Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

Community activism posters at OMCA.

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Dance of the Displaced


Prince tribute party at Lake Merritt.

A current Oakland Museum of California exhibit, “Oakland, I Want You to Know,” comes off very much as a love letter to The Town. But it’s a weird kind of  love letter, one filled with reminiscence for a paramour you dumped because they weren’t rich enough. The exhibit, which runs until Oct. 30, wants to evoke feel-good memories of a blue-collar city which is unfortunately disappearing right before our eyes – replaced by metrosexual techbros, designer ramen, specialty cocktails, high-rise condos, and spiraling rents. It also wants to weigh in on the ongoing conversation about gentrification. But it does so in a way which is both sanitized and awkward.


Esther’s Orbit Room sign at OMCA

There’s a recreation of the famed sign from Esther’s Orbit Room, the last holdout of the legendary  7th St. strip in West Oakland – a jumping-off spot for blues, jazz, and R&B, once known as the “Harlem of the West.” But the replica doesn’t replicate the energy or grit of that infamous watering hole. It seems out of place in the brightly-lit OMCA exhibition room.  One archival photo taken outside the venue featuring local music-scene luminaries, hints at the Orbit Room’s significance as a cultural institution of Black Oakland, but can’t make up for the loss of the venue, much less the erasure of the once-thriving strip itself. Over the last decade, West Oakland, though still predominantly-African-American, has absorbed an influx of tens of thousands of urban professionals, creating an uneasy juxtaposition of income disparity and cultural disassociation between new and old residents.


Mock-up of West Oakland BART at OMCA

In another section of the exhibit, the West Oakland BART station is feted. It’s a strange choice, since the station—just 12 minutes from downtown San Francisco, through the Transbay Tube—is itself a symbol of displacement; its construction caused the forced relocation of thousands of mostly African American residents by the time it opened, in 1974. That fact is briefly noted, as is the station’s current attraction to commuters. Also among the artifacts depicting “Oakland flavor” are two recent posters advocating for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. The allusion to community activism, however, feels more like lip service than actual solidarity with Oakland’s liberation struggles. There’s little of the vibrancy which has fused social justice and cultural expression in Oakland for decades – a vibrancy which is very much a part of the current resistance to displacement and the encroachment of gentrifiers. It’s also telling that a photo collage of an Oakland neighborhood – easily the most poignant piece in the entire exhibition – honors the past, not the present. An OMCA staffer told Oakulture that the photographer no longer lives in the neighborhood; doubtless, many of the residents depicted have moved away as well. And despite the homages to local mainstays like Town Park , Youth Radio, and City Slicker Farms , seemingly thrown together at random, “Oakland, I Want You to Know” feels like it’s intended more for tourists, visitors, and new arrivals than for longtime residents.


Community activism posters at OMCA.

There’s an attempt at cultural continuity with a wall celebrating classic Oakland artists’ album covers juxtaposed with an audio-visual presentation of retro-futuristic bluesman Fantastic Negrito. But it too misses the mark. An LP by Oakland blues singer Faye Carole is a welcome sight. But Negrito’s connection to the tradition of an earlier era isn’t satisfactorily explained, and the neon logo (borrowed from his studio/gallery, Blackball Universe) looks like a promotional display you might have seen at Tower Records in the 80s or 90s, complete with a looped audio stream of songs from his new album, The Last Days of Oakland. It’s oddly commercial for a museum piece; if the point was to infer that Oakland is still producing great artists, that point could have been made much more pointedly.


LP cover of a Faye Carol album.

“Oakland, I Want You to Know” might be Town-centric, but ultimately fails for its inability to effectively translate the immediacy of street-level movements into an institutional space. Revolution is never quite that simplified, and though OMCA tried, their Oakland love letter dilutes the heartbreak of displacement and doesn’t present a cohesive narrative. It feels thrown together in places it should be fluid, and errs by attempting to placate both the gentrifiers and those fighting against them.


Fantastic Negrito.

Thankfully, like a growing number of local artists, Fantastic Negrito can solidly be placed in the latter category. The Last Days of Oakland is fire, but not just because Negrito has the whole blues revivalist schtick down to the cufflinks on his thrift-store blazer. It’s a hot album because the singer-songwriter extracts the essence of blues and African American rock & roll from its dark, skeletal roots, but also because he injects that paradigm with a timely relevancy, much of it inspired by Oakland’s changing landscape and demographic. Another inspirational touchstone is the new push for civil rights, social justice, and police accountability echoing across the country through the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In a new, as-yet-unreleased, video which plays like a short film, Negrito updates the Leadbelly classic “In the Pines” by flipping the lyrics to address black mothers whose children are being killed by cops. Elsewhere on the album, there are skits about the changes Oakland is experiencing, a through-line which also works its way into “Working Poor,” wherein Negrito sings about gentrifiers who step over bodies to “sip fancy coffee.” While many of the classic, pre-civil rights era, blues tunes signified cryptically about social inequality, here Negrito articulates exactly what he means.

I feel like it’s over

Him clean my city

Me sell my soul

Him evil genius

Turns working people to the working poor

–Fantastic Negrito, “Working Poor”

The song goes on to address displacement directly (he moved to Stockton, one lyric casually reveals) while maintaining its retro-roots aesthetic. Social commentary, along with autobiographical testimonials, run through most of the songs on The Last Days of Oakland. Many of Negrito’s laments are about struggling against seemingly-invisible barriers to equity; I been knocking on the door since ’94, but they still won’t let me in, he declares on “Humpin’ Through the Winter.” On “The Worst,” he castigates those watching all the suffering, hiding on a hill. But like all good blues albums, there are also heavy doses of dubious temptation (“Scary Woman”) and self-loathing (“Rant Rushmore”) – which occasionally transform into conscious enlightenment (“Nigga Song”). What makes the entire album so current, though, is its framing around Oakland – which codifies it as a historical document, just as Bobby Seale’s “Seize the Time” stands as a testament to the Panther era.


Jam session at Lake Merritt.

Negrito’s album could be a soundtrack for music-minded social justice activists – visible this summer in everything from festivals at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater and San Antonio Park to musical protests against anti-drumming NIMBYS to dance-happy Prince tributes – but he’s not the only local artist making socially-conscious music. On his last two albums, Oakland Riviera and Love and Revolution, pianist-composer-emcee Kev Choice offered a highly musical alternative to mind-numbing “mumble rap.”


African drumming at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival.

On his latest release, 88 Steps to Eternity, Choice delivers an all-instrumental album which gives a name to the struggle: “Dance of the Displaced.” The track recalls late 70s/early 80s jazz fusion, giving credence to Choice’s credo of “real music that will last forever,” with flurry upon flurry of piano and keyboard runs, alternating forward-pushing tempos with somewhat-melancholy moods.


Kev Choice.

