Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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This Week in Oakulture: A Conversation with Michael Franti, “Code Oakland” West Coast Premiere, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, Oakland Flamenco Sessions & Black History Funk II (Jan 30 – Feb 3)

Music, Justice and All Love: A Conversation with Michael Franti 


As part of the 112th Earl Lectures and Leadership Conference, Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion presents Be|Art|Now, a public conference for activists, artists and progressive people of faith. The program, which is held from January 29th through the 31st at various East Bay locations, will feature a talk with Oakland-born (and San Francisco resident) activist-musician Michael Franti on Friday, January 30th at the First Congregational Church of Oakland.  Franti is known for founding groundbreaking Bay Area bands The Beatnigs, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, producing the decade-long Power to the Peaceful free concert series in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and directing the documentary film, “I Know I’m Not Alone.” With a touring schedule busier than ever, Franti — who is also a practicing yogi — infuses social justice and activism into his music, which covers a diverse range of stylistic genres, from folk to rock to reggae to hip-hop. He will discuss integrating arts with social justice as well as how the arts can catalyze social change, followed by a short performance at the end of the event.

Music, Justice and All Love: A Conversation with Michael Franti, 1/30, 7:30 p.m., $45.00 in advance, $55.00 at the door, All Ages, First Congregational Church of Oakland, 2501 Harrison St., Oakland.  » Buy Tickets.

TEACHED: “Code Oakland” West Coast Premiere

Kelly Amis is a former teacher turned filmmaker and education equality activist. Inspired by education inequality, she founded Loudspeaker Films in 2009. In 2013, Amis received the Teach for America Social Innovation Award for TEACHED, a short film series, which examines the causes and consequences of the U.S. “achievement gap,” particularly as experienced by urban youth of color. “TEACHED: Code Oakland” is the first of three new short films comprising TEACHED Vol. II, and will have its West Coast premiere screening in Oakland this Saturday. “Code Oakland” examines  tech-minded social entrepreneurs who are determined that youth of color not be left on the sidelines as Silicon Valley spreads across the Bay and into the home of the second largest black community in California. The film features Qeyno Labs co-founder Kalimah Priforce, Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant and ‪#‎YesWeCode‬ founder Van Jones. The premiere screening and celebration is presented in partnership with D’Wayne Wiggins’ West Wind Artists at Mindseed Soundstage. Due to limited capacity, there are only a few seats left, so hurry to secure your spot for this FREE event!

TEACHED: “Code Oakland” West Coast Premiere, 1/31, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Free Admission, All Ages, Mindseed Soundstage, 926 85th Ave., Oakland. » RSVP required at screenings@teached.org.

The Art of Elizabeth Catlett


Elizabeth Catlett, an African American sculptor and printmaker known for politically charged sculptures and prints, made her mark as one of the 20th Century’s most revolutionary artists and a leader of the black expressionism movement. Catlett, who was born in Washington DC in 1915, studied design, printmaking and drawing at Howard University. She made history in 1940 when she became the first student to receive a Master’s degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa. Using her art to address society’s ills, Catlett celebrated the resilience of African-American and Mexican working-class women. After partaking in civil rights protests, which resulted in her arrest, she was barred from visiting the United States for a decade. Eventually settling in Mexico City, she worked with People’s Graphic Arts Workshop, married, and became a Mexican citizen. She taught sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City until retiring in 1975.  Selections from the collection of Samella Lewis, a former student and life-long friend of the artist, opened Jan. 16 at MoAD; the exhibition runs through April 5th.

“The Art of Elizabeth Catlett.”  All Ages, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., San Francisco. » Free-$10;  Museum Hours.

Oakland Flamenco Sessions Presents ‘La Nota Azul’ with Alex Conde & Jose Blanco

Widely respected as one of the most brilliant pianist-composers of his generation, Alex Conde is already getting rave reviews for his soon to be released album, Descarga for Monk, which explores flamenco versions of beloved Thelonious Monk tunes with Bay Area heavy hitters John Santos, Jeff Chambers and John Arkin.  In anticipation of his record release — out on ZOHO, February 10th — Conde performs this Saturday at Oakland’s intimate Birdland speakeasy with flamenco singer and cajon player Jose “El Grillu” Blanco, as well as surprise guest artists. Aimed at nurturing the improvisational and community conversation that is at the heart of flamenco, the new monthly Oakland Flamenco Sessions presents ‘La Nota Azul’ in reference to the blue note in jazz – an unidentifiable sweet spot of raw emotion and honesty which informs both jazz and flamenco.

