Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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The OAKQ&A: Judith Smith of AXIS Dance Company

AXIS dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Since its inception back in 1987,Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company has been a pioneer in the field of physically-integrated contemporary dance. Almost 30 years later, the idea of pairing disabled and non-disabled dancers is no less revolutionary than it was when the company started.  Although tremendous strides have been made in terms of legal and civil rights in that time, not to mention societal perceptions, when we think about what a truly-inclusive society would look like, disabled people are often the last marginalized group we consider.

After Judith Smith became wheelchair-bound at the age of 17, her desire to dance turned her into an activist. She co-founded AXIS in 1987, along with Thais Mazur and Bonnie Lewkowicz, and in 1997 became its Artistic Director. In 2000, AXIS scored three Isadora Duncan Awards, signaling that physically-integrated dance was not only a legitimate art form in the dance world – but an innovative, dynamic one at that. Since then, under Smith’s leadership, the company has notched three more Izzies, performed in more than 60 cities, and been the subject of serious critical review in major publications – exceeding previous expectations and raising the bar of what cultural inclusion looks like for the disabled community.

Though they’ve earned their place in the dance world, AXIS performances aren’t just for dance aficionados, however. The strong theater elements make their shows more universal than one might think; in addition to the unique movement dynamic physically-integrated dance brings to the table, there’s a cerebral element present which causes viewers to rethink what it means to be human and how much of human expression is a kind of adaptation. Not to mention an emotional element which can lend an intense sense of poignancy and urgency in how it makes you feel. Based in the Malonga Center in downtown Oakland, AXIS opens up its home season with tonight’s premiere of “Onward,” featuring works by Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode, Alex Ketley, and Bobbi Jene Smith.

Oakulture recently caught up with Smith during a rehearsal, and she was gracious enough to share her artistic process and wise words of wisdom with us – and you. Check it out:

Judith Smith

Judith Smith

Oakulture: What’s the least-challenging aspect of being artistic director of a physically-integrated dance company?

Judith Smith: Probably finding great choreographers and composers to work with is the least-challenging, because there’s so many great people out there. That’s the fun part, looking at other people’s work and trying to figure out how it would match AXIS and our aesthetic with our particular combination of dancers.

Oakulture: You took over as Artistic Director of AXIS in 1997. How have perceptions of the company changed over that time?

Judith Smith: Well, I think the big driver for me was increasing the artistic quality of our work and the professionalism of the company. So I would say that when we started commissioning work from really well-known choreographers and composers, that really changed how people looked at the work. Because when critics would come to review us, it was hard for them to talk about the work. When we started working with other choreographers, they could review us in the context of what they knew about that choreographer’s work. So I think also the fact that our first repertory show, our first home season, in 2000 after I took over, was Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Sonya Delwaide, you know, it was a pretty impressive lineup. So, I think it gave us a stamp of validity that we didn’t really have: ‘Oh yeah, these people are really dancing, and they’re really doing dance. And they’re serious about their work. It’s not therapy.’

Oakulture: At the recent Othering and Belonging conference, you spoke about how AXIS wasn’t intended to be political, but you realized that there was an inherent realpolitik in what you’re doing. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it political? And would you consider yourself an activist?

Judith Smith: I am definitely an activist. I am an activist by default in some ways. I didn’t grow up in a politically-active family. I became disabled when I was 17 and that was a long time ago at this point. And we didn’t have the ADA, we didn’t have the 504 and we didn’t have all of these laws that we have today. So, advocating for myself, advocating for my community, had just been something Ive had to learn to do.  We didn’t start AXIS with the intention that we were going to go out and change people’s minds about disability. We really just wanted to dance. But we realized that we still, until recently, rarely saw a disabled person on TV. Or in a music video. Or in an advertisement. And, when we started dancing, it was very very rare to see a disabled person onstage, let alone collaborating with non-disabled people in a way that was equal. There are still theaters in San Francisco that we can’t get into, because they’re up a flight of stairs. We’re 25 years into the ADA. How are people even getting away with that now? They wouldn’t be in a theater where somebody that was gay couldn’t get to, or somebody that was black couldn’t get to, or someone that was Muslim couldn’t come to. So, we’re still systematically discriminated against in terms of our little small community here, our little dance community. And I think we really have done a lot of educating here, with presenters and funders. When we started writing California Arts Council grants, in the demographic breakdown, there wasn’t a box for ‘disabled.’ So I’d make a box and I’d check it and I’d write it in. So now disability is, not always, but often included in the demographics that people are collecting. And it’s, not always, but often included in the list of what multiculturalism is. I think Barack Obama was probably the first president to mention people with disabilities, as part of the multicultural part of his speech. There’s buses we can’t even get on. It’s just part of trying to have a life and be active in the world, I think you have to be an activist if you’re disabled.

