Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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This Week in Oakulture: Alta California & Sonido Baylando Sound System, Xtigone World Premiere, Kahil El’Zabar & The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Con Brio & The Seshen, Kyle Abraham in Conversation with Alicia Garza (Feb 11-17)

Alta California & Sonido Baylando Sound System


Sonido Baylando is a new weekly Latin-themed music night at Berkeley Underground, the new night club venue Oakulture reviewed a little while back. Hosted by Baylando Records‘ DJs El Kool Kyle, Ras Rican and Erick Santero, event goers will be treated to all-vinyl music sets throughout the evening. Tonight’s installment of Sonido Baylando features live musical guest Alta California. The all-star Oakland band calls their take on Latin music “Rumba Esquina” — a mix of Afro-Cuban, Rumba, Flamenco, Salsa, Samba and soul. The 11-piece ensemble, fronted by vocalists Piero Amadeo Infante and Orlando Torriente,  includes dancers Melissa Cruz and Anya De Marie, who compliment the infectious rhythms with graceful, emotive interperative movements. Come as early as 7 p.m. for salsa lessons with Nicholas Van Eyck (complimentary with admission). The full music program kicks off at 8 p.m., with Alta California taking the stage at 9:30 p.m.

Alta California & Sonido Baylando Sound System, 2/11, 8 p.m., $8 Advance, 21 and over, Berkeley Underground, 2284 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. » Buy Tickets.

Xtigone (World Premiere)


From an artivist perspective, art is used a tool to communicate ideas and inspire action around issues of social justice. Today’s contemporary artivists are empowering communities and building movements through music, film, dance and theater. Nambi E. Kelley, an emerging playwright from Chicago, was inspired by the murders associated with gang violence in her hometown to revisit Sophocles’ “Antigone,” renaming it “Xtigone.”  In Kelley’s contemporary urban adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy, music plays a big part of telling the story of violence in our communities. The Bay Area’s Tommy Shepherd is the play’s musical composer, and the cast includes Oakland’s RyanNicole. Directed by Rhodessa Jones, and presented by the African American Shakespeare Company, “Xtigone” opens this Valentine’s Day at AAACC’s Buriel Clay Theatre in San Francisco, with weekend shows on Saturdays and Sundays through March 8th.

“Xtigone” (World Premiere), Sat-Sun 2/14-3/08, 8 p.m. (Sat), 3 p.m. (Sun), $15-$34, Ages 9 and over, Buriel Clay Theatre at the African-American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street, San Francisco. » Buy Tickets.

Kahil El’Zabar & The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble


This St. Valentine’s night,  Oakland’s EastSide Cultural Center will host a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Founded and based in Chicago, AACM is one of the oldest collectives of Black musicians indentified with the influential Black Arts Movement. The musical program will feature Kahil El’Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, featuring percussionist and composer El’Zabar, with Ernest Dawkins on saxophone, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, and special guest conguero John Santos.

Kahil El’Zabar & The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, 2/14, 8 p.m., $20 ($30 for Couples), All Ages, EastSide Cultural Center, 2277 International Blvd., Oakland. » Buy Tickets.

Con Brio Kiss the Sun EP Release with The Seshen


SF’s super-sexy soul-funk outfit Con Brio has just released their latest EP, Kiss the Sun, and they want you to celebrate with them at The Independent on Valentine’s Day evening! Having built quite a buzz around town, including playing the recent Sly and the Family Stone Tribute at the Fox, the Ziek McCarter-fronted band seems poised for big things. Opening for them are another buzzworthy local outfit, East Bay electro-soul The Seshen, whose wonderfully trip-hoppy live show is worth getting to the venue early for.

Con Brio with The Seshen, 2/14, Doors 8:30 p.m., Show 9 p.m., $15-$18, 21 and over, The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., San Francisco. » Buy Tickets.