Which seems appropriate. Because nobody, except maybe developers, is too happy about all the displacement going on in Oakland these days. There’s a bit of a contradiction as well, in some of the rhetorical language being put forth by elected officials and some of the actions of city staff. A recent SF Business Times article  on the departure of Planning Dept. head Rachel Flynn confirms she was one of the prime movers behind the acceleration of development in Oakland, which may have come without a full realization of the consequences for the existing population. Mayor Schaaf has convened an Affordable Housing Task Force and City Council President Lynnette McElhaney has officially designated the 14th St. corridor a black arts district. Yet artists and families are getting pushed out of Oakland as the Planning Commission fast-tracks project after project, while neglecting to fight harder for community benefits and affordable housing units.


A pre-displacement Oakland neighborhood at OMCA.

How that plays out in the community is one of the salient points of “Alice Street Short,” a rough cut preview of the upcoming documentary “Alice Street”  which recently screened at the All Oakland Mini Film Festival. (full disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold assisted with research for the documentary.) The short features insightful interviews with members of the Afro-Diasporic community centered around the Malonga Casquelourd Center, as well as cultural practitioners and historians associated with the Hotel Oakland, a sanctuary of sorts for the Chinese and Chinese-American community. If you missed the screening, a slightly different cut will screen October 13 during the Matatu Festival of Stories, along with a panel discussion moderated by Arnold, a dance performance, and audience Q&A. The idea is to continue the conversation around displacement, gentrification, and cultural resistance, and to engage Oakland residents further in what could be the defining issue of this time in the Town’s history. Will the dance of the displaced turn into a funeral dirge or a victory march? That part is still to be decided.



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Hiero Day 2016: Strength in Numbers


Return of the Backpack Rapper: Del the Funky Homosapien rocks Hiero’s headline set.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years of Hiero Day already.  Originally a day-long hip-hop block party held on San Pablo St. in Oakland, the event has gotten bigger every year – in terms of both attendance and prominence – while relocating to an industrial section of West Oakland, where it now commands several city blocks and three stages worth of live music and DJs.

The members of Hieroglyphics — Oakland’s OG hip-hop pioneers, and one of the few still-active crews hailing from the early ‘90s Golden Age  — have stated on the record they started Hiero Day because it was difficult for them to book shows in their hometown (despite the fact they’ve toured all over the country for decades and their shows have never been associated with violence.) There may be some truth to that, but Hiero Day is about so much more than its eponymous founders. True, they close every show with a full crew performance, but the event has already become a cultural institution, a celebration of real hip hop which draws a multigenerational audience to hear both emerging and veteran artists.

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But Hiero Day is not just a concert, it’s a ritual of sorts – an affirmation that hip-hop culture not only still exists, but is still vital and vibrant. One might even go so far to say the day is imbued with spiritual significance; the level of appreciation from both performers and attendees is that high. Even with crowds which now number upwards of 20,000 folks, Hiero Day is overall a super-chill event whose vibe is surprisingly low-key, considering its magnitude

2016’s edition of Hiero Day may have been the best yet.  Advance tickets were available for the quite-affordable price of $19.93, and day-of tickets were a still-reasonable $40. Compare that to the price of any corporate music festival put on by a major concert promoter, and you’ll see quite a difference. We won’t name names here, but some of the larger festivals charge one hundred dollars or more for a one-day ticket for shows which might feature just one or two hip-hop/rap acts amidst a bucketload of indie rock or EDM acts. Even the few national rap fest tours which still exist can’t surpass Hiero Day’s lineup; the most-comparable event in recent memory was probably the on-hiatus Paid Dues Festival. But even that event, which did offer a showcase for underground/indie/alternative/true school hip-hop, didn’t have the grassroots flavor of a 100% artist-produced show which made no concessions whatsoever to corporatism.


Lockmith freestyles during Just Blaze’s set

There were 43 pre-announced artists, groups, or DJs on the Hiero Day bill – which calls into question one media outlet’s assertion last year that the show was more of a self-serving platform for Hiero and veteran acts than a showcase for up-and-coming artists. That just sounds ridiculous, since roughly two-thirds of the total stage time this year was allotted to newer acts with younger followings. The actual number of performers was actually a bit higher than what was announced, to boot. For instance during Just Blaze’s DJ set, he called up Del the Funky Homosapien, Locksmith, Ras Kass, and Planet Asia to do freestyles. That’s what you call more of what you’re funkin’ for.

That said, for both Hiero fans and hip-hop OGs, it was hard to pass up the allure of the main, “Infinity,” stage for sheer hip-hop flavor. Impressively, the stage featured a solid five-hour block of quality artists leading up to Hieroglyphics closing set: Paris, X Clan, Lyrics Born, Murs, Just Blaze, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Too Short. Other stages were graced by the likes of Juvenile, Dilated Peoples, Blu & Exile, the Grouch, Nef the Pharaoh, Rocky Rivera and others;  however, going from stage to stage required an adventurous spirit and a willingness to navigate between crowds of considerable density and brave the late-summer sun. By late afternoon, the crowd swelled to the point where it was quite dense with bodies. Oakulture made one foray out to the “Third Eye” stage, and briefly caught a bit of Blu & Exile’s set, but quickly returned to the Infinity stage in time to catch another Bay Area legend, Lyrics Born. Add to the fact that the Infinity stage offered the best photo opps for candid backstage shots, and it was pretty much a no-brainer to post up there.


Dan the Automator and Dante Ross

The question remains: Where else are you going to see legendary A&R Dante Ross cold chillin’ with legendary producer Dan the Automator, or such local notables as Hip Hop TV’s Shawn Granberry, Boots Riley, Mystic, Davey D, Chuy Gomez, Bijan Kazemi, DJ D-Sharp, Purple Pam the Funkstress, Councilmember Abel Guillen, and the occasional member of Hiero? Needless to say, many conversations were had, and much game was chopped.

It was difficult to feel too salty about missing Cash Money mainstay Juvenile or LA rhyme-spitters Dilated Peoples, because the Infinity stage was crack-a-lackin all day. Paris got the crowd pumped up with his Black Panther-inspired message rap; the self-proclaimed “hard truth soldier” played new material from his recent album Pistol Politics, but it was the 1990 “conscious yet hardcore” hit “Break the Grip of Shame – which samples both Malcolm X and Public Enemy – that  got the crowd to raise their fists in the Black Power salute. Shout out to DJ True Justice, by the way, who flawlessly recreated Mad Mike’s  frantic scratch solo.


Still breaking the grip of shame: Paris

It was the pre-mainstream gangsta, pre-mumble rap era all over again when Brother J came out next to play some X Clan classics. Can we just say here that Brother J is one of the most underrated yet crucial emcees of all time? Back in the so-called Afrocentric era, he was no less inspirational and influential than Chuck D or KRS-One — some forget X Clan sold hundreds of thousands of records —  yet has been nearly forgotten as time has advanced. Listening to opuses like “Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It” played live, however, made J’s contribution to hip-hop readily apparent.

