All Ears

Please Do Not Fight reunion collects a scattered scene

Please Do Not Fight. Photo by Aaron Blumenshine

ALL EARS Pursuing music often begins with a simple realization: that it could be you up on that stage. And before he started the Redwood City rock band Please Do Not Fight in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Zen Zenith was just a kid staring goggle-eyed at the pop-punk bands that dominated Bay Area clubs in the late ‘90s. 

The Matches, with whom he’s still friends, wowed him in particular. “They had rehearsed moves and such incredible stage presence,” he says. “There’s one song where people get down low. These are clichéd things now, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it. I was like, ‘how do they know how to do this? How do they know we’re all gonna jump at the same time?’”

After playing in a few short-lived bands, Zenith formed Please Do Not Fight in 2007, at age 24. That year, the project released its sole full-length, Leave It All Behind. Counterbalancing pop-punk sugar rush with spiky, sophisticated lyrics and a chilly, lonesome atmosphere, it’s the kind of album one could see inspiring the same underground cult love as American Football’s debut or Duster’s early records.

Please Do Not Fight and many of the Bay Area bands they performed with (Picture Atlantic, Dizzy Balloon, Rin Tin Tiger, Finish Ticket, Bird by Bird) rejected the self-deprecating scuzz of the contemporaneous SF garage rock movement and embraced a friendly, clean-cut approach. Mike Shirley-Donnelly of Curious Quail, which shares multi-instrumentalist Erin Machado with Please Do Not Fight, met Zenith at a Picture Atlantic show—a band he was first drawn to because they made Dungeons & Dragons references onstage.

Zenith was never into the “cocky rock-star thing,” as he calls it. But with his imposing physical presence, full-throated roar, and confessional, clearly annunciated lyrics, Zenith was certainly a magnetic frontman. 

To Zenith, being a “frontman” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. “It was becoming more about sitting in front of your computer and being on social media,” he says. “It was all recording stuff on your own and then getting the band to do it later. The thing I loved about it—getting together with your friends and being social—was less and less what the work was.” 

After releasing two more EPs, Zenith disbanded Please Do Not Fight in 2013. Initially he intended to rebrand the project and work with the same musicians in a different musical milieu, but instead he moved from Redwood City to L.A. and focused on hosting and promoting shows, taking what he describes as an “extended breakup from music.”

He and Please Do Not Fight guitarist Geoff McCann started a project he describes as a mix of musical and stand-up performance. But it was mostly a private endeavor for kicks, and when friends asked him to pick up the guitar at the shows he hosted, he remained stubborn. 

Yet something itched in the back of his mind in spite of himself, and soon he found himself queuing up old videos of the band. 

* * *

Please Do Not Fight will reunite Friday, April 26 at Bottom of the Hill. It had to be Bottom of the Hill, Zenith says—the venue where he saw bands like the Get Up Kids as a teen and, later, where he would play once his band made enough connections to play real club gigs instead of bowling alleys and restaurants. 

“At first I was like ‘No, thats never, ever gonna happen,’ he says of the reunion. “But enough people asked that I started talking to Geoff and Erin and Kubes about it.”

Machado and drummer Brian Kubes are the other two members of the core band. They agreed, but a new complication arose: Kubes still lived in LA, while Machado lives in Vancouver. 

The full band—including Justin San Souci of the Matches, who continues the band’s long tradition of revolving bassists—will only be able to rehearse once in the same room prior to the show. 

Zenith isn’t worried, though. In LA, he claims, bands are expected to learn their parts separately in between practices as opposed to the more rehearsal-oriented approach he finds in the Bay Area. And Machado is a veteran of remote rehearsals and recording, as Curious Quail’s members are likewise dispersed across the country.

“I’m not worried about it,” Zenith says of this unconventional pre-show preparation. “And I’m probably the person who plays music the least out of the four of us.” 

The show isn’t just a Please Do Not Fight reunion but a reunion of the “old scene.” Curious Quail, who played frequently with Please Do Not Fight before Shirley-Donnelly moved to the Coachella Valley, will perform earlier in the evening. Talk, the other opener, contains several members of the defunct Picture Atlantic. 

The scene to which Please Do Not Fight belonged exists today in a scattered form, and some of its individual members have found fame on their own. Kevin Sullivan of Rin Tin Tiger performs as Field Medic and recently signed to vaunted indie label Run for Cover. Louie Diller of Dizzy Balloon found minor chart success with the band Holychild. Finish Ticket are signed to Elektra Records and have played with acts like Ed Sheeran but released their last album in 2013.