The Movement of Movement: Kyle Abraham in Conversation with Alicia Garza


Alicia Garza, Oakland-based co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, joins dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham for a conversation about “The Movement of Movement.” With such a powerful title, we have high hopes for the discussion, which revolves around interconnectivity between artistic and social justice movements – a topic Oakulture recently explored in Why Black Art Matters. The talk will be presented at Impact Hub Oakland and is hosted by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (where “ABRAHAM.IN.MOTION: PAVEMENT” will have its Bay Area Premiere from February 19-20).

“The Movement of Movement: Kyle Abraham in Conversation with Alicia Garza,” 2/16, 7 p.m., Free with RSVP to rgutierrez@ybca.org, All Ages, Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway, Oakland. » Facebook Event Page.

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

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“Clas/sick Hip-Hop”: Female Emcees Show “U.N.I.T.Y” In Landmark Live Performance

Live review/ “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition,” Nov. 7 & 8, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

The "Clas/Sick" Crew chilling after the show

The “Clas/Sick” Crew chilling after the show

In a two-night run filled with memorable moments, “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition”’s biggest flashpoint came about halfway through the second night. A remarkable set of canonical hip-hop, played live by the Kev Choice Ensemble, segued from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” to the Conscious Daughters’ “Fonky Expedition,” to Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” The first song, performed by Aima the Dreamer and Sayknowledge, sent shivers through the sold-out crowd, as Aima channeled Ladybug Mecca’s cool breeziness over an acoustic bassline originally played by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The second, performed by Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole, brought back memories of a time when good local rap regularly earned rotation on commercial stations. And the third, which featured a strident, commanding Zakiya Harris, flanked by Aima, Peila, Nicole and vocalist Viveca Hawkins, 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.

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

As if to underline the point, Coco Peila followed with a jaw-dropping cover of 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” The song—one of the rap icon’s most positive and uplifting—took on an even deeper meaning with a woman rapping its words: And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?/ I think it’s time to kill for our women/ Time to heal our women, be real to our women/ And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies/ That will hate the ladies, that make the babies/ And since a man can’t make one/ He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one/So will the real men get up/ I know you’re fed up ladies, but you gotta keep your head up.

It Ain't Hard to Tell: Musical Director Kev Choice

It Ain’t Hard to Tell: Musical Director Kev Choice

Hawkins killed it on the hook— an interpolation of the Five Heartbeats’ “Ooh Child”—then, after 1-O.A.K. responded with a dead-on Mayfield-esque falsetto during HNRL’s take on Outkast’s “Player’s Ball,” she returned to tackle SWV’s underrated yet seminal R&B hit “Right Here,” completely nailing the high notes of the hook. As if that wasn’t enough, bandleader Kev Choice crept out from behind his array of keyboards to rap a verse from Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” – whose remix sampled the same Michael Jackson “Human Nature” melody as the SWV song. It was that kind of night.

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If social media chatter is to be believed, “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition” is already being talked about as being legendary. It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment, although the word “epic” might work equally as well. The brainchild of YBCA’s Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the impetus for the production was simple but brilliant: revisit 1993, a particularly great year for hip-hop albums, with not one but two live bands and a gaggle of local emcees – all doing music which came out that year. Into that mix, add an a cappella youth chorus, some of the best local deejays and hip-hop dancers, montages of music videos of the songs performed by artists, and interviews with local culturati explaining the significance of ’93 in a cultural, social, political, and personal sense.

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2's

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2’s

Both nights started out with a DJ set – Kevvy Kev on Friday; DJ Fuze on Saturday – which was punctuated by a flash mob consisting of the YGB Gold a cappella singers, who performed a medley of KRS-One’s “Black Cop” and “Sound of Da Police.” The medley underscored the relevance and timelessness of the ‘93 hip-hop canon (though it’s somewhat dubious to note both songs address police misconduct, of which the latest flashpoint is #Ferguson).

