Welcome to the 20th installment of Oakulture. Time flies, doesn’t it? Has it already been (almost) six months? Seems like we’ve been doing this forever. Anyway, to commemorate, we’ve got an special extra-juju-laden offering to be read in front of your altar, shrine, or temple — or just wherever you happen to be. The movement of the people grooves on. Hotep!

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The Paramount marquee

The Paramount marquee

It would have been appropriate, in retrospect, to just declare last week in Oakland “Fela Week.” Local social media newsfeeds were all agog with the coming of the hit Broadway musical to the venerable Paramount Theater and related events. There were Fela-themed nightclub one-offs, dance classes, and photography exhibits. The show itself landed for an extended run last year in San Francisco, before choosing Oakland as the last stop of its 2013 tour. Much of the anticipation, however, stemmed from a memorable night at the New Parish last year, when the musical cast, including original Broadway lead Sahr Ngaujah, “discovered” the city, and by all reports, fell in love with it. The feelings were mutual, evidently.

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Fela! played a short run at the Paramount. But its cultural impact was major. The production itself not only utilized the Paramount’s facilities more fully than in any show in recent history, with top-notch lighting, staging, and multimedia screens, but served as an affirmation of Oakland’s Afrocentric-leaning cultural arts scene. Oakland’s connection to Fela’s legend is indirect but significant: The Black Panther mentality that influenced Kuti’s transformation from a med school drop out-cum-jazzy vagabond into a politically-outspoken cultural firebrand originated here.

At the performance Oakulture saw last Thursday evening, it was pointed out that the dancers were mixing various African dance styles, from Congolese to Guinean. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that people who live here know the difference. One of the unquestioned highlights was Melanie Marshall’s powerful performance as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother. Marshall’s operatic rendition of 1972’s “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” canonized a song which was already a classic, and she provided much of the musical’s spiritual gravitas.

As Fela, Adesola Osakalumi was equal parts cocky, crazy, and charismatic, and the captioning of Kuti’s lyrics onscreen was more than just a nice touch: it revealed him to be a genius up there with Marley, Dylan, and Mayfield. Michelle Williams was a bright spot visually and vocally in her role as Fela’s Black Panther revolutionary girlfriend Sandra Iszadore, earning her star turn on “Upside Down.”

At times, the show’s historical revisionism was bothersome – in real life, Sandra never sang on what is perhaps Fela’s best-known hit, “Water Na Get Enemy” – and at other times understandable. Placards reading “Sean Bell,” “Ken Saro-Wiwa,” and “Darfur” appeared in a funeral procession scene, set to “Coffin For Head of State”; “International Thief Thief” similarly referenced Enron, AIG and the WTO. Besides preserving Kuti’s myth, Fela!’s best accomplishment, perhaps, was in showing that music and politics don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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It was pretty cool to go straight from the Fela! Broadway show to the official cast after-party, again held at the New Parish–extending the post-show glow by a good 4-5 hours and then some. Opening acts included locals Jennifer Johns, Kev Choice, and Ryan Nicole – all of whom seemed extra-juiced. The headlining set, however, reunited Sahr Ngaujah with Antibalas—the musicians from the original cast—who hadn’t played together in quite some time.

Ngaujah took a few sips of a brown liquid in a plastic cup, stripped down to his bare chest, and then proceeded to tear the place down to its rafters with a set of Kuti faves, including “Zombie” and “Colonial Mentality.” Williams even joined the band for the closer, “Water.” The energy level was off the chain and, in this case, we’re just going to have to let the pictures tell the story.

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Speaking of pictures, Rameen Gasery, the Executive Photographer for Fela!, is currently featured in a new Betti Ono Gallery exhibit, “Chasing Fela,” which opened June 7. The show features stage, candid, and concert shots of the production as well as photos of Ngaujah and Fela’s sons Femi and Seun and Afrobeat advocate DJ Rich Medina. As an “Assata Shakur Teach-In” was taking place in the room next door, Oakulture exchanged a few words with Gasery.

Gasery described himself as a “NY-to-LA transplant” who spent his formative years in the Bay Area. Traveling with the show for three and a half years was “hairy and varied,” he said. All over America, he added, jaws dropped after “being inspired not just by the kinetic energy of the music but of Fela’s message — not just peace and equality, but activism and engagement, from the Black Panther party to the things that were going on with the Nigerian government.”

rameen gasery

Rameen Gasery at Betti Ono

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For the past five years, Oakland’s Royal Joker Car Club has hosted the “Cruise Night,” a rolling exhibition of vintage, classic and custom cars, set to a soundtrack of low-rider-friendly oldies, which has occupied the Giant Burger parking lot at 22nd and Telegraph on First Fridays. But all that may be coming to an end; event organizer Carlos Valtreau recently landed a new job in Hawaii.

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Cruise Night June 2013

At press time, Valtreau was looking for someone to take over the reins of the event, which has been one of the most consistent, and trouble-free, draws to First Friday (whose own future is uncertain). In a Facebook post, Valtreau noted, “The city knows this is a positive event for Oakland. We have never had a problem in the five years of its existence.”

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Maize grinder at Tamarindo

Maize grinder at Tamarindo

Oakland already has some of the best Mexican food in the entire Bay Area, if not California. But Tamarindo Antojeria lifts Aztlan cuisine to another level with their Tamarindo Food Lab, a new series of food-themed cultural events. The idea is for Mexi-food aficionados to be able to “experience Mexican food differently,” says restaurant owner Alfonso Dominguez, with visiting chefs, tastings, classes and workshops, and an emphasis on education.

Gloria Dominguez and Benedicta Alejo in Tamarindo's kitchen.

Gloria Dominguez and Benedicta Alejo in Tamarindo’s kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On June 2nd, the restaurant hosted Benedicta Alejo, the first Mexican woman chef to be invited to the Vatican, for a prix fixe meal of mostly pre-Hispanic dishes, matched with pairings from local wineries.

As Gloria Dominguez noted, “it becomes a ritual” to prepare traditional food from scratch.  Fittingly, Alejo’s maize grinder, on which yellow, white and blue corn were ground, served as an altar for guests, who included City Councilman Noel Gallo and the local Mexican Consul. Before each course was served, Alejo came around to each table to discuss the meal and its origins.

Oakulture tasted a few of the dishes: the Taco de Charolito was a salty, spicy appetizer with a consistency akin to a crunchy buckwheat cracker, and the Tzirita de Cilantro con Corunda was a creamy soup with sublime flavor notes. Unfortunately, we had to leave before the main courses–which included Mole de Conejo, or rabbit in chocolate salsa–but we’re especially looking forward to the upcoming mescal tasting.

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This week’s pics:
Soji and the Afrobeat Band, 6/14, 5-9pm, Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St.

Capleton & the Prophecy Band, 6/13, 9pm, $30-$35, New Parish, 579 18th St.

Scraper Bike Parade, 6/15, 10am, Eastmont Mall, 73rd Ave./Bancroft

Bikes, Bubbles, and Books, 6/15, 2-3:30pm, West Oakland Public Library, 1801 Adeline

Born Free Kickstarter Launch Party, 6/15, 7pm-10pm, Owl n Wood, 45 Grand Ave.

got tips? eric@oaklandlocal.com

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