Please Do Not Fight will probably never reunite again. The geographical distances among the band members are too vast for regular reunions to be a thing, and Machado is committed to her dual gigs as Quail member and music teacher. But while preparing with McCann and San Souci, Zenith began to feel some of that old jones for music creeping back in and hopes to use the reunion as a springboard for something new—most likely a solo project, he’s concluded.

“When I was playing music it wasn’t just about playing music,” he says. “I also got a social life from it. It helped me with my mental health because writing songs is very therapeutic. I got exercise out of it by jumping around onstage. I’m realizing in the last couple years how much benefit music has brought to my life, and with this show I’m excited to do more music to bring all those things back in.”

PLEASE DO NOT FIGHT, CURIOUS QUAIL, TALK
Fri/26, 8:30 p.m., $15-$18
Bottom of the Hill, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Contemporary fado queen Mariza comes to SFJAZZ

Fado, the mournful and soul-stirring music of Portugal, is coming to San Francisco this week. Whether you’re a fado fan or new to the genre, it’s time to hear Mariza, one of the world’s great fado singers. (She’s here April 12-14 at SFJAZZ.)

Rooted in the early 19th century, fado draws on some of the same inspiration as American jazz and blues.

“Fado was born almost the same way as blues because of the slaves and what they were singing,” Mariza explained to me during an interview in Barcelona, Spain and in a subsequent email. “They were singing about feelings of life. Fado explores those same feelings.” 

Like the early days of jazz in the US, fado was a popular urban music style distained by the countries’ elites. The Portuguese upper crust considered fado to be the music of pimps and prostitutes.

“Fado was born by the sea, produced by the sailors and African slaves,” said Mariza. “It’s a music from the working classes.”

Fado, which translates as destiny or fate, combines European melody, African rhythm and Arabic cadences into a unique musical form. It’s a stripped-down musical style usually featuring a singer, one musician playing the round-shaped Portuguese guitar and another playing classic guitar. The singer carries the plaintive melody while the guitars provide rhythm and some melodic interludes. 

Mariza explained that in the early days, fado lyrics served as a “newspaper with singing. People didn’t know how to read. So they used music to spread the news.”

Of course conditions are different today. She reads a lot of poetry to gain inspiration for new songs. “I work with composers and writers who compose for me. Then I choose what I think is the message.”

Mariza, whose given name is Marisa dos Reis Nunes, was born in 1973 in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. She moved to Portugal with her family at the age of three.

Mariza, who is white, periodically visits Mozambique. “I always go there when I can to get in touch with my family, to be in touch with my roots. With age I feel more this African side calling, it [is] part of who I am.”

Mariza started singing fado in Lisbon when she was five years old. “My parents had a little tavern. In the neighborhood where I lived fado was a kind of living school of music.”

Then as a teen she started listening the popular rock bands of the time such as U2, Supertramp and the Rolling Stones. She wanted to sing rock. “I was trying, but my English wasn’t very good. I didn’t understand it. Fado was always my first love.”

In Argentina, tango lost popularity among the youth for many years until undergoing a revival in the 1980s. To this day some young Brazilians consider bossa nova old geezer music. So it’s not surprising that fado his seen popular peaks and valleys in Portugal.  

Fado luminaries such as Amalia Rodrigues (1920-99) brought legitimacy to fado and modernized the art form. But the next generation listened to more rock and roll than traditional Portuguese music.

Now the young generation shows their emotional support for fado, said Mariza, part of their appreciation of Portuguese culture. “They are trying to protect this music, trying to pass the message.”

“You don’t’ have schools to learn this music,” she continued. “You learn on the streets. It’s passed down from older generations.” 

Mariza noted that fado is part of the Portuguese culture, an urban music that expresses emotion and true feelings. “Even if you don’t speak a word of Portuguese it is difficult not to be touched by the intensity of fado.”

For non-Portuguese speakers, fado can sound uniformly mournful. While there are happy, up-tempo fados, the genre does indeed feature a lot of lament and longing. In fact, the Portuguese concept of saudade (longing) plays a central role in the music. 

For example, Mariza sings “Ja Me Deixou” (He Already Left Me). The song’s protagonist suffers a lot because of a love who left. He says the “saudade walks with me.” But suddenly the lover returns and the longing goes away. “It has a happy ending.”

Fado has become one of the most popular musical styles in Portugal, and has spread throughout Europe and the Americas. But for Mariza, who regularly plays large jazz clubs and concert halls, fado always takes her back to her parent’s small bar.