Oakland Flamenco Sessions Presents ‘La Nota Azul’ with Alex Conde & Jose Blanco, 1/31, 9 p.m. – 11 p.m., $20, $10 for Birdland Members (tickets available at the door only), All Ages, BYOB, Birdland Jazzista Social Club, 4318 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland.

Black History Funk II with John Wesley Payne & The Hurt Band


Isn’t it only fitting that we kick off Black History Month with a tribute to funk music’s legends? On the heels of last week’s Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!” tribute at the Fox Theater, Oakland keeps the funk flowing with the upcoming Black History Funk celebration at Yoshi’s Oakland this Tuesday. The show will feature Oakland-born songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist John Wesley Payne — who has recorded and performed with George Clinton, Larry Graham, Rick James and many others — and his Hurt Band, paying tribute to James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James, Teena Marie and Prince. Special guests include saxophonist Ric Alexander and singer/songwriter Carmen Jones. Rounding out the lineup are comedian Kalvin Lathan, who’ll share hosting duties with Elise Hollywood Evans.

Black History Funk II with John Wesley Payne and The Hurt Band, 2/03, Doors 7:30 p.m., Show 8 p.m., $20, All Ages, Yoshi’s Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland. » Buy Tickets.

This Week in Oakulture is compiled by Zsa-Zsa Rensch.  Connect with Zsa-Zsa on Twitter at @zsazsa.

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It’s Going Down at Berkeley Underground

Berkeley Underground's ubiquitous disco ball

On the down low: Berkeley Underground

For East Bay music fans, the reopening of a favorite destination as a new club is a good thing. Especially because it could signal a resurgence for Berkeley nightlife, of which quite frankly there hasn’t been much of in the past few years, especially since the Birdland Jazzista Social Club relocated to Oakland.

Afro-Cuban grooves in Berkeley?

Afro-Cuban grooves in Berkeley?

Berkeley Underground, the latest iteration of a location which has housed, at various times, such nightclubs as Mr. E’s, the Pasand Lounge, and the Shattuck DownLow Lounge, opened earlier this month to some fanfare. The spot had been vacant since October 2012, when the DownLow shuttered its doors after 11 years, when its landlord rescinded the month to month lease it had been on, reportedly at the behest of a new upstairs tenant, a pizzeria.

Jose diaz y QBA

Jesus Diaz y Su QBA

The club’s closure greatly impacted the area’s nightlife scene.  In addition to being a go-to spot for Cal Berkeley students, it was home to an established Wednesday salsa night. And it was one of the few venues which regularly featured live hip-hop of the non-mainstream variety, as well as frequently hosting live reggae shows and DJ nights (Sunday night’s popular King of Kings dancehall night has since moved to Oakland’s New Parish).

shaking up the salsa scene

Shaking up the salsa scene

Two recent visits to the newly-remodeled venue brought back years of memories of the old DownLow, a funky joint with a low stage, an even lower ceiling, and a sound system which never quite sounded great, but frequently sounded quite loud.

Jose Diaz

Jesus Diaz

From the outside, little had changed, except maybe the new face-recognition ID scanner at the front entrance. Inside, there was a world of difference. Gone were the colorful couches and art-deco murals painted by local artist Erin Crawford. The newly remodeled room underwent an extreme makeover, getting nipped, tucked, boosted—the stage now rises a bit, and there’s a  prominent lip which makes for separation between live performers and audience, but still offers the close-up intimacy of artist-fan proximity which made many a DownLow night seem special—and dressed up in expensive trappings. A simpler black/white color scheme pervades, and the VIP Lounge areas are more clearly demarcated with three-step rises and attendant stanchions. The fine art which now hangs on the wall is less retro-70s love child, more starkly post-modern. The club clearly has been supercharged, from the brand new sound system, to the running array of disco lights which now crown the dancefloor.

DJ Lex Level

DJ Lex Level

And what a dancefloor it is. Always the DownLow’s best feature, it’s now certifiably sleeker and sexier, and still topped off by a classic mirror ball which might evoke a “Miami Vice”/”Scarface” vibe, especially with the new VIP sections and emphasis on linear design. The decor is definitely more corporate, more slick, and more Ultra Lounge-y. The overall look is classier and trends upscale, but DownLow veterans might miss the down-home funkiness of the old club, warts and all.