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“We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody.” – Judith Smith

Oakulture: AXIS productions aren’t just dance. They embody aspects of spoken word and theater, and employ both social and personal commentary. For example, Joe Goode’s “To Go Again” is about veterans, and addresses the need for resiliency in the face of life-changing events. Why is it important to you to have these kind of multifaceted productions?

Judith Smith: Well, it became important because I saw Joe Goode’s work and I really liked his work. And he’s a dance theater person, so he does like to use song, and he does like to use text. Our early works were often about disability, very directly. We made a choice to not do things specifically about disability. Our early works were [also] very narrative, so it’s kind of something… we’ve used text from our first piece, that we performed at Calvin Simmons in 1998. In the Dance Brigades dance festival, the Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. So I just feel it’s, being a contemporary dance company, doing dance theater and doing pieces that include text and narrative, it just makes sense.

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Oakulture: In the description of one of your video clips on Vimeo, it says, “these works were chosen as examples of the movement vocabulary, virtuosity, partnering and theatricality” of AXIS.  What do each of these concepts mean to you?

Judith Smith: Well, movement vocabulary, our vocabulary is obviously very different than most contemporary dance companies, because most contemporary dance companies have dancers that are all moving relatively similarly. We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody. Virtuosity, I love seeing very very virtuosic dance, you know, the dance that is at the level of San Francisco Ballet or Lines or ODC or the non-disabled dancers of AXIS. And disabled dancers’ virtuosity is often very different. It’s one of those things where you cant watch somebody walking across the stage and it can be completely  mesmerizing, because it has to do with their presence, and their intention. Virtuosity for me, its not just physical. And all of our dancers work on whatever their virtuosity is, to keep growing that and improving that.

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But it’s different for every dancer, I think. Partnering, well, again, because we have so many different ways of moving, the options for partnering and the abilities for partnering are just expansive. It never ceases to amaze me. When we first started working with outside choreographers, it was the way they would see us partnering that was so much fun and so exciting and took us to places we couldn’t see. They’d be like, I’d like to see this and you’re kinda like, ok, well, we’ll try it. The partnering is just so exciting when you’re utilizing the way a wheelchair travels, or the way a crutch handles weight, you know the architecture that a cane or a crutch makes… the partnering options are really expanded. Theatricality kind of speaks for itself. Some dance pieces are much about the movement, about the music, about the timing, whatever. And then some, like Joe’s piece, are theatrical. I think Sonya Delwaide’s work is always very theatrical, even though it’s often abstract, she brings a theatricality into her work.

Tickets for AXIS’ 2015-16 Season are here.

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Flamenco En Vivo Brings Spain’s Passionate Dance to Oakland

Dance/Music review: Flamenco en Vivo, March 20, Bissap Baobab Oakland

Flamenco isn’t just a dance, it’s a culture. Also known as Gitano music, it developed around the Romani peoples (Gypsies) in Andalusian Spain, and is typified by rapid-fire acoustic guitar runs, a dance form which alternates between expressive hand motions, acrobatic twirls, and foot-stomping percussion,  syncopated hand-clapping (called palmas), and passionate singing, often with sad or ironic lyrics.  One of the most-key aspects of flamenco is its devotion to improvisation – which leads to a feeling of being “in the moment” during live performance.

Yaelisa enters the flamenco zone

Yaelisa enters the flamenco zone

Last Friday saw the debut of “Flamenco en Vivo,” a new monthly flamenco party at Bissap Baobab Oakland, an African-themed restaurant and burgeoning center for global culture which is an offshoot of its sister venue in San Francisco. The force behind “Flamenco en Vivo” is Yaelisa, one of the Bay Area’s most accomplished flamenco choreographers, teachers, and performers, who told Oakulture the new party replaces the now-defunct “Caminos Flamencos” night at Duende.