“If you go to Lisbon, to a taverna, you see people commemorating life with a bottle of red wine. Sometimes you listen to a very sad fado. But they are enjoying life. They are cleaning the soul. Then everyone is smiling and happy.”

Mariza
April 12-14
SFJAZZ 
Tickets and more info here. 

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

San Pablo’s Los Cenzontles ramps up its Mexican rhythms

Davina, a Los Cenzontles student, strums on stage. All photos courtesy of Los Cenzontles

ALL EARS There are certain well-worn channels through which culture tends to move. Socioeconomically dominant countries export cultural products, regional art forms are picked up by the global mainstream to be re-appropriated. From center to periphery and back again, the cultural commodification process rarely works to benefit creators of regional art.

But the Bay Area is known for institutions that look to buck these trends. From Oakland’s La Peña Cultural Center to the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, Brava Theater to the annual Son Jarocho Festival, the region is blessed with many places where cultural bridges between the US and Latin America are built, community-to-community connections that sidestep the commercialization or fetishism of regional art and center that art’s creators.

San Pablo’s Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, with its youth group founded back in 1987, certainly figures on this list of key cultural hubs. But when asked if he thinks of the Bay Area as a center for Chicano and Latino art, its founder Eugene Rodriguez has cause to bridle at the word.

Los Cenzontles’ band (from left) Emiliano Rodriguez, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Eugene Rodriguez.

“I don’t think in terms of centers,” he explains. “There is so much variety and diversity within the Latino community.” Eugene sees the work that Los Cenzontles does as tending to “represent the working class immigrant cultures, which are all over the county in often isolated pockets. The idea of a center is more of an urban concept.”

Los Cenzontles is an important entry point for people of all ages looking to learn about Mexican arts and culture. For over three decades, it’s been a place where young people can come to learn traditional music, dance, and song.

Some graduates of the youth program are now members of Los Cenzontles’ official band, which has worked with other world-class musicians—Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, and Jackson Browne among them—in creating work that not only reflects Mexican regional genres like son jarocho and huapango, but also resonates as a distinctly Californian evolution of those sounds.

“Our approach is also to dig deeply into our roots, but to also explore our connections to other roots and genres,” says Rodriguez. “This may be disorienting from a marketing point of view. But it is our journey.”

Los Cenzontles perform on a recent trip to Sonora to visit a local folkloric dance troupe.

Recently, Los Cenzontles got an upgrade. After 20 years in the same location, the school and practice-jam space got a new paint job, flooring, furnishings, and heating-ventilation system. A donation from Meyer Sound resulted in a new sound system—perfect for the “Music & Tacos” event series (next one happen Fri/22) that invites in the public for an evening of comestibles and live sounds from across the organization’s repertoire, like corridos, pirekuas, and boleros.

Lucina Rodriguez also makes for a good guide to Los Cenzontles’ work. She first came to its youth program when she was 15 years old and immersed herself in the study of zapateado, the stomping, folkloric Mexican dance. Now she not only sings and dances with its band, she is teaches movement to young students and serves as Los Cenzontles’ external education programming coordinator.

“Children in our community need a place where they feel comfortable and safe,” Lucina told 48 Hills in an email. “It’s important for children to connect and stay connected to their roots … This gives them more confidence to face the world outside the center.”

Much of Los Cenzontles’ work is based on the personal importance of cultural heritage. San Pablo’s median household income is just over half that of Oakland. If few of the community’s kids are financially privileged, at Los Cenzontles they are able to explore the richness of Chicano and Mexican past and present.

This year, members of the group and students from the Cenzontles’ youth program took a trip documented by the LA Times with singer Linda Rondstadt to visit Grupo de Danza Xunutzi in Banámichi, Sonora. That’s far from the first time Los Cenzontles have made a trip south — check 2015’s excellent Fandango: Searching for the White Monkey documentary that was made about similar cross-cultural voyages taken throughout the organization’s history. (Not to mention, a fascinating look at how young US artists come to terms with the rural realities of their beloved music genres.)

The work of Los Cenzontles has also opened paths for artists from Mexico to come to the United States, another embodiment of the group’s commitment to making sure that regional forms of Mexican art receive the support that they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Center or not, these sounds play an important role in the Cenzontles’ community and beyond, and they aim to keep it that way. As Lucina puts it; “Music doesn’t die unless we let it die.”

LOS CENZONTLES: MUSIC & TACOS
Fri/22, 7:30-9:30pm, $15
Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, San Pablo
More info here.

From Mali to Memphis: Dee Dee Bridgewater fires up the soul of her youth

Dee Dee Bridgewater. Photo by Mark Higashimo.

