to make an EP. But I also deliberately challenged myself to abandon a sense of preciousness about the creative process. I have a lot of voice memos, one of which is: I was working on a song on the piano, and a person comes in, and I start to have a conversation with them, and now I’m writing songs with other people in the room!

One of the songs on the EP was actually the second song I’d ever written as a high school student. I wanted to revisit that to embrace this whole notion of accepting the first take in the recording process, thinking about a recording experience as capturing a moment, instead of obsessing over perfection.

48 HILLS It’s so interesting to hear you say that because I remember reading a Bay Bridged piece that was written while you were recording your first album, Treat. The writer is worrying that the song “Telling Truths” won’t even make it on the album because you didn’t like your vocal take.  

MCKINLEY Precisely. I just think that we get in our own way, in so many different areas of life. With Treat, I also was in the studio for the first time and was trying to make a definitive statement about the artist that I was, without actually knowing what that meant. I wasn’t able to direct the project or distill it into a statement because I was also just completely enchanted by the fact that I was in a studio. Each song is like a musical buffet, and I’m trying to figure out: what meal of the day are we eating? I like all these different ingredients, but how do I make a meal that I can serve?

48 HILLS Did your songwriting change as you let go of your pursuit of perfection?

MCKINLEY I think of that songwriting chapter as a palate cleanser. Treat was a very theatrical, extroverted work, and I just felt so tired from pretending that I was still that same person that made it. I needed to introspect. And that’s why, even though I brought my laptop, I just wanted to play the funky piano that was filled with excrement because it was in the woods. That’s a whole other challenge of recording there: dealing with Rodentia.

Henry Miller Memorial Library Sessions album art. Photo by Brittany Powers.

48 HILLS I was going to ask how you were able to record there! Were you dealing with rodents in more ways than just the piano?

MCKINLEY My friend Scott McDowell, who’s an engineer at Hyde Street Studios, drove down, and we just recorded when the library was closed, over the course of two and a half days.

And we’d be tracking, and then we’d hear this knocking noise and be like, “Okay, we have to figure out what it is because we can’t record if there’s intermittent knocking.” So we would investigate: “Oh, oh, it’s in this cupboard!” Pull out miscellaneous nails and books, and just vacuum it out, and clog up the hole that was created by mice—and that would take an hour. And then go back and be like, “Okay, now I’m going to track some bass.” 

48 HILLS Can you describe one of the songs that you wrote and recorded while you were there?

MCKINLEY To me, “Face to Face” is the thesis statement of the whole thing. That was the beginning of week three of being there, when the initial dazzle and enchantment started to wear off and the uncomfortability of being with yourself started to kick in. And I was experiencing some definite roadblocks with songwriting where I was catching myself thinking too much about what I wanted it to become, instead of just writing something from an honest place. 

I called my friend Sarah, and I told her about my predicament, and she was like, “You should read this article about Joni Mitchell writing Blue that just came out in The New Yorker today because she talks about a lot of those same things.” And so I read the article. It struck many chords. And I sat down, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to let Joni be the muse, and I’m just going to write about what this actually feels like.” And the song just fell out, essentially as a finished thing. It really felt like the thing that I wanted to touch while I was there: the fusion of feeling uncomfortable, feeling stoked, feeling happy, feeling sad, feeling electric, feeling acoustic, just all of the oppositions. 

McKinley on the third day of a marathon performance of Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy at the Women’s Building. Photo by Joanna Ladd.

48 HILLS You have a very arresting stage presence, so I also wanted to ask about how you’ve developed that. In particular, I think you’ve found a way of representing female sexuality onstage in a way that feels so healthy. Is that something you think about?

MCKINLEY Sexuality has always been interesting to me. And it’s such a difficult thing to embrace because the line between being objectified and being seen as empowered is relative to the person viewing it. But for me, being on a stage and playing amplified music, getting to dance about it, having this opportunity to tell as honestly as I want what I’m actually thinking and feeling—it feels like it! In the sense that your entire sense of self is activated. I feel like one of the defining characteristics of the music I’m making now and my stage show is that it is sensual, in a way that feels so feminine.

48 HILLS You’ve said that your work at the Henry Miller Library would be the basis for future albums. What’s next on the horizon? 

