The Oakland Museum of California’s new exhibit, “Summoning Ghosts: the Art of Hung Liu,” is awesome, a must-see show–even for people who don’t normally go to museum showings. The show stands as a major undertaking, collecting canvases, sketchbooks, and photographs spanning four decades of work from the prolific artist and teacher.

Liu, who recently retired from Mills College after 20 years of teaching, started out by painting and photographing, sometimes surreptitiously, in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution before immigrating to the United States in 1984. Her life experiences of growing up in a time when government propaganda dictated cultural norms and political expression was severely repressed, form the backdrop against which her work was created.

Influenced by everything from children’s storybooks to classical Chinese art, the self-taught artist, known for her large-scale canvases, employs a wide range of artistic expression, from photorealistic to abstract, while conveying themes of both symbolic and personal meaning, filtered through the lens of history.

What’s most impressive about “Summoning Ghosts” isn’t just Liu’s artistic talent, which is considerable. It’s her gift for embedding often-subtle social, political and cultural commentary within her work. Sometimes the commentary is ironically humorous, as in “Resident Alien,” a 60”x90” canvas depicting an immigration ID card with the name “Cookie, Fortune” above Liu’s portrait. At other times, it’s tragically poignant, such as “September 2001,” a 66”x66” canvas which shows a bird juxtaposed against the head of a young girl – an allusion to a jet plane crashing into the World Trade Center tower on 9/11.

Liu’s amazing knack for detail is evident on “Heroine Gu Yanxiu,” a huge 96”x160” canvas rendered in graphic novel-style, which shows a group of peasants tilling the land.  As Liu pointed out during an artist talk for members of the media, in real life, Chinese peasants often had tattered, raggedy garments. To convey a sense of realism, she added patches of differently-colored fabric swatches to their garb – a detail that a state-sponsored artist, or one who hadn’t actually lived through that time, might have omitted.

“Summoning Ghosts,” which opened March 16, runs until June 30, after which it will tour nationally for two years. Highly recommended for art aficionados, and those interested in Chinese history as well as the Chinese-American immigrant experience.

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Saturday night’s Bang Data show at the New Parish was a triumphant homecoming for the local outfit fronted by charismatic rapper/singer Deuce Eclipse. It was their first headlining appearance in Oakland since being featured on the TV show “Breaking Bad”, which brought much-deserved national awareness to the group, who have mastered a hybridized mix of Latin, hip-hop, rock, and electronic flavors.

Bang Data pour a wide variety of influences into La Sopa (“The Soup”), which coincidentally happens to be the name of their debut album.  Hip-hop verses meet Espanol choruses; traditional mariachi and cumbia elements are fused with modern production styles; hints of dancehall, ska, hard rock and reggaeton add spice and texture.

At the root of Bang Data’s appeal, however, is Eclipse. Not only is he as capable a singer as he is a rapper (in two languages!), but he’s an eminently-watchable stage presence. On Saturday night, with his trademark braids dangling from the sides of his head, he kept the audience in full-on party mode. The eponymous theme “Bang Data” went over well, as did “Caminante” and “El Pacino” – the latter being an unfortunately still-relevant musing on gun violence, as seen through the eyes of a hardened pistolero, who wonders, “why they give me gun?”

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Candelaria are another local Latin-flavored group to keep an eye on. The band, which calls the Fruitvale district its home, proved to be an excellent choice as opener for Bang Data, with their blend of traditional cumbia seasoned with dub reggae accents. They, too, boast a charismatic lead singer, in this case Stephani Garcia Candelaria, and if the current cumbia resurgence continues to gain in popularity, they’ll be in a good position to take their traditional/modern fusion sound to the next level.

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Owl n Wood, owned by fashionista and entrepreneur Rachel Konte, is one of my favorite new boutiques in the Uptown area. On Thursday evening, the small shop became a cultural café when it hosted an edition of “Africa Speaks”, this time featuring singer-songwriter/poet Thobs the Zulu Queen.

Thobs, who’s visiting from South Africa, was an engaging presence who offered up a coffee shop vibe with an African twist. She sang in both English and Zulu, and shared older works, Bob Marley cover tunes, and things she’s written since being in the Bay Area. One song was dedicated to “all Californians who are passive in their feelings.” Another was inspired by riding BART and seeing people who don’t talk to each other, which she called a “collective sadness.” Africa, on the other hand, was described as a “wound that won’t heal… do you recognize the beauty you hold as people,” she said of her homeland.

Proceeds from Africa Speaks went toward the Red Gold and Green Educare Center, a program started by Thobs (real name: Theobeile Bridget Mbanda) in 2009, whose mission is to help educate and uplift poor children in Cape Town. More info aboutRGGEC is here.

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A couple of weeks back, I covered one of my friend Michael “Birdman” Parayno’s infamous Birdland Jazzista Social Club parties. At the time, it wasn’t known whether that gathering would be the last chance for the informal jazz club; true to form, the Birdman remained cagey about its future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he eked out a couple more shindigs before moving to the Philippines.

Friday night, as it turned out, was indeed the end of an era. Birdman will be on a plane bound for Manila by the time you read this. The good news is the Berkeley speakeasy will continue to host its private parties once a month, with Birdman’s friends Yacine Kouyate and Julien Weiller assuming booking duties.

Birdman’s final party—well, at least until this summer, when he’ll be back to teach Asian American Studies classes at College of Alameda and, presumably, get his jazzista on—went out with a bang, as bluesman Alabama Mike brought Berkeley to the country backwoods with a gritty, gold-toothed vocal performance.

Alabama Mike’s google-eyed, leery grins brought edge and authenticity back to the blues genre, which has long been diluted to appease mainstream audiences. “She’s dangerous, she’s a gangster too/ ain’t no telling what she’ll do,” he sang, in a song about taking out a restraining order on his baby mama. One couldn’t tell whether he was recounting real-life events, or just playing up the bluesman’s self-deprecating lament. Later, he groused that “somebody done hoodooed the hoodoo man,” as the seated audience coalesced into a dance floor near the stage. In addition to plenty of hoodoo, Alabama Mike had bon mots for days, such as this one: “does anyone know the price of pork chops done gone up?”

This was the kind of purist-pleasing, down-home blues which used to rule Oakland and Russell City, but these days is only rarely encountered outside of the Deep South and perhaps, parts of Texas. As the Birdman goes onto a new chapter in his life—a little bird tells me he’ll be running a Manila edition of BJSC—all that needs to be said is this: thanks for the memories, “meng.”

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This week’s picks:
Summoning  Ghosts: the Art of Hung Liu, $6-$12, through June 30 at OMCA, 1000 Oak.

Hip Operation with DJ Aebl Dee, 3/21, free, 10 pm, the Layover, 1517 Franklin

Positively Alphabet Street with PC Munoz, 3/22, 7:30pm, $7.50, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant Ave., Berkeley

My Art, My Culture: 2013 Women, Media & Hip Hop Series, 6pm-9pm, $10-$25, Betti Ono Gallery, 1427 Broadway

Lagos Roots Afrobeat Ensemble, 3/22, 9pm, Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley

45 Sessions, 3/22, 9pm, $5-$10, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.

Black Star, First Light, DJ D-Sharp, 3/23, 8pm, $41.50, Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave.

Got tips? eric@oaklandlocal.com

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