By the same token, you can’t front on Lyrics Born, who has amassed a formidable catalog of crowd-pleasing jammy-jams to go along with his crowd-pleasing persona and inimitable rhyming and singing skills. One of the defining artists of alternative hip-hop, LB’s originality shone through yet again on songs like “Don’t Change,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” and “I Changed My Mind.”


The inimitable Lyrics Born

It was also good to see that the Invisibl Skratch Picklz are back to playing live sets. Some people might remember how they burst on the scene in the early 90s, with amazing demonstrations of turntable techniques framed around band aesthetics. If they’re somewhat less jaw-dropping in their current incarnation of Shortkut, D-Styles, and Q Bert, it’s only because their innovations have been widely imitated by subsequent generations of turntablists. But anyway, they symbolized the original icons of hip-hop—the DJs—and stayed true to their ethos, with each member rocking a single turntable.

The best performance of the day, however, may have been Too Short’s. The pioneer of Oakland rap as well as independent hip-hop, Short’s predilection for nasty lyrics has overshadowed his undeniable skill as a live performer, as well as his penchant for dropping nuggets of wisdom into his material. He also has quite an affinity for funk, a primary influence on much of his classic material. Short was a commanding presence at Hiero Day, soaking up the proceedings with the air of an emcee claiming his cultural authenticity in a city he basically built from the ground up. And did we mention the man’s got classics? From “Blow the Whistle” to “Gettin’ It,” he played a nice selection of his catalog, rocking the crowd but barely breaking a sweat. (By the way, when was the last time anyone saw Too Short AND X Clan at the same show? Probably the 90s, when diverse bills within hip-hop shows were commonplace.)


Gettin’ It: Too Short

It doesn’t really get any more “Oakland” in terms of hip-hop than following Too Short with Hieroglyphics. Taken together, the two have defined The Town’s hip-hop culture for three decades.  Both keep making new music, but it’s their respective track records which place them among the greats of all time.

At this point, we’re not even sure what can be said about Hiero which hasn’t already been said over the years.  Some might argue they’ve stayed relevant because they’ve continually reinvented themselves, but one could just as easily say the opposite as well: that in actuality they’ve stayed true to the style they had back in 1992, when they first appeared on the B-side of a Del record. What is undisputed is that they’ve somehow managed to continue to attract a younger audience while also maintaining appeal to longtime listeners. That creates an interesting audience dynamic which seems somewhat universal: Hiero fans cross all racial/ethnic, age, economic and class lines, a diverse bunch united by their love of hip-hop.


Roll call: Del, Phesto and Tajai

Though Hiero didn’t do a full set, it’s always great to see a whole crew performance by them, especially because their catalog is so thick, they can pull out deep cuts at any time. While Del, the crew’s founder, perhaps gives off the most “star vibes,” sleeping on any member of the group’s lyrical skills or stage acumen would be a huge mistake. There’s not a single member of Hiero, except for maybe producer Domino and DJ Toure, who isn’’t an excellent rhymer. And they’ve all been rocking stages for so long, they’re unlikely to be fazed by much. As dope as Del is, any of the other members – Casual, Phesto, Tajai, Opio, A-Plus and Pep Love – are capable of captivating with intricate wordplay and devastatingly rhythmic tonal patterns. They are quite literally a throwback to another era, when skill and originality were cultural values. As usual, they closed their set with the anthemic Souls of Mischief hit “93 til’ Infinity,” gently bringing to an end a day which reveled in the most positive aspects hip-hop – and Oakland – have to offer. What more can be said? Not much, except there are only 360 or so days until next year’s Hiero Day.


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“Miles Ahead”: A Jazz Legend’s Lost Period, Revisited


In 1976, after 30+ years as a bandleader, recording artist and jazz superstar, legendary trumpet player Miles Davis took a hiatus from recording and public appearances. His disappearance from the limelight was hastened by poor health—he reportedly suffered from an ulcer, a hernia, osteoarthritis, sickle-cell anemia, bursitis, and depression—yet it’s also entirely possible he was experiencing creative burnout as well.

Davis wasn’t terribly interested in revisiting where he’d already been; simply making another Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain seemed beneath his artistic sensibilities.

After pioneering jazz-fusion with 1969’s In A Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew, incorporating rock rhythms as well as experimental recording techniques such as tape loops, Davis forayed into dense Afro-futurist funk on 1972’s On the Corner. The album is widely recognized today as a genius-level musical statement, but at the time, it offended jazz purists (which may have been an intentional move on Davis’ part). Later mid-70s studio releases Big Fun and Get Up With It weren’t terribly well-received, either, and a slew of live releases from this period, including Dark MagusAgharta, and Pangaea, continued this polarizing trend, despite their out-of-the-box use of electric effects, electric guitar, and even electric trumpet. Evidently, Davis wasn’t terribly interested in revisiting where he’d already been; simply making another Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain seemed beneath his artistic sensibilities. Instead of crafting museum-piece monuments to jazz history, he kept trying to connect with a younger zeitgeist, which by this time included psychedelic rock, way-out funk, and worldly hybrids of ethnic instrumentation.


After being hospitalized while on tour, Davis returned to his New York pad and went into self-imposed exile. He became somewhat of a hermit and stopped practicing trumpet regularly. He continued to compose, however, and made several abortive attempts at recording new music, all the while dealing with considerable substance abuse problems. His exile lasted five years, until the recording of his comeback album, The Man With the Horn (recorded in 1980-81 and released in 1981).

Curiously, it’s the tail end of Davis’ exile period that actor, director and co-writer Don Cheadle zeroes in on in “Miles Ahead,” a new biopic produced with the cooperation of the Davis estate (which means, unlike recent Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone movies, there’s plenty of Miles’ music included).

Why, one might ask, would Cheadle choose of his own free will to place his film during Davis’ least-prolific period, a time when by the trumpeter’s own admission,  he was little more than a drugged-out wreck, living almost entirely in his own head?


There’s a simple answer to that. Cheadle is a character actor, and “Miles Ahead” is primarily a character study. Freed from the moorings of having to recount Miles’ rise to fame, and the minute details of his most celebrated recordings, Cheadle burrows deep inside Davis’ skull, in an attempt to reveal a man who was more than the sum of his music.

Why, one might ask, would Cheadle choose of his own free will to place his film during Davis’ least-prolific period?

The portrait he sketches here is one of a larger-than-life individual who carried fame with the casualness of a keychain. Miles is simply Miles, no last name necessary. Cheadle doesn’t entirely disappear within the role, but he comes close. The actor was first linked to the role about a decade ago, and it’s clear he’s done his research.

