Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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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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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.