ALL EARS Two of the great divas of blues and jazz will be performing in the Bay Area this coming week. It’s a wonderful opportunity not only to hear some great music, but to also enrich your appreciation of America’s original and unique musical art forms.

Some years back I had the pleasure of doing music reporting from the west African country of Mali where I interviewed Dee Dee Bridgewater. She was recording her album Red Earth, which later earned a Grammy nomination. I observed how she and local musicians fused Malian musical traditions with jazz and blues to create a unique sound.

Bridgewater told me that the musical journey was part of discovering her African roots. Malians told her she looked like a descendant of a tribe that lived in the north of the country, something later confirmed through ancestry DNA testing. 

Bridgewater told me in a recent phone interview that she still remembers the dusty red soil of Mali. “I did rediscover my roots,” she said. “Seeing the red earth made me felt I had come home.”

Bridgewater continues that voyage of discovery with her latest release Memphis … I’m Ready. She was born in Memphis and her family soon moved to Michigan. But she listened to Memphis rhythm and blues on a late night radio station. Although Bridgewater is a consummate jazz artist, recognized by the NEA as a Jazz Master, she has always considered R&B to be a co-equal form of African American music.

“I went back to Memphis because that was where I was born,” she said. “It was all part of my investigation into my past, so I can have a better understanding of who I am.”

The Memphis project, like many works of art, got its start serendipitously. Bridgewater was in the Memphis airport on the way to her rental car. She heard blasting on the airport sound system “Baby oh Baby,” the classic R&B tune sung by Carla Thomas.

“This is the music I know; why not do this?” she thought to herself. Besides, she mused, it was a chance to be a soul singer with a real backup group. “That was always a closet dream I had,” she chuckled.

Bridgewater held numerous recording sessions at the famed Royal Studios in Memphis. Al Green, Chuck Berry, and Ike & Tina Turner had all recorded there in years past. Bridgewater wanted to recreate an authentic R&B recording atmosphere.

“Royal produced a gritty sound. They weren’t going for the polished sound like Motown.”

You can hear the grit in her version of “Hound Dog.” Elvis made the lyric “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog” famous worldwide. But white audiences of the 1950s rarely heard the original version sung by “Big Momma” Willa Mae Thornton and produced by Johnny Otis. She moaned and growled in a version that, frankly, makes Elvis look like an amateur. 

Bridgewater definitely honors the black tradition. “I made a point of doing Momma Thornton’s version, not Elvis’,” she said. “I knew Elvis Presley’s name is synonymous with Memphis. I wanted to set the record straight by doing something closer to her version.”

Bridgewater’s performances feature another Elvis’ hit “Don’t Be Cruel,” but, again, in a version the King wouldn’t recognize. It turns out to be one of the most popular numbers in her club dates. 

Bridgewater certainly has no objections to commercial success. “I knew particularly the Europeans would know Elvis’ name. So there was some stratagem in picking his two songs.” 

Memphis is both a commercial and artistic success, something that might have surprised Bridgewater’s mother, who didn’t want her daughter singing the blues. Her mom passed away in 2017. 

“The blues for her represented poverty, oppression, bad life style, drugs, alcohol, and loose women. She was from the generation when African Americans moved north,” who wanted to get away from Southern traditions.

“She also had images of Africa and didn’t want me to go to Mali.” But when she heard Red Earth, she got up and danced.”

I have no doubt she would be dancing to Memphis as well.

***

Catherine Russell, another talented jazz and blues vocalist, visits San Francisco this week. She comes from jazz nobility. Her father Louis Russell was the long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. Her mother Carline Ray performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-woman swing band in the 1940s.

Catherine Russell has had her own successful career for over 40 years. She won a Grammy for her musical appearances in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. 

Russell just came out with a new album Alone Together. The music ranges from the silky smooth title song to a down-home version of “Is You or Ain’t You Is My Baby.” She channels Bessie Smith performing the blues tune “He May Be Your Dog, But He’s Wearing My Collar.”

 “Blues infused jazz tunes are the ones I gravitate towards,” she said, “because they enable me to freely express myself in the moment.  

Call it bluesy jazz or jazzy blues. Take your pick. Russell performs great music.

***

Dee Dee Bridgewater brings her Memphis show to Yoshi’s on March 20-21.

Catherine Russell performs songs from Alone Together and her CD Harlem on My Mind, March 24, 5 pm, at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room. 

———

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

John Pizzarelli salutes ‘swinging’ Nat King Cole at 100

ALL EARS As a young man, jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli fell in love with the music of Nat “King” Cole.

