Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Black Girls Rock and Rule: The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris (Live review)

Live review/The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris, May 8 @ New Parish

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen's Akasha Orr

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen’s Akasha Orr

Black women are the new rock stars.

That was the take-away from the recent triple-header bill of The Seshen, Bells Atlas, and Zakiya Harris with Elephantine. When was the last time you saw a lineup with bands all featuring black female frontpeople? The bill worked because all three acts have a similar sound; one could call it a trend, but it seems more like an unintended coincidence.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

If we are witnessing the birth of a new genre, let’s call it Emo-Soul. That sounds much better than “Trip-Hop, take two” and avoids the awful, inorganic “neo” prefix applied to urban soul music since the late 90s. Emo-Soul is emotive and soulful; it utilizes electronic treatments and ambient soundscapes to counterbalance the plaintive yet raw emphasis on female vocals. Live instruments are a deciding factor in the Emo-Soul sound, distinguishing it from discofied electronic club music. But there’s something else which is created when it all comes together: a tribal-like sense of togetherness, of holding disparate elements together to form a cohesive whole.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show.

An obvious reference point for the Emo-Soul sound is 90s act Morcheeba, who contrasted upfront soul diva musings with ethereal, atmospheric backgrounds. Emo-Soul revisits that period, but provides something new. Or maybe it’s just that the context has shifted, and there’s a more recent immediacy with hearing the voices of black women – call it the #blacklivesmatter effect. This show’s trifecta of women straight up handling thangs in a live context served as a reminder that social justice can extend to a cultural platform as well as a political one.

Zakiya Harris has been on a roll recently, but this might have been the best show yet for her band Elephantine. Although Harris is the featured frontwoman, Elephantine’s sound is very much an ensemble sound which relies on vocal interplay between Harris and singers Tossie Long and Solas B. Lalgee, backed up by musicians Kevin McCann, Ajayi Jackson, and Rashad Pridgen. Their Facebook page describes their music as “Afropunk/Afrobeat/Afropop,” none of which are perfect descriptors. Elephantine is too smooth to be punk, too compact a band to be Afrobeat, and too urban and Americanized to be Afropop; The Afro- part of their sound is mainly reflected in their Afrocentric attitude. With Lalgee absent due to a concurrent gig with the Oakland School for the Arts, Long got some extended stage time, which seemed apt, as it was her birthday. What was most impressive, though, about Harris and Elephantine was their ability to create a mood and set a vibe which engaged the crowd. No matter how emotive a band might want to be, it doesn’t mean diddly unless it translates into audience acceptance. Harris and Long were clearly feeling themselves—but so were the people watching them and hearing their music.

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Bells Atlas came next, and delivered on all the hype surrounding them. They describe their sound as “kaleidosonic soul punch,” whatever that means. In this context, it means they picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Harris and Elephantine and raised the energy level even higher. Frontwoman Sandra Lawson-Ndu was simply divalicious, dropping poetic lyrics which came from a galaxy beyond overly-simplistic R&B, while maintaining a spellbinding stage presence. Fine-tuning the hall’s emotional resonance like aural MDMA, Bells Atlas’ sound made you want to love your neighbor, or at least give them a tight hug. It’s no easy task to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, but Lawson-Ndu was so locked into her groove, she accomplished that with ease, assisted by guitarist Derek Barber, drummer Geneva Harrison, and bassist Doug Stuart. Lawson-Ndu’s fluid voice has plenty of elasticity to twist around lyrical phrases and sounded particularly tasty when trilling the upper register. It’s a potent weapon which was thankfully the focal point of the band’s presentation. If Bells Atlas’ musical backgrounds seemed like a lush rainforest of alternative, yet not inaccessible, tones and melodies, Lawson-Ndu’s vocals were a tropical waterfall of soulful expression.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show. The top-billed Seshen are another buzz band who have been building up a following (which extends outside of the Bay; the group has signed to UK label Tru Thoughts), and like the two acts who preceded them, fit into the category of Emo-Soul: a vocal-heavy sound with both electronic and organic elements. At the center of The Seshen’s dynamic is the interplay between vocalists Lalin St. Juste and Akasha Orr. At times, they resemble a Supreme-esque soul duo from the 60s, but with a much more modernistic, even futuristic, take on things. Then again, they could also be called retro in the sense that they do recall the high points of the Trip-Hop era, which, again, revolves around emotional resonance – and in The Seshen’s case, percussion and dub effects instead of electric guitar. On a night when black (female) voices were triumphant and reigning, St. Juste and Orr both wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, emphasizing the point that soulfulness begins with compassion.