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

The set list flowed like a mix tape; Calafia Zulu member K-Swift followed with Black Moon’s “How Many Emcees,” a song based around a KRS sample, then jumped into “I Got Cha Opin,” which afforded the musicians the opportunity to wrap their instruments around the Barry White sample which informs the song. Hornsmen Geechi Taylor and Howard Wiley were up to the challenge.

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Two braggadoccious epochs of masculine bravado, Masta Ace’s “Born to Roll” and Dr. Dre’s “Ain’t Nothing But a G Thing” were sandwiched around Del’s lyrical sucker punch, “Catch a Bad One” (performed by Wonway Posibul of the Latin Soul Brothers). Not that the Del track lacks for boastfulness, but it’s decidedly less commercial and contrived, and built around a sublime Eric Dolphy sample – replayed with aplomb by the KCE, who had the daunting task of having to learn 20 songs in a short period.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

The other live band performing was Ensemble Mik Nawooj. The hip-hop/classical fusion outfit performed songs by Wu-Tang and Snoop Dogg, and emcees Do D.A.T. and Sandman were energetic and animated. However, an opera singer notwithstanding, the static nature of their set (and, perhaps, the absence of a bass player) couldn’t compare to the vibrant dynamic laid down by Choice, his band, and their guests at the other stage. By the second night, the differences were painfully apparent; some people walked out during Mik Nawooj’s second set. Which was unfortunate, because they missed the Tribe Called Quest medley which vamped around the bassline from Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and brought the show to a groovy simmer, as well as the closing free-for-all freestyle rhyme cipher. Which was ridiculous on both nights.

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

The female emcees brought the spark which ignited the show’s flame. But credit must be given to Choice as a musical director for the way things turned out. The KCE flipped samples inside-out, returning breakbeats to their jazzy essence and reminding folks that the ‘93 flavor was as musical as it was lyrical. Choice himself spent most of the night behind the keyboards, paying tribute to the Bay Area’s contribution to the year by rapping on Saafir’s “Light Sleeper” and Souls of Mischief’s “93 til Infinity.” There were other subtle nods to the Bay, like the melodies from Mac Mall’s “Sick Wit Tis” and Too $hort’s “Getting It” the band played during the freestyle cipher.

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

The night was billed as one which gave long overdue props to the poets of one of the most remarkable years in hip-hop’s Golden Era. But it ended up being much more than that. True, ’93 was a year when hip-hop’s creative expression was at its peak and the music industry hadn’t yet figured out what parts of the culture it wanted to emphasize and what parts it wanted to suppress. Yet in retrospect, the beats emcees rapped on back then were at least as much a part of the era’s greatness as the rhymes. We’ll never see those days again, not just because rap has changed, but also because the sampling aesthetic no longer plays such a central part in hip-hop.

Trackademics in the cipher

Trackademics in the cipher

“Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition” reveled in nostalgia for a bygone era, but that’s not all it did. It brought an appreciation of hip-hop culture to an institutional space without killing the jazzy, funky, lyrical vibe of that culture. And it did so through live instrumentation, in effect going above and beyond how the music was presented at the time of its emergence. By raising the musical bar, the production ushered in another refutation of space and time, to paraphrase Digable Planets, which shone a bright spotlight on the current generation of Bay Area hip-hop artists (most of whom hailed from Oakland). But the brightest lights blazed on the local female emcee contingent. So often an afterthought on hip-hop bills, or consigned to a segregated performance space, in “Clas/sick Hip-Hop’s” re-envisioning of ‘93’s cultural legacy, the women of hip-hop not only played a central role, but manifested a sisterhood of solidarity while showing that they indeed had the props.