“I bought some Cole records,” he told me in a phone interview from New York. “It was a snowing day in January, much like today. I listened and my head exploded.”

Nat Cole was a nationally known vocalist and pianist in the 1940s and ’50s. His fame lives on every Christmas when you inevitably hear him crooning the lyrics “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” 

But if you want to hear something far more sophisticated than that old chestnut, listen to Pizzarelli’s new album For Centennial Reasons: 100 Years Salute to Nat King Cole, a celebration of what would have been Cole’s 100th birthday. Pizzarelli performs Sun/3 at the Venetian Room.   

Pizzarelli noted that Cole had a silky smooth delivery but could also really swing. Cole co-wrote his first big hit, “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” with Irving Mills in 1944. 

The song portrays the struggle of a monkey who takes flight on the back of a buzzard. They’re both friends and enemies, carrying out a comic dialogue about why each shouldn’t trust the other. 

The final stanza reads:

The buzzard told the monkey, you’re choking me
Release your hold and I’ll set you free
The monkey looked the buzzard right dead in the eye and said
Your story’s touching, but it sounds like a lie

I noted that politicians love the song because it describes an evil, co-dependent relationship. One political observer wrote recently, “The Republican Party is the monkey and Donald Trump is the buzzard.” 

Laughing, Pizzarelli wouldn’t offer an opinion on either Trump or the Republicans, but he did note how the lyrics from many jazz standards have entered our everyday speech.

“It’s amazing how songs like that find their way into the vernacular,” he said. He noted that “everyone knows the phrase ‘Nice work if you can get it.’ But how many know it came from a George Gershwin song?”

Impact of segregation

Pizzarelli also admires Cole’s struggle against segregation. Cole’s celebrity status didn’t protect him from vicious racism. 

Three segregationists attacked Cole on stage in Birmingham. When he moved into the all-white Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, neighbors tried to force him out and even burned a cross on his lawn. 

Pizzarelli remembers that popular singer Margaret Whiting told him that during a TV show rehearsal, she put an arm around Cole’s shoulder. Cole told Whiting, who was white, “Don’t do that during the show, or we will lose the South.”

Cole was never an outspoken civil rights advocate like jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln or popular singer Harry Belafonte. But he was one of the first African Americans to have crossover appeal. 

His recordings sold to millions of whites at a time when record corporations segregated black music as “race records.” He was the first black host of a national TV show. 

“He was an amazing national figure,” said Pizzarelli. “I can’t believe what he went through.”

The New Album

In many ways Nat Cole’s music is a perfect fit for Pizzarelli. During a career now spanning over 30 years, Pizzarelli is known for performing accessible, popular jazz. He often interprets the great American Song Book, but also performs the music of such popular contemporary composers as Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell.

In Cole’s music, he’s found the right combination of melodic grace and African American rhythms. Pizzarelli even modeled his first trio after Cole’s.

A typical jazz trio features piano, bass and drums. The drummer keeps the beat and the pianist plays the melody. Cole dropped the drums and brought in a guitar. Pizzarelli duplicates that instrumentation in his current album.

“When I play in a band with drums, I can lay out [rest],” he explained. “The drums control the rhythm. Without the drums, the guitar plays that role.” 

Pizzarelli plays rhythm guitar, a style in which the guitarist  constantly strums the strings to drive the beat, only occasionally changing chords for melodic effect.

“The guitar is the propulsion,” he said. That driving force is key to the foot tapping rhythms of several of the uptempo songs on the album such as “Nat King Cool” and “Route 66.”

But the constant strumming can really play havoc with your hands, according to numerous guitarists I’ve interviewed.

“Rhythm guitar is like running,” explained Pizzarelli. The guitarist has to begin with slow strumming, like a runner stretches.

“It’s like warming up with a trumpet. You build up a resistance to being tired.”

There is one area, in my opinion, that Pizzarelli can’t compete with Nat Cole: the voice. Cole delivered each note like velvet being laid down on satin sheets. Pizzarelli sings more like comfy wool flannel.

Don’t get me wrong. Pizzarelli can sing. He models his voice on Chet Baker, the 1950s trumpeter and vocalist with a soft and fragile delivery. Pizzarelli has a pleasant voice, but he’s no Nat Cole. But, then again, who is? Pizzarelli is a talented singer who interprets the standards with his own style.

JOHN PIZARELLI
Sun/3, 3:30pm (and 7:30pm with his wife, Jessica Molaskey), $65
Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room, SF.
Tickets and more info here

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz for more than 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

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.