MCKINLEY My brother [AJ McKinley]—who is my bandmate, producer, best friend—he and I started a few months ago making demos for this new album cycle, embracing a lot of these themes. I want it to be a cross between Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark—so like very jazzy, narrative, cinematic, sensual storytelling—but with Funkadelic as the backing band. It is physical, it is rhythmic, it is funky. So we are making plans to record. Just taking what I learned from the Treat cycle and then getting the pieces in place to make a statement.

48 HILLS I’m going to pivot to another recent project: you were part of a performance art piece by Ragnar Kjartansson called Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, where 30 female musicians staged a marathon performance of famous pop songs that have misogynistic lyrics. How did you become involved with that project?

MCKINLEY I met Ragnar because I attended his trial session in March, where they had an open call for musicians to come to the Women’s Building, and he could just try different things. I was the only woman there. He said that, when they saw me play, it became clear that the piece would be more effective when women sang it, and then he asked me to be the bandleader from there. 

48 HILLS What did it feel like to play one deeply offensive song over and over for hours on end?

MCKINLEY Would you believe me if I said I felt everything? Beyond the inherent physical taxation of repeated motion, it was surprisingly energizing. That said, after a certain number of repetitions, I felt my sense of self sort of dissolve and be replaced by an acute sensitivity to the emotional states of the audience present. People would enter, weeping or visibly numb, and the intensity of their emotional state would influence how I played. Beyond that, there was a profound feeling of camaraderie and respect amongst the performers, which contributed to the feeling of women empowerment and devastation of what we have to endure as women. It was empowering to be a messenger using music to communicate such an urgent, relevant subject.

KENDRA MCKINLEY
Featuring Diana Gameros
December 7, 7pm, $10-20 sliding scale
Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur
Tickets and more info here.

Old school Chinatown funk? 50 years of Jest Jammin’ with Rev. Norman Fong

Jest Jammin' in front of 937 Clay, an SRO that Chinatown CDC saved from real estate speculation. Photo courtesy Norman Fong

ALL EARS If you’re not nostalgic for Chinatown nightlife circa 1970, it’s probably because you don’t know about it. Despite the passing of civil rights and immigration laws, it was still dangerous for Chinese Americans to venture out to clubs in other parts of the city. What to do? Create a thriving parallel music scene of all-Chinese bands that played venues like Forbidden City, Drag’on A’ Go-Go, and Lion’s Den.

Rev. Norman Fong guesses there were 50 to 60 bands in Chinatown at the time, only one of which remains: Jest Jammin’, a Motown cover band that he started with four buddies from Galileo High School in 1968. Fifty years later, the band still practices weekly and plays benefits and festivals like the Chinese New Year Street Fair. On Saturday, October 20, Jest Jammin’ celebrates half a century of grooving—Earth, Wind & Fire-style—with an anniversary show at St. Mary’s Cathedral. (The show is almost sold out, so don’t wait to get tickets.)

Jest Jammin’ playing at a hotel in 1970

Rev. Fong is a rare kind of triple-threat: beyond being a singer and saxophonist for Jest Jammin’, he is a Presbyterian minister, and the Executive Director of the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center. Proceeds from the anniversary show will support Chinatown CDC’s work to save Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartment buildings in Chinatown from real estate speculation. (Disclosure: the writer also works for Chinatown CDC.) 

The story of Jest Jammin’ is the story of Chinatown: from racism and gang violence, to the Asian American movement and self-determination. It’s also an excuse to party, for as Rev. Fong puts it, “A homegrown community band that stuck together for 50 years is something to celebrate.”

48 HILLS You’re a second generation American, so when did your parents come to the States?

REV. NORMAN FONG My dad came in 1919, so he was jailed in Angel Island because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. My mom was born and raised here, and she’s the one who taught me to love my home turf, my neighborhood. I promised them that I would fight my whole life to protect Chinatown. 

48 HILLS What was Chinatown like when you were growing up?

FONG Growing up here in the ’50s and ’60s, we saw everything on TV, but of course, there were no Asian American bands or role models until Bruce Lee came out in the late ‘60s. But we wanted to feel proud of ourselves and our growing up in Chinatown. On the one hand, Chinatown is one of the poorest neighborhoods, so we all grew up poor. And on the other hand, we don’t want to be like our parents and just be too passive and quiet. 

And then, because of segregation, all of us that grew up in Chinatown went to the same schools. So, we all kind of knew each other. We knew that we weren’t quite accepted yet, even though we were born here. I remember going to Jean Parker Elementary, and all of us were Chinatown kids, but the teachers were all white, at that time. “Speak English only” was the main thing then. And then I had to go to Chinese school, so after school, you had to speak Chinese. It’ll drive anyone crazy!