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen


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I, the Jury: Critiquing Musical Mayhem

The Seshen

The Seshen

Sitting in on a juried panel,  trying to rate the best in local music is a pretty interesting experience. The occasion? The upcoming Oakland Mayhem (formerly Oaktown Music Fest, not to be confused with Oakland Music Festival), which takes place November 13, 14 and 15  at Awaken Café.  A whole host of local acts competed for some great prizes , including studio time, paid shows, free beer, flyers, hoodies, gift certificates from local bars, and swag bags.  Clearly, the organizers know what musicians need. Unfortunately, I missed the first night of critical reasoning, which decided the Best Song by a Local Solo Artist. The second night, however, pitted 25 local videos against each other.

Rating videos, especially those by independent or indie-label artists, means deciding on some sort of universal criteria. I quickly determined that my process would be weighted by how well the visuals went with the song, not how good the song was on its own, or how good the video was on its own. Production values, as it turned out, varied widely. So did the stylistic range, although the videos chosen perhaps leaned more toward indie rock, with a few urban-cred vids thrown in for good measure.

On to the videos. First, some overall thoughts: It seems there are some serious quirks getting worked out in the local music scene, creating a normative metric which rests squarely left of the mainstream center. That said, the utter avoidance of cliché is difficult to achieve, even for the most innovative video treatment. At the other end of the spectrum is weirdness for weirdness’ sake, of which there was plenty. Watching some of the videos, I got the feeling some of the directors watched a lot of “Twin Peaks”-era David Lynch. The best videos tended to be the most conceptual, and closer to short films.

Looking back on what scored high on my list, I liked Art Elliot’s “Days Like This” for its unpretentious home video aesthetic and for the shots which matched the lyrics practically word-for-word. The song itself didn’t do much for me, but the video clearly made it better. OTOH, Fantastic Negrito’s “Night Has Turned to Day” resonated strongly on both an aural and visceral level. The song is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, piano, guitar and harmonica-laced tune with a retro juke joint/voodoo soul feel, which was complemented by live performance shots, B-roll of local locations (always a plus), and montages of the artist singing, playing piano, and walking down the street. The video jump-cuts between black and white, red and blue-filtered, and “normal” lighting, striking an effective balance without getting boring. Kate Lamont’s “Birds of Brooklyn” was super-artsy, with still animation on a chalkboard—which must have been a meticulous task—providing the visual accompaniment to Lamont’s dreamy vocals and stuttering electronic drums. I also liked the use of Oakland’s inner-city streets and scraper bikes on Los Rakas’ “We Dem Rakas,” but the song, a mixtape version of a Wiz Khalifa beat with different vocals, lacked the originality to take it over the top.

Kill Freeman’s “You Wanted” was one of the more innovative videos in the competition, alternating white-screen backgrounds with jarring juxtapositions of dark-toned imagery, from butterfly fingerprints to (simulated) blood splatter. Like Fantastic Negrito, the video enhanced the song, but its austere vocals with minimal backgrounds didn’t quite move me the same way. I liked how the treatment for Saything’s “Mason Jar” used a fisheye lens to emphasize distortion and stop-motion animation for a lo-tech effect. Though it was done well, the visual treatment took on a ultra-violent tone, showing band members hung, decapitated, and self-disemboweled. A lighter feel was recovered by sOul from the O’s jazzy rap cut “Boombastic,” whose video treatment used archival footage of classic analog audio equipment and studios for backgrounds over green-screened foregrounds.