While Cheadle’s Davis may seem over the top at times—this is a loud, brash, entertaining film—there’s also plenty of subtle nuances, if you look hard enough (and a superb score by Robert Glasper which largely flies under the radar). Cheadle absolutely nails Davis’ hoarse whisper of a voice. He evokes Davis’ famous temper and violent rage, although the sexual perversion and misogyny also associated with him are only hinted at – perhaps due to the need to make the lead character seem sympathetic—which he is, mostly.


In life, Davis was a dark, if mercurial, man. On celluloid, portrayed by Cheadle, his comfortability with his shadow is like a superpower he wields whenever he faces conflict. He’s just too cool and too black, and he knows it. This is clearly evidenced by the fictional relationship between Davis and a magazine reporter played by Ewan McGregor.

In life, Davis was a dark, if mercurial, man. On celluloid, portrayed by Cheadle, he’s just too cool and too black, and he knows it.

McGregor’s role is that of Hollywood buddy, yet within that context he somehow manages not to be a complete dork. He is the square who is rebirthed in coolness from merely associating with Davis. In the course of the movie, McGregor snorts lines, drinks liquor, and accompanies Davis in a mission to retrieve the movie’s enigmatic MacGuffin – a reel to reel tape of a studio session. McGregor upgrades from Brit twit status when Davis gives him a stylish blue shirt to wear (to prevent him from impinging on Miles’ cool factor by being sartorially unprepared), and finally achieves hipness in his own right, by mastering Miles’ favorite epithet, “motherfucker.”

McGregor’s a fine actor, but his role is not played for utter believability. Few music journalists, for instance, have actually gotten into shootouts with the bodyguards of rival managers while tracking down a story. And few would witness a music superstar shake down execs at a record company’s office, and then say, they’d rather write the real story.


Essentially, McGregor is there so that Cheadle has someone to bounce “motherfuckers” off of; otherwise, we could have had a far more insular movie consisting of just Cheadle as Miles talking to himself and looking regretfully at his past album covers with ex-flames displayed prominently. That might have been cool, too, but it would have confined the film to avant-garde status, and limited its populist appeal considerably.

Cheadle’s Davis is a piece of work. He’s a black man with rock star status, a host of personal demons, and a one-in-a-million talent who has forgotten his ability to even blow a solid note throughout much of the film… More than just a jazzman, he’s presented almost as a Blaxploitation hero, an Afro-Sheened superfly dude whose own contradictions enhance rather than limit him as a culture hero.

“Miles Ahead” is not a by-the-numbers biopic. It probably won’t appeal to people looking for a Cliff Notes summary of every notable musical thing Davis ever did, and the celebrity cameos are almost non-existent, until the film’s end. The flimsy, circular plot takes a backseat to character development, and the one plot device which actually moves the story – other than the frequent flashbacks to a younger Miles – does so in an ironic and somewhat anticlimactic way. But rather than nitpick what isn’t in the movie, we can simply appreciate it for what it is.

Cheadle’s Davis is a piece of work. He’s a black man with rock star/style icon status, a host of personal demons, and a one-in-a-million talent who has forgotten his ability to even blow a solid note throughout much of the film. He has no moral qualms about strong-arming record executives to buy cocaine to feed his habit, throwing a quick punch at an unexpected visitor, or shooting out the window of a moving car. More than just a jazzman, he’s presented almost as a Blaxploitation hero, an Afro-Sheened superfly dude whose own contradictions enhance rather than limit him as a culture hero.


It helps, too, that we get liberal doses of Miles’ music throughout the film, from “Blue in Green” to “Solea” to “Black Satin” to “Nefertiti.” That adds context to what is being presented on screen – a period where Miles made almost no music – and fills in the plot holes by suggesting a much deeper backstory than what we see.

The film departs from historical fact so frequently, it soon becomes clear that’s not the point. Rather, “Miles Ahead” offers parable as metaphor, folktale as fable. We get frequent flashbacks to Miles’ wooing – and subsequent post-conquest arguments with – Frances Taylor, a black beauty who in real life graced three of his album covers, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi. However, by 1979, Davis had reunited with his former wife Cicely Tyson, who is never mentioned in the film – nor is Betty Davis, Miles’ muse during the Bitches Brew period, and a funk diva in her own right. Many other details are also fictionalized; the filmmakers chose to emphasize the feeling of being in the presence of Miles over pinpoint accuracy.


The abrupt ending is a case in point. Instead of seeing Miles reunite with his true love and gradually get a new band together for what would become The Man With The Horn sessions, we get a flash-forward into an alternate universe, where Davis jams with an all-star band of contemporary artists, among them guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. , pianist Robert Glasper, and bassist Esperanza Spalding. The two connections to actual history are pianist Herbie Hancock and saxman Wayne Shorter – who played with Davis, in his legendary “second Quintet.” Though this fictional concert comes off as a little heavy on the glitz, it’s intended to drive home the point that Davis’ legacy lives on, that his legend didn’t stop with Kind of Blue or Jack Johnson. But it also makes an unintended, ironic point, that fiction is stranger than truth.

Does it work? Mostly, although the flashier scenes tend to obscure the nuanced subtleties which are the film’s true strength. Don’t be surprised if the music stays in your head long after the credits roll and you subsequently find yourself on a Miles binge, either.




Bobi Cespedes

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Orisa Urban World Festival Promises Positive Vibrations and Spiritual Development

Luisah Teish

Luisah Teish

It’s the biggest religion you’ve never heard of. But unlike the Abrahamic religions, Orisa worship is an organic lifestyle and spiritual practice which revolves around ancestral elemental forces. Originally developed in West Africa, where it is also known as Yoruba and Ifa, Orisa came to the New World with the African human cargo transported on slave ships. There, it developed further into variants such as Lucemi, Condomble, Voudun and Santeria, and was often integrated into the imposed religion of Christianity, where Orisas were syncretized with Christian saints. Today, the Orisha tradition links places like Cuba, Trinidad, Haiti, and Brazil with Afro-Caribbean cultures in New Orleans, Miami and New York, as well as in its original home of Nigeria.

Orisa sacred music has long been a part of African, Latin, and Hispanic culture, and there are Orisa-affirming festivals all over the world. But until this weekend, there had never been an Orisa-themed festival in Oakland. That all changes with the Orisa Urban World Festival, a two-day event which kicks off Friday night at Oakstop with “Oro Lati Enu Awon Agba: When the Elders Speak,” a panel discussion of Ifa elders which also features musical performances by Zion Trinity, Charlotte Hill O’Neal & Awon Ohun Omnira, an African marketplace, and DJ Kobie Quashie.