Melissa Cruz and Yaelisa

Melissa Cruz and Yaelisa

Yaelisa assembled a formidable team for “Flamenco en Vivo”’s debut: dancer, teacher (and LoCura member) Melissa Cruz, guitarist Jason McGuire, percussionist Marlon Aldana, and singer Jose “El Grillo” Blanco. That’s truly a world-class lineup, with more than one hundred years combined experience (!).

Yaelisa and Jason McGuire

Yaelisa and Jason McGuire

Still, it remained to be seen how the music would do in BBO, a venue which is slightly larger than the typical intimate environs preferred by flamencos. The answer? Very well indeed. Yaelisa and Cruz began the performance with a duet which spotlighted their ability to move in rhythmic unison. Then each performed a solo dance. This pattern repeated throughout the night, with short break in-between (which allowed the dancers to change outfits).

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

No two flamenco dancers dance the same, and it was interesting to note the contrast between Yaelisa’s style—which emphasized flamenco tradition, with graceful hand motions and dramatic pauses—and Cruz’ energetic take on the form, which relied more on sudden twists and turns. Both were exquisite in their technique and powerful in their footwork, lifting their skirts from time to time so the audience could see what their feet were doing.

Yaelisa

Yaelisa

McGuire was on fire throughout the evening, tapping his guitar like a cajon when he wasn’t displaying a ridiculously-quick fingerstyle worthy of (recently departed master guitarist) Paco de Lucia. El Grillo and Aldana added to the sublime-ness of the show, adjusting to the tempo—which the dancer calls out, signaling with foot-taps—as necessary, and making the entire thing look easy. In truth, though, the level of musicianship was as elevated as the level of dancing. It’s not an overstatement to say that you’d have to travel to Spain to see an equal or higher level of flamenco performance.

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

The crowd appeared to be fairly evenly-split between hardcore flamenco devotees and newcomers to the art form. But even if the technical aspects of what was happening on the floor went over their heads, the visual thrill of watching the dancers was tangible; particularly-impressive movements were punctuated with yells of “Ole!,” as Yaelisa and Cruz summoned up what must have been incredible inner strength to stack frenzied flurry on top of frenzied flurry. Just when you thought they’d expended all their moves, they’d flow into another eye-popping sequence (pro tip: in flamenco, the dance performance isn’t done until the dancer returns to her chair), extending the excitement level.

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

They even got the crowd into it at the end, bringing up several audience members, some of them flamenco students, onstage to strut their stuff. All in all, it was a great introduction to flamenco for the Baobab Oakland crowd, and something which should not be missed!

An audience member joins the dance!

An audience member joins the dance!

The next “Flamenco en Vivo” is April 17 at Bissap Baobab Oakland. More info about Yaelisa’s classes and upcoming performances is here. More info about Melissa Cruz’ classes and upcoming performances is here.


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2014: The Year in Oakulture

Town Representer: Kev Choice

Town Representer: Kev Choice

2014 started out with a bang, with the release of Kev Choice’s Oakland Riviera album last January. The album, released independently through Choice’s own label, received little national attention. But it was easily one of the best releases of the year in any genre, and one which not only proved that Choice’s progression from sideman to bandleader was complete, but also galvanized Oakland’s urban music scene in the direction of conscious messages and aesthetic quality. Oakland Riviera established a local benchmark for virtuosity and musical intersectionality, as Choice fluidly alchemized hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz grooves with a hint of electronic finesse, in the process showcasing not only his own prowess as an emcee/producer/arranger/maestro, but also the considerable talents of a long list of local collaborators, which included Jennifer Johns, Lalin St. Juste, Erk Da Jerk, Viveca Hawkins, Mr. FAB, Phesto Dee, Zumbi Zoom, Howard Wiley, Marcus Shelby and many more. Yet for all the album’s collaborative nature, it was Choice’s solo material which heralded the most praise, from the moody and melodic urban instrumentals named after Oakland streets (“Int’l Blvd,” “MacArthur’s Mood,” “Foothill Dip”) to the uber-socially-conscious, Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusions,” which closed the album.

The album’s title, Choice said in an interview, isn’t an actual place, but rather a reflection of his life experiences: “There’s no specific place called Oakland Riviera, but it kind of grew as a concept in my mind and I started thinking how could I express that. With me being a musician from Oakland and traveling around the world and also, me being an emcee and being a pianist and a composer, it’s almost like bringing different elements together to make one world.”