Which brings us to “the Jellybean Song” by the Fuxedos, as seen in the short film “Mimsy.” This was unquestionably the weirdest, most over-the-top video of the bunch, whose visuals could have been the love child of Dr. Demento and Devo. This one also featured violence: another ripped-out heart and a toilet smashed by a hammer, though much of the carnage was thankfully implied. Great visual effects, but in the end, I couldn’t give something that strange and disturbing my highest rating.

Totonko’s “Overgrown” eschewed literalism for abstraction, with a black and white video which emphasized out of focus shots and postmodernist pastoral backgrounds. The video was well done, but took away from the song it was attached to—an inspired mix of nu-folk, indie rock and dubsteppy percussion fills—rather than adding to it. Speaking of Devo, they may be the spiritual forefathers of the Phenomenauts, whose “Broken Robot Jerk” featured sci-fi costumes, postpunk guitar riffage, and lyrics describing a new dance. Very conceptual—and points for the life-size Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots—but the song got repetitive and tiring way before its endpoint.

Two of my highest rankings went to the Seshen and Zakiya Harris, who appealed to my judicial sensibilities with songs whose video treatment fit well with the music they highlighted. The Seshen’s “Unravel” is a return to the trip-hop era and everything that made it so great: expansive moodiness and downtempo beats. The “Unravel” video picked up on those themes, cutting between foreground shots of singer Lalin St. Juste and slo-mo interior shots of a house which emphasized the sense of loss and emptiness the song evokes. There’s a slight nod to “The Shining,” although the hallucinatory psychic terror is only briefly implied – just long enough to metaphorically link a haunted house with a broken heart. With lesser source material, the treatment might have seemed pretentious or disjointed, but luckily, “Unravel” is a killer song. The other judges agreed with my ruling; “Unravel” won Best in Show. (A complete list of winners is here.)

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Harris’ “Shapeshifter,” OTOH, is much more uptempo, a future-soul banger which features amazingly-voiced, layered vocals and lots of costume changes and fancy dance moves. The video lends the rooftops and sidewalks of Oakland a cosmopolitan, almost Parisian, feel, and Harris’ makeup and hair is absolutely perfect.

Unfortunately, we’re running out of space to talk about the other jury panel session I attended, for Best Song by a Group, so I’ll quickly run down the songs I liked, beginning with Antique Naked Soul’s “Money.” The beatboxed backgrounds, blended with neo-Motownish female vocals and Candice Antique Davis’ powerful leads and “real talk” lyrics make this a strong, original tune – although another song from their album, “Lay Low,” was even better IMO.

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candelaria’s “La Cumbia Cienaguera” has an appealing mix of cumbia rhythms and dub effects, but the studio recording lacks the urgency of their live show. “Ghost in the City”’s “Smaller Every Day” was another thrilling discovery: anchored by killer female lead vocals, the song falls nicely into the funky alt.soul category. And the Jennifer Johns/Ryan Nicole/Kev Choice posse cut “Town’d Out” caused one jurist to remark they could visualize the song blasting out of bassy car systems; I liked it because it works as a rap anthem without dumbing down one’s intelligence. La Misa Nigra’s “Por La Bahia” is another find in the Bay’s ongoing cumbia resurgence, a traditionally-oriented tune with lovely interplay between vocals, horns, and accordion that’s ready to fiesta when you are. Maria Jose Montijo’s “Estrella” features a hauntingly beautiful, sparse melody which can send chills up your spine. I also fancied Waterstrider’s “Redwood,” which blended rockish riffs and midtempo EDM grooves nicely.

Overall, it’s a far different experience critiquing music and videos in a room with other esteemed local tastemakers than from the privacy of your own home. There’s the option of bouncing your opinion off of other folks, or hearing their reactions. Jurists were encouraged to be social and even advocate for their favorites, and some did more than others. The best part of the experience, though, was being able to hear (and view) such a wide-ranging spectrum of local artists – and to venture outside of my personal music comfort zone. The Mayhem jury offered a great opportunity to digest tunes I might not have otherwise heard, and not only widened my ears, but also expanded my appreciation for Oakland’s music scene. Shouts out to Awaken Café’s Cortt Dunlap and Oakland Indie Mayhem’s Sarah Sexton for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work in putting the Mayhem Fest together, and make sure you stop by the Awaken for the Awards presentation.