On Saturday, the location shifts to the Uptown Nightclub, and features performances by Afro-Cuban singer and Lucumi priestess Bobi Cespedes, vocal harmony group Zion Trinity, urban world music artist WolkHawkJaguar, reggae-hip-hop fusion group Prosperity Movement, neo-soul vocalist Osunfemi Wanbi Njeri, former Flipsyde emcee Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira, and Afrocentric singer-songwriter  Sistah IMiNAH Orisabukola.

Orisa worship is a way of integrating the energy of the cosmos, the power of nature, the history of human civilization, and our individual and communal inheritance into a practice that engages our creativity and aligns us with our chosen destinies” — Luisah Teish

It’s a truly impressive lineup, and one which connects the spiritual and rhythmic practices of African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture with their elemental roots, through both contemporary and traditional forms.



Because something like this has never happened before in Oakland – a city known for its love of Afrocentric culture as well as its large black population – Oakulture thought it would be appropriate to ask the performers themselves to describe the significance of the event and explain what Orisa means to them.

According to Obafemi Origunwa, “Orisa lifestyle is sacred science, codified into day to day life. By aligning your life with the divine principles that govern the universe and the natural world, you learn to practice small acts that have a big impact on your life and the lives of those you’re destined to serve.”

Ifa priestess and storyteller Luisah Teish adds, “Orisa worship is a way of integrating the energy of the cosmos, the power of nature, the history of human civilization, and our individual and communal inheritance into a practice that engages our creativity and aligns us with our chosen destinies.”

While Orisa is an established practice, many people are still unfamiliar with ritual-mythic traditions. Origunwa says attendees should be aware that “òrìsà is the natural path. Everyone has ancestors. None of us sent ourselves into the world. We are all here to continue the missions handed down from our family lineages.”

Teish further elaborates: “First they must ask themselves whether their presence here is a response to a deep calling or a mere curiosity. If it is a mere curiosity, there is a lot of material online (a lot of it is pure trash) that they can access to entertain themselves. But if the attendees are impelled by ancestral calling to further investigate this path, I recommend that they connect with these or other elders/teachers who can perform divination, connect them with their ancestors, provide materials for study and guide them on a path of spiritual growth and destiny fulfillment.”

Mama C and members of Prosperity Movement

Mama C and members of Prosperity Movement

Unsurprisingly, there are many misconceptions about Orisa. Perhaps the biggest is that it is evil, or demonic. These misconceptions, Teish says, “were based on Eurocentric, Christian interpretations of our traditions as uncivilized, violent, and ineffective. Through the blessing of enlightenment, those notions are daily being disproven and dispelled.” However, she adds, “Some people fail to realize that Orisha are living entities-energies with real power and consciousness that is both receptive and responsive to human interaction.”

Origunwa notes that “people tend to fear what they do not understand. Because òrìsà tradition is so deeply embedded into Yoruba culture, which few people [in America] have been exposed to, it is convenient to project one’s fears onto practices, images and ideas that seem so foreign at first glance.”

Charlotte O’Neal aka Mama C also weighs in here: “many people look at African traditional spiritual paths in a somehow negative light, even going so far as to relate it to some form of ‘witchcraft’…This is so very obviously because of the brainwashing that continues in so many communities around the continent from the majority religions and missionaries from back in the day to present.”

Bobi Cespedes

Bobi Cespedes

One of the things the Orisa Urban World Festival hopes to clarify is the symbiotic relationship between spiritual and cultural tradition. As Origunwa says, “What we call arts are actually sacred disciplines, from the indigenous perspective. Poetry, music, dance and visual arts are all essential elements of the practice. They blend seamlessly together during rituals, ceremonies and festivals, as expressions of the òrìsà themselves. The arts reveal spiritual values, according to the will of the òrìsà.”

Teish adds that ancient traditions such as storytelling are indeed relevant in these modern times, while the purpose of the cultural arts “is to awaken and nurture the inherited genius each of us received from the Universe through the surviving intelligence of the ancestors. When we express that genius through the arts we affect people and things at an emotional-cellular level that goes beyond mere intellect and helps the person to experience a direct transmission of energy and wisdom to manifest transformation.”

Oakland is a lei line for spiritual development… Also, Oakland needs Orisha’s healing energy to address the challenges of poverty, violence, and pollution” — Luisah Teish

Bringing Orisa to Oakland is both intentional and significant, Teish says. “Oakland is a lei line for spiritual development. In the past we have looked to Cuba, Brazil, Haiti and places outside the U.S. (save New Orleans which is really a culturally Caribbean city inside the U.S.). We now have enough initiated priests in U.S. cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. to begin to manifest an African-American expression of our inherited genius. Also, Oakland needs Orisha’s healing energy to address the challenges of poverty, violence, and pollution.”

Having previously attended global events such as the Orisa World Congress in Nigeria, WolfHawkJaguar relates that the decision to bring an Orisa festival to Oakland was actually made by the Orisas themselves. “This is ancestor work. It’s what they called for and we give thanks they trusted us to carry out their wishes.” He goes on to note that the goal of the event is “to spread love, peace, prosperity and positive progressive universal vibes through our creations, giving thanks to our ancestors, our head, and our Orisa.”

For more information, or to buy tickets, click here.










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UnderCover Presents Drops A Big ‘Dookie’ On the Fox Theater

Live Music Review/ UnderCover Presents: A Tribute to Green Day’s Dookie. February 19, 2016, Fox Theater, Oakland.

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Green Day’s Mike Dirnt, Tre Cool, and Billie Joe Armstrong

It was something unpredictable, but when it happened, it was right. Fittingly, Billie Joe Armstrong got off perhaps the best line of the night: “It’s like a beautiful feeling and totally awkward at the same time. I don’t know if I was late for my funeral, or early to it.” The statement made perfect sense; the Green Day frontman, along with a couple thousand of rabid, hardcore fans and admirers crammed into Oakland’s Fox Theater, had just witnessed a pretty surreal experience. It’s not hard to imagine that for Armstrong, the scene felt like something he might experience in the afterlife. Ten locally-based bands had just performed cover versions of songs from Green Day’s 1994 breakthrough album Dookie, a certified power-pop or mainstream punk classic which has sold about, oh, approximately 20 million albums to date – making it one of the biggest-selling albums ever in Bay Area music history.

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Music Director  Brian Adam McCune and UnderCover Presents’ Lyz Luke

That in and of itself wasn’t surreal. What was surreal, however, were the various interpretations and extremely creative arrangements of the by now well-worn album, which reimagined Dookie’s source material as so much more than three chords, poppy melodies, introspective yet rebellious lyrics, furious drums, wraparound basslines, and a cloud of pot smoke.