Choice proved to be a ubiquitous presence throughout the year, dominating the live music scene and even weighing in from social media-land on town business and international runnings while touring Europe with The Coup. Some other Oakland music artists who built up strong momentum this year include Jahi, the veteran conscious hip-hopper who is now a part of the Public Enemy family and its next-generation outfit PE2.0, and The Seshen, the retro-futuristic band headed by St. Juste, who signed to the Tru Thoughts label and won Best In Show at the Oakland Indie Mayhem Awards on the strength of their trip-hoppy single “Unravel.”

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The Shadowbox opens

Speaking of The Coup, not only did they firm up their international credentials, touring France, Germany, Italy, and England, but their frontman Boots Riley also proved fairly ubiquitous, expanding his artistic repertoire with “The Coup’s Shadowbox”—a  performance art piece at the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts featuring installations by Jon-Paul Bail, surprise guest performers, and dancing puppets—and “Sorry to Bother You”—a darkly ironic, infinitely humorous screenplay published in McSweeney’s Quarterly, a segment of which was performed during SF’s Litquake festival.

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

February saw the 51Oakland folks team with the Elevate Foundation and the tsarina of the timbales, Sheila E., for the “Elevate Oakland” all-star benefit at the Fox Theater – one of the few shows at the renovated, iconic venue to prominently feature local artists.

The concert, a benefit for music programs in Oakland schools, emphasized the community-oriented nature of the city’s musician contingent, which sometimes seems to be more weighted toward social awareness and activism than outright commerciality. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it is a thing you’ll find here.

Sheila E. at the Elevate Oakland fund-raise

Sheila E. at the Elevate Oakland fund-raiser

In addition to Ms. E—fabulous as always—featured artists included Choice (who took the stage with a group of young musicians he’d been mentoring, the Future Shock Quartet), Goapele, Michael Franti, and the Castlemont Choir.

Jennifer Johns performs live at Oakstop

Jennifer Johns performs live at Oakstop

The intersection of tech and culture—played out against a backdrop of encroaching gentrification, reports of displacement, and the influx of silicon-coated dollars into the city’s coffers as well as the dubious new “techbro” demographic—was a definite undercurrent of Oakland in 2014. Two new co-working spaces, Oakstop and Impact Hub, opened within a half-mile of each other and immediately established themselves as Uptown destinations; both went out of their way to emphasize arts  and culture as part of their mission, hosting book release parties by painter James Gayles and vegan soul food chef Bryant Terry, as well as various film screenings, panel discussions, and live performances.

Author and chef Bryant Terry at Impact Hub

Author and chef Bryant Terry at Impact Hub

After taking a month off, First Fridays returned in style in March. While the monthly street party may have jumped the shark in late 2012, when it topped out at 15,000 attendees, it remains an important part of the city’s cultural arts fabric.

First Fridays jam session with Kev Choice, Hassan Hurd, Uriah Duffy, and King Theo Sambafunkquarian

First Fridays jam session with Kev Choice, Hassan Hurd, Uriah Duffy, and King Theo Sambafunkquarian

While many locals may be over First Fridays as a must-be-at happening, the Uptown street crawl is still an important draw for non-residents, and the distillation of all that energy has resulted in more micro-scenes and curation/activation of venues both on and off the Telegraph/Broadway strip. In short, we’re seeing more events, more parties, and more action around FF, which helps to further the notion of Oakland as an arts-friendly town that is starting to overtake San Francisco as a cultural incubator, if it hasn’t already.

One example of a socially-aware happening you probably wouldn’t have seen in SF was the Betti Ono Gallery’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” exhibition, which combined performance and visual art, documentary and social commentary to address the issue of catcalling.

"Stop telling Women to Smile" at Betti Ono

“Stop Telling Women to Smile” at Betti Ono

As Oakulture wrote at the time, “Envisioned by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, “STWTS” includes both gallery exhibitions and a street art campaign… Fazlalizadeh’s striking large drawings of local women with captions imparting their responses to unwanted attention.” The campaign not only garnered international recognition, but made the front page of the culture section of the New York Times; the fact that Fazlalizadeh debuted the work at an Oakland gallery speaks to the city’s growing cultural gravitas.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Fast-forwarding to this past August, we saw the first-ever exhibition of turf dancing—the Oakland-originated dance craze which has gone international, thanks to the efforts of the supremely talented Turf Feinz—at the Art & Soul Festival. It’s always interesting to see how an underground-born art form does when exposed to a wider audience, and turf dancing came through with shining colors.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Dream tribute

Street art was also huge in 2014. Significant public murals were painted around town by the Attitudinal Health Collective, Community Rejuvenation Project, Vogue TDK, and a collaborative effort in solidarity with Palestine which included Spie, Deadeyes and Emory Douglas.