At an immigration rally in Portsmouth Square in the ’90s.

48 HILLS You were getting it from both sides.

FONG The worst part was in junior high, when I had to go leave Chinatown. I was a real happy Chinatown kid, and then I went to Francisco [Middle School], and I think it was the first or second day that I got tied to the fence on Filbert. This group was called the DACs: Damn All Chinamen. They tied me to the fence, and they water balloon tortured me. The first time I felt real anger. 

I remember talking to my mom saying, “Why do Italians hate the Chinese?” But my mom said, “Life is about balance. Did you know we’ve been evicted many times? But it’s an Italian landlord that charges us 90 bucks rent, and he never raised the rent.” I never forgot that. We got evicted from another apartment because a Chinese bought the building. You get it? Sometimes it’s more about financial interest than race.

48 HILLS You’ve said that you started playing music partly just to stay out of trouble. What kind of trouble were you getting into at that time?

FONG The ’60s was crazy, right? Violent. There were a lot of gangs in Chinatown, for different reasons. So, in my case, my boys—the police called us the 880 Boys—we were a good gang that defended our neighborhood. There’s groups that wanted to harass our women, especially, back in those days. Pretty much, if anyone messed with us, we would fight back. Aretha Franklin, “Respect”—we wanted respect! 

Our roots were also in Cameron House: we were part of a community center. Somebody donated money for equipment—somebody wanted us to get off the streets and play music. 

Jest Jammin’s annual ranch party in Pacifica, 2017.

48 HILLS Is that how Jest Jammin’ was born?

FONG Our band started by playing for friends. It was five of us—Brad Lum, Stevie Monteclaro, myself, Al Louie, and Edmond Toy—we all grew up in Chinatown, we all went to Galileo High School. And then in ’68, one of our friends was drafted to Vietnam, so we wanted to throw him a party. That was the beginnings of our band. 

48 HILLS How did you decide you wanted to play soul music?

FONG At the time, it was either surfer music or Motown, so we chose Motown. Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago: those are brass groups that are great for dancing. 

Motown—you know, it’s street music. Diana Ross and others grew up in public housing. Motown coming out of Detroit and a neighborhood, too—we resonate with that story. We’re a Chinatown band, and proud of it.

48 HILLS It occurs to me that you probably didn’t feel comfortable going to other neighborhoods for nightlife, even to see Motown acts when they came to town.

FONG Yeah. Basically, we didn’t feel welcome to attend different nightclubs. We wanted our own safe space, our own community dances and stuff, where everyone feels free. Nobody harassing our people. So there were a whole bunch of bands—50 or 60—that started in Chinatown and Japantown in the late ’60s, but blooming in the ’70s. 

Then, in the early ’70s, there was the Third World movement, and the fight for the development of Ethnic Studies, and the Asian American movement. We started to play for all these dorm parties and Asian American studies programs, from San Jose State up to Sacramento. We were busy every weekend. So that broadened our world. 

At the ranch, which also serves as their practice venue.

48 HILLS Do you think that playing in a band affected how you saw yourself?

FONG A lot of us grew up feeling like nobodies—you know?—in Chinatown, and people don’t like us. When we play, it’s empowering like you won’t believe.

Motown also helps us cross bridges. We’ve played in the Bayview for Black History Month and other events, and it’s always a shock, at first. I love it, though. I love us feeling a part of American history in pop music and soul music. We grew up with that, so why not? 

48 HILLS Has your taste in music changed at all over the past 50 years?

FONG We still play Motown, but then, as we play for more community events and dances, some people want newer music, right? So we have to adapt. We play some Bruno Mars, or other styles.

There’s 10 of us now. And we have a tight brass section that’s better than ever, so we play more brass songs. Victor Ng, our guitar player—he started with us in the late ’70s—he loves playing Santana, and he’s a great guitarist, so we do more songs that feature guitar solos. Sometimes we get sentimental, like I just re-learned “We Were Always Sweethearts” by Boz Scaggs. So we bring back stuff over the 50 years to mix it up. 

48 HILLS What do you think has kept the band together after all this time? 

FONG We’ve always been a community and friendship band. I mean, making music is empowering, for sure—especially when we do the songs right! But making music with old friends that you grew up with, since kindergarten, is powerful. 