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La Plebe’s Lupe Bravo

Only one band—Love Songs—performed what came close to a “traditional” or straight-ahead version of their selection, in this case “Pulling Teeth” – which was still infused with nuanced touches, although not too far from the original. The others twisted, pulled, reshaped, mutated and otherwise transmogrified the material, turning the proverbially pop-punkish album into a many-faceted musical amoeba. “Burnout” became an emo-indie rock testament to Grrrl Power in the hands of Marston. “Having a Blast,” as envisioned by La Plebe, affixed Éspañol vocals and skanking uptempo horns to a breakneck tempo. Sal’s Greenhouse sashayed through a soulful, funky take on “Chump” which sounded absolutely nothing like the original, highlighted by vocalist/saxophonist Sally Green’s powerhouse vocal chops and staccato horn riffs.

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Sally Green of Sal’s Greenhouse

Jazz Mafia Choral Syndicate’s “Longview” proved praiseworthy with a sanctified gospel arrangement which was as transcendent as it was mind-blowing, as soloists Trance Thompson, Tym Brown, Gabriela Welch, Joe Bagale, and Felecia Walker and a 35-member chorus took the entire house to church. Vocalist Moorea Dickson of MoeTar brushed up “Welcome to Paradise”—a song about squatting in a punk house in Oakland—with layers of glossy prog-rock sheen.

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Soloist Trance Thompson performs with Jazz Mafia’s Choral Syndicate

By far the lengthiest and most twisted Dookie cover played on this night was The Fuxedo’s wonderfully insane “Basket Case,” which took an already good song and made it into punk performance art, complete with shifting tempos and musical styles, multiple costume changes from Fuxedo frontman “Diabolical” Danny Shorago, and even dueling soliloquies about the pros and cons of prescription drugs — which may or may not allow one to see through squids.

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Diabolical Danny Shorago donned a mask for “Basket Case”

“She,” as played by Goodnight, Texas, imagined the American Idiots as Punk Americana, toning down the distorted fuzztones of the original in favor of Appalachian banjo and baritone guitar. It was back to way-out land after that, as Tunisian vocalist MC Rai sang “Sassafras Roots” in Arabic, complete with a belly-dancing interlude courtesy of Aimee Zawitz and Cora Hubbert. Which led up to “When I Come Around,” one of Green Day’s most-loved songs and a sonic template for what their career blossomed into. The version featured at the Fox was a contemporary and super-urban one by live electronic beatsmiths NVO which spotlighted former E-40 collaborator Bosko on talk box.

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Goodnight, Texas perform “She”

All of that preceded the mid-show interlude, wherein Green Day were ever so lightly roasted by their first manager, and then given a proclamation by Oakland’s mic-dropping mayor Libby Schaaf – who thus decreed that February 19th is now the wonderfully-redundant-sounding “Green Day Day.” Schaaf also said, “never let it be said that Oakland doesn’t know how to rock” – to which Oakulture agrees.

The proclamation went on to note that Green Day “has a cultural impact which spans generations,” which is certainly true. Many musicians (and even UnderCover Presents maven Lyz Luke)  that night noted that Dookie was the first album they bought, yet the audience was packed with twentysomethings who might have been one or two years old in 1994, as well as grizzled, mohawked, and tattooed punk rock veterans.

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Bosko’s talk box vocals were a highlight of “When I Come Around”

The three Green Day dudes (vocalist/guitarist Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool) looked out at the audience, often in what seemed like stunned amazement, mixed with churlish in-joke humor. Which was understandable. After all, they’ve played festivals for hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, yet been branded sellouts in their own home region, banished from their veritable point of origin — legendary East Bay punk mecca 924 Gilman – until very recently, when they played a secret show which eclipsed the venue’s no-major-label-artists ban enacted in 1994 in response to the release of Dookie.

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El Duque

Throughout that episode, one thing was clear: Armstrong and the boys had come full circle. They seemed to be into letting the moment sink in, not saying too much, showing no obvious signs of outward emotion (or unsobriety), yet evidently deeply touched by the outpouring of pure Dookie love. Armstrong then hung around for a minute to introduce the next band, Skank Bank, a young, energetic ska outfit who tackled the confessional “Coming Clean.” The Awesome Orchestra then set up for the next three songs: “Emenius Sleepus,” featuring Casey Crescendo, “In the End,” featuring Martin Luther, and “F.O.D.” featuring Tilt.

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MoeTar performed “Welcome to Paradise”

Can we just pause for a minute here to consider the implications of Green Day songs being played by an actual orchestra?  On a sociocultural level, it elevates punk way past a basic black leather aesthetic, and places it—almost—in the pocket of “high art.” Or at least conceptualized art. Yet the songs themselves remain in the punk canon, no matter how much eyeshadow or window dressing is applied to them. That is to say, Green Day’s music is still quite subversive when applied in this context.

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The show was a fund-raiser for 924 Gilman 

I’m sure other tributes could have been more by-the-numbers. But this was not that. This was a pop culture production which treated Dookie with the same reverence as the alien monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” if somewhat more humorously. An iconic piece of music worthy of reflection, yes, but also a template for further evolution. It’s hard to imagine anything more frivolous than more than 2,000 people singing along to the masturbation anthem “All By Myself” which closed the show, yet the Dookie tribute wasn’t strictly played for laughs and chortles.

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MC Rai sang “Sassafras Roots” in Arabic

On a more serious note, the event feted one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and groundbreaking bands, welcoming them as conquering heroes of the pop culture wars, while spotlighting local acts soon to garnish your personal affirmation of Bay Area bad-assery. The Dookie-fest may have been the most “official” thing to happen thus far for the East Bay punk scene, an underground factor since the mid-80s. Yet its reverberations went far beyond the sonic and cultural limitations of punk. What other recent Oakland event has resulted in a mic-dropping mayor? Or a LED-lit piece of poo (identified as “El Duque”) playing the mascot role to the hilt? Can we mention the freakin’ belly dancers again? Or the orchestra and choirs?

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Cora Hubbert performed with MC Rai

At the end of the day, the care, attention, and love UnderCover Presents put into the show – a benefit for 924 Gilman, who are attempting to buy their space and stave off the scythe of the gentrification reaper—was its silver lining and saving grace. There may never again be a local punk group honored at the Fox in this way.

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Tre Cool holds up the Mayor’s Proclamation of “Green Day Day”

But that matters little, in the wake of all the hoopla. The point was that this happened, on a scale equally as grand as 2015’s UnderCover Presents’ tribute to Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” It will go down in history as a night neither Green Day nor the audience will ever forget, as well as a show which could propel some deserving local acts to wider and greater recognition. If you missed the show, or just want to relive it, the studio recordings are available in CD and MP3 format, so you can get your Dookie on forever more, and perhaps even more importantly, support local artists and Bay Area music.

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Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong

In solidarity: Ieumsae


Life, Death, and Rhythm: Cultural Resiliency and Anti-Displacement Efforts Gaining Momentum in Oakland

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

So, let me get this straight: According to the New York Times, gentrification is going to save Oakland? That’s funny, almost, because that’s not the conversation Oaklanders are having about the Town they live in.

