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Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Desert Rock Oasis: Tal National’s Stripped-Down Saharan Highlife

Tal National

Tal National

Live Music Review/Tal National, May 6 @Leo’s Music Club

I have a new favorite African band. It’s Tal National, a group from the Sahara lands of Niger, a country which has been severely underrepresented in terms of Western musical exports. The relative obscurity of their homeland makes Tal National’s sound, which incorporates influences from the various tribal ethnicities of its members, a bit of a revelation: it contains elements of Tuareg trance-rock and Malian desert blues, along with the nimble fretwork and uptempo melodies commonly associated with West African highlife. Indeed, highlife’s blisteringly intricate guitar patterns can sometimes be overshadowed by the emphasis on ensemble-driven arrangements. But Tal National’s focus on the interplay between guitar and drums results in a more stripped-down sound which concentrates on the music’s essential core, while appealing to indie rock audiences as well as world music aficionados.

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Tal National’s recent Oakland debut at Leo’s was a case in point. Their live set-up consisted of one guitarist, a bassist, a kit drummer, a talking drummer, two vocalists, and a dancer – a much more minimal crew than the Afrobeat orchestras of neighboring Nigeria, which can have as many as 20-25 musicians. The musical communication was immediate and upfront, the movement-enhancing quality of the rhythms impossible to ignore; If you weren’t dancing by the midpoint of the show, you were likely dead or paralyzed.

Tal National

Tal National

The band’s experience—one of Niger’s most popular acts, they’ve been around for a decade and have been known to play five-hour sets—showed in their relentless intensity. Every time it appeared they had reached a plateau, they upped the ante and shifted into an even more-inspired gear. Bandleader/guitarist Almeida not only handled his instrument with virtuoso-like prowess, effortlessly shifting between supplying jangly rhythmic backgrounds and jaw-dropping lead runs, but also proved an effective conductor and narrator for Tal National’s musical journey. At one point, he informed the audience it was time for a trance interlude, during which the (female) dancer took a solo turn as the band veered into a long instrumental–and likely highly-improvisational–section.

Tal National

Tal National

Tal National are only on their second US tour (in support of their most recent album Zoy Zoy), and are still building up an international fan base. But while they may be playing small halls like Leo’s this tour, their stage show is impressive enough to handle much bigger venues. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them play Coachella or Outside Lands in years to come, and I fully expect that to happen, since word of mouth on this band is going to be amazing.

Tal National

Tal National

While many African bands face an uphill battle in terms of being accessible to Western audiences, Tal National have a distinct advantage in that department. Though they don’t compromise on the traditional aspects of their music—many of which have their origins in folk songs dating back hundreds or even thousands of years—their minimalist approach should win them over converts a bit easier. Just a taste of talking drums goes a long way, especially when it’s wrapped around infectious guitar-and-drum-centered songs and expressive vocal harmonies. This is a band which must be experienced live to be believed, and it’s likely that everyone inside Leo’s that night felt lucky to have caught such an inspired performance.

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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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Women Runnin It: Interview with Candi Martinez

In honor of International Women’s Herstory this month, Oakulture premiers “Women Runnin It,” a new interview series featuring women in dynamic positions of cultural leadership. We begin with Oakland female promoters. Usually behind the scenes, these women are the ones bringing your favorite concerts, shows and nights for you to soak in and live the culture of Oakland.  I’m sure many of you have wondered, how do they build community and social arts networks? How do they curate a meaningful event or a club party?

Recently, at a Bahamadia concert at Leo’s produced by Chaney Turner of Social Life Productions, the emcee spoke to the need to be actively engaged in creating inclusive community — a crucial component of a culturally-positive nightlife scene. Important to many of us, particularly women and LGBTQi persons, is the ability to go out at night, share our art, enjoy dancing or conversation and not have to defend our bodies and presence. The promoters who are committed to holding this ground for us and advancing it are bringing female artists, gender fluid and non-ratchet parties, and holding down inclusive, ‘safe’ spaces through curating social arts. They are cultural stewards that we at Oakulture value and support. We think you should too.

***

Candi Martinez of Skin

Candi Martinez of Skin

Our first Q&A interview is with Candi Martinez. As an industry vet of twenty years, Candi has booked for numerous local venues and worked with internationally-known artists including James Brown, The Wailers, Les Nubians, Antibalas, Zap Mama, and Carlos Santana. Currently, Candi is the master dreamer and curator for SKIN World Wide, a dance party dedicated to sharing and celebrating the music, art and tradition of the African and Latin Diasporas. This Oakland-based collective brings unique events like their recent boat parties on the Bay with DJ, dance performances and live drumming. Tomorrow night (Friday the 13th), SKIN brings Osunlade, the legendary “Messiah of Ancestral House Music” of Yoruba Records to an Oakland country club (!), which is sure to be a spiritually-transcendant dance experience.