Dream Day, the annual event celebrating the legacy of Mike “Dream” Francisco, brought out several generations of graffiti artists and their friends and families to a West Oakland location which was then blessed with on-the-spot pieces, as well as live performances from rappers Richie Rich and Equipto. One of the defining characteristics of Oakland’s urban art scene is the crossover between street and gallery mediums, and the intersectionality between art and activism – which revealed itself at galleries like Warehouse 416, Betti Ono, Oakstop, SoMar, and SoleSpace. If you weren’t being exposed to mind-blowing art, much of it aerosol-oriented, this year, chances are you didn’t get out much.

Umoja Festival

Umoja Festival

Speaking of getting out, 2014 was a great year to be out and about in Oakland, thanks in large part to the many festivals around town which built community, offered peeks into cultural windows, and otherwise allowed large crowds to get their groove on simultaneously. In addition to old favorites like Art & Soul, Life Is Living, and the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, relative newcomers like the Ethiopian culture celebration Home Away From Home and the Umoja Festival spotlighted diversity and Pan-African unity, while the Oakland Music Festival transformed the downtown into a large concert venue, complete with massive stage. We can’t forget the Oakland Indie Awards, either, held at the beautiful Kaiser Rooftop Gardens, which again featured an impressive promenade and performance by the SambaFunk Funkquarians, in full carnival attire.

Funkquarians at the Oakland Undie Awards

Funkquarians at the Oakland Indie Awards

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Hiero Day: 20,000+ strong — and growing

The third annual installment of homegrown hip-hop heroes Hieroglyphics’ free event Hiero Day swelled to more than 20,000 folks this year, representing a triumph for the non-mainstream, underground hip-hop culture Hieroglyphics has helped to cultivate for more than two decades. Highlights included Los Rakas’ simmering performance and a surprise Deltron 3030 set.

ESAA mural in the San Antonio district

ESAA mural in the San Antonio district

It was also nice to see East Side Arts Alliance’s first-ever block party in the San Antonio district, one of the most culturally-diverse neighborhoods in the entire country.

Live performances were part of the fuel which kept Oakland percolating in 2014. Some of the memorable ones Oakulture witnessed in 2014 included:  Queendom, an all-female hip-hop throwdown which established an alternative narrative to hoodrat hip-hop and rachet rap; the Town Futurist Sessions, a progressive, Afrofuturist space where creativity and experimentality freely mingled; Bang Data’s en fuego record release party at SF’s Independent; Jose James’ wonderfully sinuous rendition of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” at the New Parish; and the Funky Meters’ ear-pleasing extended jam session, also at the New Parish.

Fantastic Negrito at Town futurist Sessions

Fantastic Negrito at Town Futurist Sessions

Melissa Cruz at Birdland's Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Melissa Cruz at Birdland’s Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Two new music venues, Leo’s Music Club in Temescal, and Birdland Jazzista Social Club in North Oakland, expanded the music scene past the Uptown/downtown nexus, offering everything from legendary New Orleans drummers to up-and-coming jazz acts to international hip-hop and intimate flamenco gatherings.

Quite possibly the best live performance Oakulture saw in 2014, though, also took place at YBCA, whose “Clas/Sick Hip Hop: 1993 Edition” revisited the much-storied Golden Era of hip-hop with a mostly Oakland-based group of emcees performing classic by 2Pac, Souls of Mischief, Saafir, Black Moon, Queen Latifah, and others.

U.N.I.T.Y.: the women of Oakland hip-hop

U.N.I.T.Y.: the women of Oakland hip-hop

Choice, unsurprisingly, was all up in the mix as bandleader, arranger, and occasional rapper, and the emotional crescendo was a mindblowing rendition of the female empowerment anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.,” featuring Zakiya Harris, Aima the Dreamer, Ryan Nicole, Viveca Hawkins, and Coco Peila. As Oakulture wrote at the time,  the performance “evoked a sea of epiphanies, none greater than the notion that Harris and Co. had tapped into hip-hop’s elemental womb and stuck a chord of long-overdue gender balance, releasing a flood of amniotic lyrical fluid which coated the audience’s ears with sticky bliss. Hip-hop may be a mostly male-dominated art form, but in keeping with YBCA’s Left Coast ideology, the Bay Area’s female emcees reigned like queens.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Kufu paints for #Ferguson