To recap: On October 3, journalism’s Grey Lady showed her true colors in an article ostensibly about the tragic murder of muralist Antonio Ramos, slain by a random act of violence while ironically working on a mural designed to heal trauma and beautify the hood. When we say ‘hood, we’re talking about freeway underpasses in West Oakland, which are typically not the parts of town you would show off to Marin socialites and international jet-setters.

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Yet in the Times’ view, the killing of a muralist was a blip on a forward march of foodie guidebook ratings, North Bay one-percenters mingling with pierced and tatted urchins during First Friday, and tech invaders annexing downtown, signaling Oakland’s arrival as – what, exactly? The Times didn’t specify.

What they did say was this: “the death of Antonio Ramos… was a reminder of the stubborn grit and crime that still cling to the city despite the gentrification boom that has fueled its reputation as Brooklyn by the Bay.” (emphasis added.)

Altar for Antonio Ramos

Altar for Antonio Ramos

The Times article went on to quote OPD Chief of Police Sean Whent as saying, “people are worried about gentrification because, I think, it does enhance conflict.” Yet, maybe because that point conflicted with the article’s insistence that gentrification is a desired and entirely serendipitous outcome for all, the writer just sort of let that comment hang. She went on to quote Mayor Schaaf, who seemed apologetic that she had to deal with the reality that good people like Ramos are sometimes murdered over nothing. “That’s the life of an Oakland mayor,” she said.

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Neither Schaaf nor the Times seemed to be able to grasp the essential dichotomy, that the mural Ramos was working on before he died was not about gentrifying Oakland for newcomers able to afford skyrocketing rents, but about beautifying an area whose primary demographic is black and poor, a woebegone, dark, and foreboding passageway which, prior to the mural, was primarily characterized by homeless people, birdshit, and carbon emissions – for the benefit of current residents.

As muralist Pancho Peskador, who witnessed the shooting, said, “This fucking freeway is pretty shady. It’s dark. It’s ugly.” But in doing the work, he added, “I see the transformation of it. It’s progress for the whole community.”

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Ramos’ death, sensationalized by the media, has catalyzed the mural project – the third in a series developed by non-profit Attitudinal Healing Connection. I hesitate to use the word martyr, but there’s been a tremendous outpouring of love for the fallen 27-year old artist, from candles, flowers, and altars which cover almost the entire 200 feet of sidewalk at the mural site, to a tribute piece painted in his honor by his art teacher Eric Norberg, to a renewed dedication to the mural’s mission by the surviving artists. Even before the mural has been completed, the effect is tangible: a once foreboding piece of turf is now a sanctified, hallowed ground. It’s as if Ramos was a blood sacrifice to the gods. That’s a hard price to pay, but one which will hopefully bring more peace and less violence.

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

Antonio Ramos didn’t die because Oakland isn’t being gentrified fast enough; he died because systemic  inequity and internalized oppression among people at risk of displacement  — on top of income gap, on top of daily pollution exposure, on top of police misconduct, etc., etc.,  — have degraded respect for life. As Project Director Dave Burke said, “that’s America” – not just Oakland.

The answer for Oakland isn’t more gentrification, although that seems fairly inevitable. The answer for Oakland is more art and culture which reflects, respects, and engages the community, celebrates diversity, and improves the quality of life in parts of town where cold-blooded murder can happen as quick as a furtive glance.

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

Speaking of life, there was plenty of it, in abundance, at this year’s Life Is Living Festival. Although there was some talk of the repercussions of not having a big headliners as in years past, that didn’t matter at all. Essentially, no one cared, because big headliners aren’t what people go to the festival for; the main reason to attend LIL is to be immersed in community and culture.

That was well-evident last Saturday. In the space of just a few hours, Oakulture experienced an African drum and dance circle; an amazing group of young Haitian musicians playing original compositions; an eye-popping demonstration of turf dancing; powerful sangin’ sistahs; equally powerful youthful spoken-word sheroes;  Town Park youths perfecting ollie grinds; and a streetful of people filling up the asphalt of 18th Street, dancing joyously to a baile funk DJ as the sunset glowed with iridescent hues of orange and red.

Life I Living Festival

Life Is Living Festival

Earlier, in a conversation with artist Brett Cook, I remarked that LIL seemed to embody the fulfillment of the Black Panthers’ vision of community-oriented social services intermingled with Afrocentric-leaning culture – a vision which began almost 50 years ago, and frequently utilized that same location (DeFremery Park, aka Lil Bobby Hutton Park). There were no overt politics on display, and the ideology being pushed essentially amounted to, celebrate life, the sunshine, and the people. It was a concrete example of what LIL producer Hodari Davis called “black joy in the hour of chaos.”

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

If LIL was a subtle anti-displacement initiative, somewhat less subtle was the Samba Funk-led #SoulOfOakland rally protesting a recent transplant’s attempt to shut down a drum cipher in honor of the Blood Moon, which ended in multiple citations and allegations of racial profiling and false accusations of assault. You may have heard about it; not only has reportage by Davey-D and others gone viral on social media, but Chronicle columnist and perennial Oakland hater Chip Johnson even weighed in, predictably defending OPD while chiding SambaFunk for riding the “racism train. “

To even go there, one has to ignore all the disturbing reports, not just of racial profiling by police, but of noise complaints against black churches, the non-profit-friendly Humanist Hall, and the Malonga Center—home to Oakland’s Afro-Diasporic dance and drum community—as well as the closure of the Burrito Shop on Lakeside and the Rock Paper Scissors collective on Telegraph, and reports that Uber’s relocation to the Sears building will accelerate gentrification even more.

In solidarity: Ieumsae

In solidarity: Ieumsae

As Oakulture previously noted, Oakland’s recent percent for art ordinance was hit with a lawsuit by developers before it could commission even one work, and a proposal for an arts-friendly project on the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium site was rejected by the City Council. Since then, more ominous news on the development front has come from the announcement of the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan and a SPUR report on the area — which specifically mentioned art in just one of 30 recommendations.

All of these are signs of the times, and if you connect the dots, it’s clear that what mainstream media calls a “gentrification boom” clearly means displacement for the have-nots.

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

But Samba Funk isn’t having that. Not without a fight. And by fight, they mean, drums, lots of them. And dancers. The rally at the lake followed a successful action on the steps of Frank Ogawa plaza, within earshot of City Hall, which was followed dutifully by a TV news crew. Samba Funk Artistic Director Theo Williams later spoke up at the City Council meeting; the vibrant drumming from outside the building was clearly audible as he testified about the original incident.