© Eric K. Arnold 2014


Never A Dull Moment: The Coup’s Shadowbox

Live Review/ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,  8/16/14

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The Shadowbox opens

Billed as a haunted-house/funhouse/live concert/performance art piece, “The Coup’s Shadowbox” delivered on all fronts. The show, whose world premiere took place August 16 at SF‘s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was an immersive aural and visual experience, built around a live Coup performance, which never let up for even a minute.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Jon-Paul Bail’s dystopian cityscape

Upon entering the YBCA auditorium, attendees were greeted by dystopian cityscapes drawn by John-Paul Bail, a printmaker and radical artist known for making and distributing thousands of free posters during the Occupy Oakland movement. Bail’s art, which embraces a low-tech, simplistic aesthetic, was a hyperrealistic, incredibly-detailed depiction of present-day San Francisco and contemporary America with all its glitz, glamour and makeup stripped away, revealing a society dominated by corporate interests and the military-industrial complex. Every panel told a story of greed prioritized over human need, from the bulldozers ripping up old Victorians to make way for overpriced techie condos, to the sign advertising “Bank of Apartheid – since 1904.” Though the panels had sort of a “Metropolis”-esque/cyberpunk thing going for them, there was nothing futuristic about Bail’s message, which seemed to say, these are the times we’re living in NOW, whether we realize it or not. Ramming that message home were cut-outs of drones and Stealth bombers which casually dangled from the ceiling.

Coup Shadowbox world premiere 011In front of the main stage, on whose background Bail had illustrated a large panel, a large, cube-like white monolith stood. As every eye looked on, a driving funk/rock groove started to emanate from the cube, which receded to reveal The Coup, dressed in white jumpsuits like astronauts – or, in frontman Boots Riley’s case, an Afronaut. The gesture was an obvious nod to Parliament-Funkadelic’s mothership, and suggested that the band had come from the far reaches of the galaxy to help us get a clue before all hope was lost.

Things only got more surreal from there.

The band shod their jumpsuits for street clothes, or in Riley’s case, a dapper brown plaid suit with light brown leather boots. Riley stands under six feet, even with his signature Afro, but he might as well have been the tallest man in the room, based on his stage presence. He strutted, swaggered, shimmied, shook, and gesticulated with the magnetic charisma of a chitlin circuit soulman who’d finally made it to the Apollo.

“We came to fonk,” he announced at one point, with a dead-serious look in his eye.

Boots elevates @YBCA

Boots elevates @YBCA

And fonk the Coup did, tearing through a fair portion of their six-album catalog with boisterous upswing. Each band member seemed on point as old songs were given new arrangements, extended jams segued into entirely different tunes, and Riley the ringleader was matched in his intensity level by the sidemen.

20 years ago, when the Coup were just starting out, Riley was a rapper with a message in an era defined by an underground hip-hop spectrum which ranged from ghetto gangsta to Afrocentric revolutionary. Two decades later, hip-hop is far less revolutionary as a genre overall, yet he still carries the same message. Riley has become an icon of radical social activism who also happens to be entertainer; he can no longer be considered ‘just a rapper.’ He’s more of a messenger who conveys his statements through rapping, over a musical template which has evolved from basic sample-and-loop aesthetics to incorporate more live instrumentation and amalgamate more  genre influences, from new wave to indie rock to both James Brown and Prince-style funk.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

going to a Gitmo go-go

For longtime fans, the set list must have seemed like manna from heaven. It included mostly uptempo numbers, among them “Gods of Science,” “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” “Gunsmoke,” “My Favorite Mutiny,” Everythang,” “Strange Arithmetic.” “We Are the Ones,” “Magic Clap,” “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish,” and covers of Talking Heads and Lou Reed songs –all performed like the countdown to Armageddon had sounded, and there was no tomorrow.

But this was no ordinary Coup concert, as Bail’s art and video projections by David Slaza made clear. After bringing Bail to the stage and introducing him, Riley pointed to his left, where two “Guantanemo Bay go-go dancers” struck strangely erotic poses while dressed in orange jumpsuits, their faces covered by hoods. The dancers remained for the rest of the show, making effective social commentary without saying a word.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Mortar and Pestle

A few minutes later, Riley pointed to his right. Lights went up, illuminating a side stage where electronic music trio Mortar and Pestle had set up. Shifting the audiences’ attention like that was a clever move; it forced attendees to consider the space they were in, and perhaps to absorb Bail’s installation art more carefully. Following that interlude, Riley kept the energy level high by introducing vocalist Silk-E, who led the crowd through a raucous version of “Show Yo Ass.”