There was a lot of positivity within Oakland’s cultural arts community, but everything wasn’t all good nationally. Simmering tensions over race, injustice, and the ongoing deaths of young black males at the hands of the police boiled over in 2014, resulting in coast to coast protests and the beginning of a long-overdue conversation which threatened to overshadow every other topic worth discussing. The national reverberations of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner incidents resonated strongly with a community which had already been in activist mode, ever since the death of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, and which had also taken last year’s Trayvon Martin situation to heart.

Author Jeff Chang at SoleSpace Gallery

Author Jeff Chang at SoleSpace Gallery

So when the Ferguson decision came down, Oakland’s artivists were ready. Oree Original, Favianna Rodriguez, Refa One, the Dignidad Rebelde collective, and the Trust Your Struggle collective were among those who helped spread the #Blacklivesmatter meme through political art. During the protests, the Solespace Gallery held down much-needed space in what seemed like the eye of the hurricane for a moment, offering a safe place for art and community gathering, and refusing to board up its windows. It also hosted a book release party for Jeff Chang, the Berkeley-based author of “Who We Be” – a timely, ultra-relevant look at the intersectionality between the politics of race and the cultural debate over multiculturalism.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Palestine Solidarity mural by Spie TDK

Where national politics are concerned, Oakland represents a bit of a bubble – it’s both more diverse and more progressive than most of the rest of the country, and that progressive diversity informs its culture in many ways, both overt and subtle. The creative arts, it seems, are never too far from what’s happening on the streets, the blocks, and the boulevards. Count Oakulture as among those who wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 


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Leo’s and Birdland Expand Oakland’s Live Music Scene Past Uptown

It’s perhaps no surprise that ground zero for Oakland’s much-ballyhooed cultural renaissance has been the Uptown area, a region centered around the Fox Theater. After all, the city poured in upwards of $90 million to renovate the art deco auditorium, so it makes sense that much of the emerging nightlife, not to mention the monthly First Friday street festival, has been within a half-mile-to-one-mile radius of the Fox.

Zigaboo Modelliste plays with the New Ahkestra at Leo's

Zigaboo Modeliste plays with the New Aahkesstra at Leo’s

But for Oakland to truly be an arts city and cultural destination, it’s in everyone’s best interest to cultivate other sectors of the Town. That’s why it’s gratifying for longtime Oakland arts enthusiasts to see the beginnings of arts districts in areas other than Uptown, and the development of new venues for music and arts. Two recent additions to the nightlife scene in Temescal and nearby North Oakland have done just that: Leo’s Music Club and Birdland Jazzista Social Club.

Legendary Drummer Zigaboo Modeliste

Legendary drummer Zigaboo Modeliste

Leo’s takes its name from the former pro audio shop located there, which was the place to buy musical equipment in the days before Guitar Center. This lends it some unique character and history, as well as a particularly advantageous facet: the place has excellent acoustics and is what you’d call a “loud” room. The dimensions are such that the sound bounces quite easily from the stage area to the slightly tilted ceiling, which should make it especially attractive for acoustic acts. It also makes for better views for the audience, whether you’re in the front or the back. It’s a small but cozy room, with a capacity for 200 or so folks, although it only takes a quarter of that to make it sound full. Operated by the Parish Entertainment Group, who also own the New Parish and Brick and Mortar, Leo’s plugs a needed hole—that of a smallish, professional venue outside of Uptown’s nightlife nexus.

Guest emcee CB jams with Zigaboo Modeliste

Guest emcee CB jams with Zigaboo Modeliste

Thusfar I’ve seen two shows at Leo’s: STRFKR and Zigaboo Modeliste and the New Aahkesstra. For the former, an indie/alternative rock act, the background lights were set to full disco illumination. Glam on. But for the latter, the lighting changed up and was much softer overall. That suggests Leo’s is a chameleon, a venue which can adapt according to who’s inside on any given night.

members of the New Aahkesstra

Members of the New Aahkesstra

A quick word about Zigaboo: do Temescal residents know how lucky they are to have a legend like him play in their neighborhood club? Modeliste is, of course, the original drummer of the Meters, “the” NOLA swamp funk band, and one of the most-sampled drummers in history. As a skinsman, he’s still top-notch, and the opportunity to play authentic New Orleans-style funk explains why he was surrounded by young sidemen with chops. Modeliste also supplied a fair amount of lead vocals, and most of the band’s originals were party-oriented jams with lots of call-and-response chants.