The disco ball.

The disco ball

The Wednesday night “Sonido Baylando” party was a perfect test for the new space. A full-on salsa throwdown in full swing will challenge any dancefloor, and it passed with pretty much flying colors. The new lighting scheme seemed to follow the dancers, illuminating every twirl, twist, and dip in a wash of luminescent hues. From the looks of things, many of the Wednesday night salsa faithful had returned; combined with Baylando’s local following, the resultant crowd filled up pretty much the entire space without being uncomfortable or lacking room to gyrate freely.

host Selassie spitting bars

Selassie spitting bars

“Sonido Baylando” also proved an apt test for the Underground as a live performance space. Jesus Diaz Y Su QBA are easily among the Bay Area’s top Afro-Cuban groups, with a vibrant, super-rhythmic sound which resonates with gritty authenticity and fervent passion. Su QBA, which this night featured percussionist Javier Navarette and vocalist Orlando Torriente, are like mob hitters when it comes to nailing the tricky syncopated grooves. And Diaz, who may be the best Afro-Cuban vocalist currently in the local Latin scene, brought the room’s vibe up to fever pitch and kept it there for the duration of the set we watched.

Jan 21 2015 037

As a transcendant song of praise to the West African orisha Yemaya by Diaz y su QBA filled the room with ashe, the bass seemed punchier, the highs crisper, and the overall system clearer and less muddied than in the DownLow days. The salsa vibe, which puts a heavy emphasis on dancing, works well in that room, as does the “Sonido Baylando” format, in which a rotation of live Latin acts are featured each week, along with resident DJs El Kool Kyle and Santero. After just its second week, the night looks like a cracking party which could be settling in for a long run.

A rap battle contenstant

A rap battle contestant

Another potential winner is the Monday night hip-hop open mic. Hosted by local rapper Sellassie, who has been putting on similar competitions all over the country for the past few years, it offers backpack rappers and battle nerds a place to spit their hot 16s and hone their alliterative skills. It’s also offered a showcase for up-and-coming and veteran emcees to have a live performance venue. Past performers include legendary West Coast emcee Aceyalone (Freestyle Fellowship); upcoming features include Oakland’s own RyanNicole (a multi-talented artist whose also starring in an upcoming adaption of “Antigone,” called “Xtigone,” for the stage).

Jose Diaz y QBA

Monica Fimbrez, Orlando Torriente y Jesus Diaz

The night Oakulture was there briefly turned into backpack rap heaven, with an inspired, if slightly intoxicated, headlining set by A-Plus (Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief) and Knobody, producer for Big Pun, Jay-Z, and Akon, and a devastating emcee in his own right. A veteran of numerous international and national tours, A-Plus has come a long way since the Telegraph Ave. freestyle ciphers of the early 90s. And yet, there he was, playing live perhaps less than a half-mile from the corner of Durant and Telegraph, where it all started for him. At the entire other end of the spectrum were the rhyme battle contestants, some of whom may have been performing live for the first time.

Knowbody (l.) and A-Plus (r.)


Though the overall demographic skewed much younger than the salsa crowd—the audience was 18+—it’s a true sign of how far the hip-hop generation has come that at least one of the contestants was accompanied by their parental unit. Can a “Hot Hip Hop Moms” night be far behind?

I <3 underground hip-hop

Knobody and A-Plus

Since opening, Berkeley Underground has hired popular DJ and webmaster Renoir “Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist” Salgado as its booker, and instituted a weekly schedule which includes the hip-hop Mondays and salsa/Latin Wednesdays, as well as a funk-flavored Tuesday, and college and EDM-themed nights on Thursday and Sunday. Featured weekend entertainment thusfar has concentrated on DJ nights encompassing some of the East Bay’s upper echelon, veteran party-rockers (including J-Boogie, D-Sharp, Malachi, Cecil, Dedan, KOK selecta Smoky and Green B, encompassing a range from hip-hop to downtempo to deep house to reggae); the inaugural January calendar ends with the one-two punch of world beatniks Afrolicious Soundsystem  and Pinoy turntablist icons Triple Threat DJs. Future plans include more live acts and special events, Ren says.  After such an auspicious start for the reopened venue, it appears that with the Underground’s emergence, Berkeley nightlife is back on the map.

Berkeley Underground is located at 2284 Shattuck Ave (@ Bancroft), Berkeley.  More info: www.berkeley-underground.com

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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.