Like most of The Coup’s songs, the lyrics are still relevant:

You’re voting which you’re hoping
will stop the guns from smoking – is someone fucking joking?
They’re bankers in sheep’s clothing
I know places where the kids keep croaking
Lacking the essential vitamins and protein
Hustlin and hyphy are eloping
I’m the best man bustin shots and toasting

 The song’s chorus is, like much of The Coup’s catalog, a call to action:

Now’s the time for you to show yo’ ass
They ain’t handin out no mo’ cash
Mommas imitate my logo fast
Daddies take the safety off and blast


©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Laugh, Love, Fuck

The audience’s eyes were again directed away from the main stage, as a four-piece string section (members of Classical Revolution), bathed in red lighting, added violins and cello to “Laugh, Live, Fuck” as the video projection superimposed a heart against the main stage.

That was followed by the puppeteers of Eat the Fish, who pantomimed with figurines of the band members and a Guantanemo go-go dancer as Riley and the band hit with the recent single and video, “Your Parents’ Cocaine.” Kazoos were distributed throughout the crowd, and some guy threw fake money and bindles into the audience, as Riley related an ironic tale of white powder and white privilege:

Your daddy gon’ make you VP of sales
Don’t mix good shit with the ginger ale
Pacific Heights ain’t Sunnydale
You could murder somebody and be out on bail
Your mom’s Amtrak- she’s on the rails
So many bumps thought it was Braille
One day, we’re all gonna tip the scales
Cuz me and my crew are too big to fail


©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Eat the Fish’s Coup puppets added comic releif

The puppets were hard to top; just about the only thing which could have done so was… a N’Awlins-style second line, courtesy of Extra Action Marching Band, who made their way through the audience, tuba blaring at full bleat. The surprises kept on coming; the side stage again lit up, and Snow Angel, a folk/power-pop outfit distinguished by electric sitar player Gabby La La, stole the spotlight.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

That’s M-1 of dead prez in the panda suit

Pick a Bigger Weapon faves “Monkey Off Your Back” and “Ass-Breath Killers” followed,  but before anyone could catch their breath, a man in a panda suit appeared on stage and took off his mask to reveal… M-1 of dead prez, who performed his best-known song, the anthemic “Hip-Hop”:

In the real world, these just people with ideas

They just like me and you when the smoke and camera disappear

Again the real world, it’s bigger than all these fake-ass records

Where poor folks got the millions and my woman’s disrespected

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman popped up amidst some scaffolding on the back wall opposite the main stage with an acoustic guitar. Bhiman performed “Up in Arms,” a poignant song about the death of Huey Newton, which imagined Newton’s thoughts at seeing the reversal of the social justice gains he fought so hard for.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Bhi Bhiman

Not long after that, Riley appeared in the same scaffolding nook, wearing a fedora. A strategically-placed front grille of an old American muscle car became a prop. Aided by more strings from Classical Revolution, he closed the night with a rendition of the classic “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ‘79 Grenada Last Night,” working his way through the crowd before returning back to the stage to take the band through the grand finale.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The audience looked pleased

Suffice to say, The Coup’s Shadowbox was an engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking show. Riley went so far as to say it was his “favorite Coup show yet”, while YCBA’s Marc Bamuthi Jacobs noted the show was the first to use every single plug on the venue’s soundboard. It was less than a theater piece or a performance art work than it was a concert with elements of both, but it worked. It’s easy to recommend it as something to keep audiences enrapt in this age of short attention spans, and one hopes it will play more, and possibly national, stages at some future point in time. -EKA