This cat can blow!

This cat can blow!

What makes a music club special is the feeling that anything can happen, and that expectation was totally vindicated by a cameo by CB of jazz-hop veterans Alphabet Soup, who rocked an energetic freestyle rhyme that got the crowd into it. Another special moment happened when a guest trumpeter–i didn’t catch his name–sat in and added some brassy punch to the Aahkesstra’s vibe. Though it’s technically a “new” venue, Leo’s has a bit of an old-timey feel to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a go-to spot for bands with enough of a following to sell out a small-to-medium venue. And it’s a no-brainer as a drop-in place to catch a show and check out the crowd for Temescalians, who have long lacked a neighborhood live music club.

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Moving right along, how does one even explain Birdland to someone who’s never been there? Let’s try: jazz space, blues space, salsa space, flamenco space, comfy feel, great ambience, low-key vibe. That’s for starters. Oh yeah, the walls are lined with birdhouses everywhere, and there’s a hookah lounge in the back. A former speakeasy gone legit, the Birdland Jazzista Social Club is probably the best new live venue in Oakland, in spite of itself.

Remember those special moments I talked about, awhile back? In just a few weeks, I’ve seen jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer, the debut of the monthly Oakland Flamenco Sessions with guest cantor MC Rai, and Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux with her live band. That’s a lot of heat for just one venue.  Every weekend, the venue hosts two full programs of live entertainment, and they’ve just added a Salsa program (“Salssista”) on Sundays. There are also classes and workshops, with more TBA.

Jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer at Birdland

Jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer at Birdland

But the best part of Birdland is the effect it’s had on the neighborhood. Jazzista #1 “Birdman” Mike Parayno, aka “Kuya Meng” and his team of volunteers have helped to organize several other venues in the neighborhood — including Marcus Books and the MLK Cafe — to create a pop-up arts district, with plans to hold a monthly festival. That’s creative placemaking at its best. Since the venue is at present a private club and BYOB spot, holding a BJSC membership card even gets you a discount at the two local liquor stores – that’s called going the extra mile.

"Birdman Mike" Parayno

“Birdman Mike” Parayno

Having said that, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also note that I am the official Birdland photographer and have known the Birdman for fifteen years; also, my girlfriend is the promoter of the Oakland Flamenco Sessions. But BJSC clearly stands on its own merits: its move to its new nest accumulated an armful of positive press without Oakulture stoking the fire, and positive press around the cultural arts is exactly what Oakland needs more of, especially in parts of town which are not Uptown.

Birdland Marquee

Birdland marquee

It wasn’t that long ago that nighttime robberies were common a few blocks down at the legendary Eli’s Mile High Club, which happens to be in “Ghosttown,” and has turned into primarily a punk/indie rock spot (with an in-house tattoo parlor) under current ownership. While MLK Ave can still be sketchy late at night, Birdland—which is just north of the Ghosttown “border”—has brought authentic blues and jazz back into the area, and even has a tuk tuk-style shuttle for patrons using BART (just two blocks away). With every week that passes, it seems to become more a part of the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, and a good example of organic development fueled by culture-keepers – as opposed to inorganic gentrification fueled by developers.

Leo’s upcoming shows are here; BSJC upcoming shows are here. If I were you, I wouldn’t miss LoCura at Leo’s 11/8 or the next OFS at Birdland 11/15.


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Turfin’ USA

Dance Review/ TurfInc. 2nd Anniversary all-styles battle, 7/26/14 @ Classic Cars West; YAK to the Bay 2-on-2 all-styles competition, 8/2/14 @Frank Ogawa Plaza

Oakland is celebrated for many things, but one of the Town’s greatest cultural inventions is turf dancing or turfin’. For those unaware, turfin’ is a street-oriented dance form. It draws from many influences, including popping, boogaloo, b-boying, and krumping, but it has its own unique flavor. It’s an urban ballet of sorts which can be both graceful and aggressive in approach – sometimes simultaneously.

A Turf Inc. dancer catches wreck.

A Turf Inc. dancer catches wreck.

