Hot damn. It’s summer in the city and the weather is sweet. The warm temperatures make it easy to want to get out of the house, hear good music, and get your groove on. Perhaps not coincidentally, over the past few weeks, Oakulture has done just that. We’ve visited the Berkeley World Music Festival, and the Temescal Street Fair (both of which were celebrating their 10th anniversaries), the Stern Grove Festival, two speakeasy-type venues in Berkeley, and a Zimbabwean house party in El Cerrito.
To be able to see world-class global music artists like Ricardo Lemvo, MC Rai, and Baraka Moon (not to mention the futuristic hip-hop of Deltron 3030) for free, is a cause for celebration. From the looks of things, folks were doing just that.
MC Rai and Baraka Moon’s sets at the Berkeley World Music Festival on June 22 made Oakulture feel blessed to be living in the Bay Area. Despite his moniker, MC Rai doesn’t rap, he sings– in traditional North African style over updated Maghreb beats, which he calls “Arabic urban rai fusion.” Baraka Moon, OTOH, is a collaboration between Australian didjeridu artist Stephen Kent and classical Pakistani vocalist/ harmonium player Sukhawat Ali Khan, that promised—and delivered—‘Sufi trance grooves’ which had the majority of People’s Park dancing. Okay, some of the people were hula-hooping, but that still counts.
The East Bay’s fierce salseros, meanwhile, came out to Temescal this past Sunday: Lemvo and Makina Loca had the entire block at 51st/Telegraph dancing exuberantly to their Angolan version of Afro-Cuban salsa (with a touch of samba and cumbia thrown in for good measure). Lemvo was the unquestioned musical highlight of the fair, which keeps getting bigger and better every year. The crowd was so beautiful that, at one point during his set, Lemvo stopped to take a picture of it, obviously liking what he was seeing.
Oakulture also managed to check in on underground jazz/blues venue Birdland—back in effect for a short time– and another underground Berkeley spot, whose name we are sworn to secrecy on, which featured live sets from the Broun Fellinis and the Afrofunk Experience. The unnamed venue was super cool and artsy, with a temple-esque entrance and a roomy area for stage and dancing. A ‘chill’ room was located in a converted, remodeled AC Transit bus, complete with articulating midsection in which comfy sofas had been installed. Oh yeah, they also serve drinks and food, including po’boys. Get it while you can.
Can we say this about the Fellinis? They are the business. If ever a band was suited to deliver a post-millennial, Afro-futurist soundtrack rooted in jazz improvisation, it’s them.
Detroit, 1972. Three brothers form a rock band after one of them sees a concert by The Who. Simple enough scenario, right? Wrong. The brothers are black, the band’s name is Death, and we’re knee-deep in the Motown era, when teenage African Americans who aspire to be musicians are expected to sing three-part harmonies about love, not jarring power-chord progressions about lying politicians.
“A Band Called Death” is the story of the first Afropunk band, sonic progenitors of the Ramones who recorded a classic but obscure album which lay unheard for 35 years, before a groundswell of record-nerd fanboyism resulted in a well-received reissue followed by a tour by the group’s surviving members.
Reminiscent in some ways of “Searching For Sugarman,” the Oscar-winning biopic about classic but obscure singer-songwriter Rodriguez (who’s also from Detroit), “A Band Called Death” fills in the blank pages about Death’s mysterious career some four decades after the fact. Despite the challenge of having to craft the backstory of a seminal, if not completely influential, band from limited photographic and video material, filmmakers Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett bring a compelling narrative to screen, one which poignantly treads among themes of conviction, spirituality, rejection, brotherly and familial love, resurrection/rejuvenation, and, ultimately, vindication. Along the way, it also raises some interesting questions about death itself—the afterlife, not the band—while suggesting that society has now evolved to a point where black rock bands with spooky names are no big deal.
In the years since Death released their only 45 single (“Politicians in My Eyes”), the Afropunk genre has coalesced into an international movement. Early African American hardcore rockers like Funkadelic, the Bad Brains, Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, Body Count and Living Color have been joined by such latter-day saints as TV on the Radio, Death Grips, and Saul Williams (in his Niggy Tardust incarnation).
Evidence suggests this movement is growing; Afropunk.com has 361 listings in its “Bands We F*ck With” section, ranging from Chicago’s Severed Tether, to Tuscaloosa’s Organix Androids, to Panama City’s Negros Americanos, to Johannesburg’s Homisupasta, to London’s Fuzzy Logic Baby, to Port of Spain’s 5 Miles to Midnight.
Should the release of “A Band Called Death” result in expanded interest in black hardcore, punk, metal, or genre-mashing bands, the Bay Area is well-positioned. We have our own black rock history, including metalheads Othello’s Revenge and A Band Called Pain, the Kofy Brown-fronted all-woman punk act Sistas in the Pit, and, more recently, the Punk Funk Mob, The Memorials (who have an upcoming Brick & Mortar show), Bottom Hammer (who play 7/28 at 924 Gilman), and The Last Dragons.
Fronted by erstwhile emcee/singer (and fashion innovator) Sunru “333” Carter, The Last Dragons recently played two mini-concerts at the New Parkway premiere of “A Band Called Death,” performing after the credits rolled. Here are Carter’s thoughts on the film: “For me, it was pivotal because it shows the relevance of African culture, black music, black rock, and the origins of that.”
With the documentary freshly implanted in our minds, we asked Carter about the black rock continuum—i.e., the notion that black rock ‘n’ roll is a constant across space and time, regardless of the accepted pop culture narrative.
Ever since Chuck Berry, Carter says, the black rock experience has been denied and historically revised: “They don’t want to say it came from us, but they want to capitalize off it. For this evidence to come out about this band and how it all connects to everything, all the influences, it just shows how synchronized everything is.”
Carter relates he grew up “listening to rock, and being called ‘white boy.’” Deep down, he says, he had “the gut feeling it was connected, like Jimi [Hendrix] and everything, mad influence. It’s time. All the kids are into it. It’s not a separate thing anymore… it’s always been here. These are the elements which represent our culture.”
The Last Dragons, he says, are bringing “the next level of rock music, adding the tribal elements, and crating a movement through a hybrid of all the different styles: blues, rock, hip-hop, and some next futurist shit…it’s designed to get you up and out, go beyond your mind.”
This week’s picks:
“A Band Called Death,” July 11, 9:10pm, New Parkway, 474 24th St.
Etana, July 11, 9pm, $20-$25, the New Parish, 579 18th St.
“Fruitvale Station,” opening July 12, Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave.
45 Live w/ Prince Paul, Peanut Butter Wolf, J Rocc, Dam Funk, DJ Shortkut & DJ Platurn, July 12, 9pm, $20 adv., Mighty, 119 Utah St., San Francisco
Reggae Gold, July 12, 10pm, $10-$15, New Parish, 579 18th St.