And then playing for so many causes and community events, others have pride in us, too. Whether it’s playing for the Japanese bilingual program for free, or Self-Help for the Elderly, or Asian Law Caucus, or even Chinatown CDC. And then because we play for friends, community, and causes, we’ve grown to have a huge fan base. 

48 HILLS A lot of your professional career has been devoted to youth programs in Chinatown. What were you trying to give the youth that you had growing up?

FONG I wanted them, like me, to have pride in the community. I wanted them to fight for social justice issues. 

I’m worried about the next generation. We’ve donated our playing for our old high school, Galileo, and at one concert, I found out that Galileo no longer has a band program. And that was our roots! If they [the youth] don’t have roots, you know, then you end up with Crazy Rich Asians. [Laughs.]

48 HILLS Your 50th Anniversary party is also a benefit for the preservation of the Single Room Occupancy apartment buildings in Chinatown. Can you explain why SROs are important, and why they need help now?

I call SROs the hidden poverty. Many working families and low-income seniors have no choice but to live in single room occupancy apartments, with no private bathrooms, toilets, or kitchens. Almost half of our community live in these SROs, which are about the size of a large walk-in closet. Chinatown CDC is purchasing and rehabilitating SROs to save them from demolition, skyrocketing rents, and conversion into tech dorms. So we hope to raise some money by bringing our friends together—no corporate sponsors!—and hopefully we can make quite a few thousand for our SRO work.

JEST JAMMIN’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
October 20, 8pm-midnight, $50
(proceeds benefit Chinatown CDC’s SRO preservation efforts)
St. Mary’s Cathedral, SF
Tickets and more info here. Ticket sales end Wednesday 10/10.

The Mekons’ Sally Timms twangs in to support Community Land Trust

Sally Timms

“The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.” —Lester Bangs

Emerging in Leeds, England, in 1977, the Mekons came from the British punk scene, but haven’t squeezed comfortably into any genre. Country, bluegrass, and roots music were stirred into political-minded punk, with often poetic results.

Long-time member Sally Timms will likely go down as one of the best vocalists of the post-punk family tree. 48 Hills sat down with her for a quick chat over the weekend. The Mekons play a special Thu/4 benefit show for the San Francisco Community Land Trust at the Lab, under the assumed name of the Sturdy Nelsons, with Mission District favorite La Familia Peña-Govea. (The Trust‘s mission is “to create permanently affordable, resident-controlled housing for low to moderate income people inSan Francisco through community ownership of the land.”)

48H Are the Mekons the world’s longest-running punk band? That is, a punk band that never stopped touring and recording since 1977? What makes the Mekons so durable?

SALLY TIMMS I’m not sure if we are the longest-running punk band, we’ve had some lineup changes I suppose and now the original band reformed as mekons77, because we like things to be as confusing as possible. They have a new album out and it’s great. I think the reason for the longevity is that we made the situations we found ourselves in work for us, not against us. (That wasn’t exclusively the case but for the most part it has been).

So basically we carried on putting out new material and played it regularly, we kept it interesting for ourselves and so hopefully kept it interesting for the listeners who cared. We make sure we don’t go off on huge months-long tours, we don’t rely on music to pay our rent because usually it doesn’t work that way, we adjust to our restrictions and we try to be inventive, and I suppose we are just bloody minded about what we do.

48H The Mekons have always covered way more lyrical ground than just protest and politics. How does the international swing to the right impact a band like the Mekons now in their fourth decade?

ST I think it’s easier when there’s an obvious target, Reagan and Bush were pretty clear ones, but I didn’t have much faith in Clinton and Obama, either. However, it can get tough to write songs about neo-liberalism and make them catchy. We’ve always used the personal to highlight the political, or at least that’s when I think we have done our best work. So things are still the same, people being squeezed by the rich, endless war, frigging fascists on the upsurge. I think we’ve always been affected by whatever political situation was ongoing. Things are quite hairy right now, but for a lot of people that’s been the case for a while.

48H You yourself have an excellent solo catalogue of music. What’s next for Sally Timms?

ST To quote Billy Wilder…”Death,” or at least a long period of lying in bed watching TV in my dotage.

THE MEKONS (AS THE STURDY NELSONS)
SF Community Land Trust Benefit
Thu/4, 6:30pm, $5-$50
The Lab, SF.
More info here.