One signature aspect of turfing is the footwork; while turfers often glide and moonwalk, they make a point of balancing on their toes. Another is the intricate hand and arm movements, which require tremendous flexibility:  turfers can become contortionists, twisting their limbs seemingly to the point of muscular dislocation. Acrobatic, gravity-defying displays are not uncommon during a twisting, turning exhibition of turf skills. There’s also an element of pantomiming, of telling a story through physical movements. Turfers will sometimes pop their collars while foot-gliding, and use their t-shirts or hoodies as a prop. Body isolation—looking one way while moving in another direction—is another common aspect of turfing. And of course, dreadlocked turfers will often shake their locks like whirling dervishes.

Yet for all its explosive expressiveness, turfing can be very subtle at times; in this regard, it’s not dissimilar to flamenco, another improvisational artform which started on the streets and relies on passion to power the emotional intensity of its performances.

The most skilled turfers will have an arsenal of techniques, which they will deploy as necessary, according to the emotion they may feel at any given time. Which brings us to perhaps the most significant aspect of turfing: it’s highly-improvisational. While individual dancers, duos and groups will sometimes choreograph routines, probably 90% of what you see at a turf dance battle literally happens on the fly. So there’s always an element of surprise – you never know what could happen next.

Dummy demonstrates a signature move at Art & Soul.

Dummy demonstrates a signature move at Art & Soul.

Turfing first came to prominence in 2006, when two of the preeminent Oakland crews, the Turf Feinz and Anamaniaks, were featured in the video for E-40’s hyphy-era anthem, “Tell Me When to Go,” shot at East Oakland’s Youth Uprising.

Hard to believe, but it’s been almost a decade since then. In those years, turfing has become a national and even international phenomenon. With that being said, the artform is still alive and well in its place of origin, and a new generation of turf-happy youngsters, along with seasoned veterans who have become cultural stewards of the artform, are keeping it thriving.

Turfer Girl Watches as Android does the splits during the Turf Inc. all-styles battle

Turfer Girl Watches as Android does the splits during the Turf Inc. all-styles battle

Recently, Oakulture was blessed to witness two huge turfing exhibitions. The first was an all-day event held at Classic Cars West, presented by Oaktown Indie Mayhem in conjunction with Turf Inc., celebrating Turf Inc. – an organization created by turfing OG Johnny 5 – ‘s 2nd anniversary. Besides the colorful bunch of folks who came out, the event was significant in that it featured the first-ever all-styles, all-female competition. That battle, which attracted participants from as far as Atlanta and New York, was won by Oakland’s own Turfer Girl. While not as limber or athletic as some of her competition – NYC b-girl Android, who went up against Turfer Girl in an early round, was clearly the more flexible of the two; while Atlanta’s Angel, who placed 2nd, had a nice fluidity to her – Turfer Girl’s mastery of pure turf skills clearly won her technical difficulty points with the judges.

Eventual winner Turfer girl shakes her dreads at the Turf Inc. all-styles battle.

Eventual winner Turfer girl shakes her dreads at the Turf Inc. all-styles battle.

The second big throwdown was at this year’s Art & Soul festival, which featured turfing prominently during an all-styles 2-on-2 battle presented by YAK films and witnessed by thousands of festival attendees. The big story of the battle was the emergence of the diminutive wonders, Dem Bague Boys — two elementary school-aged brothers who deftly and nimbly served up an array of b-boy/breakdance skills and beat several more-established, older teams on their way to a final showdown against Krow and Intricate.

One of Dem Bague Boys busts a headspin at Art & Soul

One of Dem Bague Boys busts a headspin at Art & Soul

Dem Bague Boys had heart, and somehow weren’t intimidated by Krow, who made some of the scariest faces this side of Freddy Kreuger as he contorted himself into a human snake, crab, and scorpion. Despite excellent footwork, freezes, poppin, and even an extended headspin by the precocious kids, Krow’s unbelievable mastery of his body, performed at a ultra-high level of technical difficulty – combined with Intricate’s eponymous, precise display of turf moves – ultimately won over the judges. Festival organizers later announced that attendance had doubled over last year’s event, and the popularity of turfing was clearly a huge reason why.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Krow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

When all the dust cleared, one thing was obvious: Turf dancing isn’t going away anytime soon, and has earned a foothold in the cultural history of Oakland. If you’ve never seen a battle, follow Turf Inc., YAK Films, and Oaktown Indie Mayhem on Facebook for information about upcoming events in Turf City, USA (and elsewhere).