The momentum generated by the action coalesced into the “#SoulofOakland movement, whose first action was Sunday’s rally at the Lake. In the course of two incredibly full hours, participants were treated to First Nation drummers Manny Lieras and George Galvis doing indigenous songs of resistance, Korean drummers Ieumsae playing traditional instruments in the Poongmul style (a folk art associated with working class people and social justice), a Puerto Rican Bomba troupe led by Shefali Shah complete with long-skirted dancers, Haitian troupe Rara Tou Limen led by master drummer Daniel Brevil, and a Brazilian outfit.

SambaFunk's Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen's Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

SambaFunk’s Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen’s Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

It was a bit cute, light-hearted even, to see signs on people’s backs announcing “More Drumming, Less Gentrifying.” But there were serious undertones to the entire event. Cultural resilience is embedded into every beat of ethnic drums, and to experience a world-class exhibition of cultural diversity which was so much more than a drum circle – really, it was an anti-displacement ritual, and all that embodies – had a resonant impact. To hear tales of the Haitian defeat of Napoleon along with stories of the Ohlone village of Huichin gave a certain perspective which put gentrification, displacement, and cultural resistance in a historical context.

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Abel Guillen professed support for the cause, but microphone pontification was kept at a bare minimum, and; instead of long-winded speeches, the focus was on building and engaging community through drumming and dancing.

According to Lieras, “Drums and voices were the first instruments. Some of you who have been drumming for a long time understand the healing powers these drums possess. We believe inside these drums, there’s spirits… when we use this drum, it has ceremonial healing practices and purposes.”

As an Ieumsae spokesperson said, “Drumming is an act of resistance. What happened last week with SambaFunk is not ok, it’s a problem. It’s gentrifying the soul of Oakland, so we’re here in solidarity.”

Shefali Shah's Bomba troupe in action

Shefali Shah’s Bomba troupe in action

“We’re gonna be drumming here on a regular basis,” said Williams, adding that he was renaming the amphitheater “freedom center.” Every time we’re here, he said, “we’re gonna exercise our freedom.”

“This is what makes Oakland great. It’s our culture and our arts,” said Guillen, who reaffirmed his intention to reinstate the city’s now-defunct Cultural Arts Commission.

By the end of the day, nearly all of the audience had joined the dance section; off to the side, the percussion contingent, most wearing white, supplied the music as the dancers supplied the movement. If Williams had wanted to emphasize that cultural diversity and rhythmic expression are indeed the soul of Oakland, he succeeded. This was a mini ethnic dance and drumming festival, in a public space, which engaged community in interactive, inclusive activities and championed an inspired cause. All one needed to participate were a percussion instrument and/or your two feet.

Well-played, Sambafunk. Well-played.

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

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The Born Supremacy: Lyrics Born’s Galactic Funk Mafia Revue

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

Live music review/ Lyrics Born/October 9, 2015/ New Parish

When it comes to live rap performers, audience expectations tend to be on the low side. One can probably count the list of stellar live emcees with both hands. That number might drop in half if you throw in the caveat: must be able to rock with live musicians. It may come as no surprise to diligent Bay Area hip-hop fans that Lyrics Born’s recent blowout show at the New Parish exceeded expectations. What’s eye-opening, though, is just by how much.

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LB, as he’s often abbreviated, has always followed the beat of his own drummer.  (Read the Oakulture Q&A here and here.) Emerging way back in the early 90s as an original member of the Solesides (later Quannum) collective, the Berkeley High/Skyline alum went from alternative hip-hop pioneer to eccentric experimentalist to funky radio hitmaker to international sensation to cagey OG veteran status in the course of, oh, almost 25 years. Mixing tongue-twisting colloquialisms and an appreciation for both quirky individuality and funky, phat grooves, he’s ripped more guest appearances and collabs than you can shake a rhythm stick at, in addition to producing a solid catalog which includes four studio albums, two Latyrx full-lengths (with Lateef the Truthspeaker), a couple of remix albums and EPs, several mix tapes, a live album, and a few compilation albums. But as deep as his recorded history is, he’s straight-up supreme when it comes to live shows with live musicians, with whom he’s been working with since the early 2000s.

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LB released his latest album, Real People, a few months back, but hadn’t done an East Bay date until his rendezvous at the Parish last Friday night.  Wait, it gets better. Not only had LB never previously appeared at the venue, but his special guests included members of New Orleans funksters Galactic and Bay area jazzbeaux Jazz Mafia, along with musical director (and former Whitesnake bassist) Uriah Duffy, and his Latyrx spar Lateef. If that’s not a recipe for an amazing musical evening, we don’t know what is, and the show was even better in practice than it sounds on paper, er, computer monitor or mobile screen.

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Let’s just get this out front: the new album has some bangers on it, and benefits from the collaborative association with Galactic, with whom LB recorded with in New Orleans. But songs that just sounded ok on the studio disc were absolute monsters in a live context.  That’s all LB, right there: if you like his studio recordings, you’ll absolutely love his live stuff.

Oct 10 2015 136The set list contained a blend of old and new, but newer stuff like “Chest Wide Open,” “$ir Racha,” “Rockaway” and “All Hail the Queen” never struggled to keep pace with more familiar material like “Do That There,” “Top Shelf,” or “Hott 2 Deff”, and in many instances accelerated the evening’s intensity.  Another major factor in the live goodness is LB’s wife and background vocalist, Joyo Velarde. They’re just so comfortable together on stage there were no real moments of uncertainty during the 24-song set. It was more like, ‘we got this,’ throughout the entire evening. Thankfully, Joyo not only took a solo turn on “Unwind Yourself,” but also supplied the “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” backgrounds which take 2003’s “Bad Dreams” –one of LB’s signature tracks–into the ethereal.

Joyo Velarde

Joyo Velarde

LB’s confidence was such that his biggest hit, “Callin’ Out,” was rather casually tossed off during the last quarter of his set; the five-song encore included a James Brown cover, two new songs, and two fairly obscure yet sublime tunes: the 2013 Latryx single “Exclamation Point” and “Coulda Shoulda Woulda,” from 2010’s As U Were. It’s a given that the ‘Message’-esque bassline of “Lady Don’t Tekno” still causes convulsions after more than 20 years, but then the idea to lay the James Brown/Fred Wesley classic “The Payback” under the naughty yet urbane “I’m a Phreak” was unforeseen yet very welcomed.

Oct 10 2015 159What makes Lyrics Born so good? As was the case with the Blackalicious show at the Fillmore awhile back, he just puts on a master class in emceeing. His flows are beyond stupid fresh, and his refusal to embrace stereotypical rap cliches is always refreshing. But more to the point, besides displaying incredible technical prowess on the vocals, he adds the charismatic stage presence of a seasoned performer who is impeccable when in his element, as well as an enviable rapport with his band members which lends itself to seamless musical communication. On this evening, they appeared to be one of the best bands on the planet, locked tight into seemingly endless grooves which somehow didn’t lack for elasticity.