Oakulture: What values do you bring to club promotion and how do they impact your decision- making?

Candi Martinez: All of my work stems from a genuine joy in bringing people together. The intersections of different musical and performative traditions are defining elements in how we engage in the world. Music can be traditional, ritual, remixed and expressive. I’m inspired by the ways diaspora, urban migration and intercultural fusion speaks to a Bay Area experience. I’m interested in drawing community into a conversation through rhythm and movement, and keeping art integral to social change.

candi martinez oakulture 011Oakulture: What’s exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Candi Martinez: Oakland has it’s own flavor because of the many diverse communities that call our city home. We are known for our unapologetic display of creative passion. We are known for community resilience through various forms of art and music. The energy behind sustaining an artistic and culturally vibrant community is crucial in our response to oppression, police brutality, gentrification, displacement and environmental racism.

Oakulture: What relationship is there between your artistic work and your promotional work?

Candi Martinez: It feels very symbiotic. I DJ, dance, teach yoga, and play upright bass. These avocations give me an understanding of what it means to create, to embody a practice, to be disciplined and to collaborate. It’s important to me to build inviting spaces that allow artists to showcase their work and experience a shared narrative in addition to shaking it on the dancefloor.

SambaFunk shakin it at a SKIN party

SambaFunk shakin it at a SKIN party

Oakulture: What approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Candi Martinez: My shows come with lots of intentional planning and love. The artists, the space, the location, the outreach all have to align with what I hope to create and offer to the community. Whether it’s safe environments, wheelchair accessible spaces, affordable tickets, promoting emerging artists, creating links between communities and genres or traditional and modern rhythms…when I see a room full of people of different ages, backgrounds, orientations and interests all getting down, I know I’m exactly where I want to be.

“Oakland has it’s own flavor because of the many diverse communities that call our city home. We are known for our unapologetic display of creative passion. We are known for community resilience through various forms of art and music. The energy behind sustaining an artistic and culturally vibrant community is crucial in our response to oppression, police brutality, gentrification, displacement and environmental racism.” — Candi Martinez


Oakulture: What do you wish people knew or understood more about the behind-the-scenes aspect to being a promoter?

Candi Martinez: Doing what you love can be risky business. As an artist, every day is a choice. Every event for an artist is a commitment without the promise beyond doing what they love. Most artists and curators do this because we can’t imagine doing anything else, it’s an experience that makes us feel alive and connected. I’ve never taken any of it for granted.

SKIN's boat parties offer Bay views and plenty of room to dance

SKIN’s boat parties offer Bay views and plenty of room to dance

Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Candi Martinez: I get my kindness and perseverance from my Mom. My commitment to social justice comes from my Father. My fiance holds me accountable to my dreams. Artistically, I’ve admired Frida Kahlo since childhood. I relate to her tenacious spirit and her fight for life. Chinaka Hodge because she is an amazing scholar and kills it in a dance cypher. Angela Davis, Chimamanda Adichie, Sandra Cisneros and Ntozake Shange, for writing toward the change they want to see and for offering a voice and light to follow.

Oakulture: Who are your Oakland heroines?

Candi Martinez: Amy Nabong, Chinaka Hodge, DJ heyLove*, Dr. Shari Hicks, Favianna Rodriguez, KinFolkz, Naima Shalhoub, Nayomi Munaweera, Shadi Rahimi and Zakiya Harris, and if I can throw in a past Oakland resident, Nanci Pili Hernandez.

Oakulture: If you could book anyone, who would it be?

Candi Martinez: I’d like to pair Seu Jorge and Sergio Mendes up with San Francisco’s Bomberas De La Bahia and then get Oakland’s Sistahs of The Drum on stage with the “Fela!” Broadway [cast] and see what happens.

candi martinez oakulture 193

SKIN World Wide’s next show:

Friday, March 13th 8pm
with Osunlade of Yoruba Records
Resident DJs: Cecil and Son of Son
Percussion Line: Jeff Pierre & Soul Mojo
Oakland Songstress Zena & Upright Bassist Gary Johnson
Artisan village with James Gayles, Nikila Badua, All Attractive, Brass, Bone & Honey, and Sankofa Vine.
Complimentary Hor D’Oeuvres
At the unique Sequoyah Country Club with patios, fire pits, cigar bar and Bay views.
Tix $30-35

**Also check out Oakulture’s Guide to International Women’s Month Events in Oakland and Beyond for more woman-centric events throughout the month of March.