Last weekend was an amazing one for Oaktown culture aficionados. With the monthly First Fridays happenings intersecting with the annual Art + Soul Festival, the resulting explosion of musical and artistic expression was off the chain.  It went down in the Town, alright, for three straight days, generating a significant amount of kinetic energy and positive forward momentum.

Leela James moves the Art + Soul crowd

Leela James moves the Art + Soul crowd

To tell this story correctly, we’re going to go in non-linear fashion, so bear with us and set the controls for time and space transcendence. There’s a lot of parsecs to cover, so make sure the gravity valve is adjusted to your preferred setting and your seatbelt’s firmly buckled.
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The journey begins on Thursday evening at the Great American Music Hall, the iconic Barbary Coast-era saloon– long been one of SF’s best live music venues.

Marty rocks at GAMH

Marty rocks at GAMH

At that show, headliner Martin Luther McCoy  almost got his thunder stole by 18-year old opening act Gabrielle Walter-Clay, an up-and-coming singer with a powerful set of pipes. How powerful? After snapping some pics from near the stage, Oakulture stepped to the back of the hall, and every note was loud, crisp, and clear.  Walter-Clay absolutely slayed covers of Jill Scott’s “Golden” and Lauryn Hill’s “That Thing,” as well as several of her own originals. Watching Walter-Clay sing was like a scene from “A Star is Born.”

Gabrielle Walter-Clay

Gabrielle Walter-Clay

As always, Mc Coy was a treat to see live. He delivered his usual outpouring of love man/soul man grooves with soaring falsettos and rocking guitar riffs, backed by Oakland native son Kev Choice on keyboards.
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The ubiquitous Choice—more on him later—turned out to be the connecting principle between that show and Saturday’s Art + Soul set by Mara Hruby, a 25-year old Oakland songstress, another prodigious young talent well worth discovering. Choice also backed Hruby, who delivered a very impressive set of tunes, which also bodes  well for her future ascension to stardom.

Mara Hruby

Mara Hruby

Comparisons to Norah Jones are perhaps inevitable, except that Hruby’s sound is more soul than folk, and quite possibly more organic. A download of Hruby’s 2010 EP of covers, From Her Eyes, is available here.
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First Friday began for Oakulture with a visit to the Betti Ono Gallery, which just debuted two important new shows. The first, “Cosmograms: Explorations of Black Matter,” by Sydney Cain aka Sage Stargate, heralds the arrival of a super-talented visual artist, who’s just 22. Cain’s incredibly-detailed drawings, paintings, and etchings mix Afrocentric symbolism with sacred geometry, equalizing science and spirituality.

"Visions" by Sydney Cain

“Visions” by Sydney Cain

Trust us on this: you will be hearing about much more about her work in months and years to come.

The other Betti Ono exhibit, “I Am Hue Man,” shows how artistic expression is often birthed out of sadness. Inspired by the need to recognize and support black men in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial verdict, a group of Oakland sisters– Effie Tesfahun, Amber McZeal, Leo Rosario, Zsa Zsa Rench, Jennifer Johns, and gallery proprietor Anyka Barber– decided to document local African American males with a series of black and white photographs. The resulting portraits, which cover one of the gallery’s walls, speaks volumes without actually making audible commentary. (Full disclosure: Oakulture is among those whose portrait appears.) The show is up until August 24th, and not only are more portraits—which will ultimately include people of all hues—being added, but there are plans to make the exhibit a national one in the works.

The HueMan Project

The HueMan Project

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A quick stop in Oaklandish on Friday night yielded an intimate solo set by Kev Choice, who easily transitions from buttoned-down sideman to hip-hop-attired emcee. Choice alternated between sitting down at his electric piano, strapping on the keytar, and venturing out into the packed crowd, who responded with raised fists. There’s not much to say about Choice that hasn’t been said already, i.e., the dude has serious musical chops and lyrical skills. Also appearing: Viveca Hawkins, Choice’s longtime backup vocalist, who now fronts her own band, The Memorials.

Kev Choice and Viveca Hawkins

Kev Choice and Viveca Hawkins

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It was just a hop, skip and a jump from Oaklandish to Solespace, for the opening of “Electric Kingdom,” a group show by the bicoastal TMT crew, curated by Oakland aerosol legend Refa One. The show, which runs until the end of September, features works by Refa, Chain 3, Tean 5, Kade, Sak, Skeme, Shame 125, Web, Stem, Cre8, Mad, Kufu, and Enk 1, plus guest artist Soon 1. It’s a notable exhibit in that it connects West Coast aerosol artists to their Bronx, NY counterparts.

Refa 1 and Skeme TMT

Refa 1 and Skeme TMT

On Friday night, Drasar Monumental and Planet Rocker, of the Northstar Zulus, spun old-school hip-hop, as heads mingled amidst the exposition of the culture’s first element. That was followed by an artist talk featuring Skeme, Refa, and Kufu the next evening, moderated by artist and author Duane Deterville.

"Hip Hop" by Cre8

“Hip Hop” by Cre8

Some interesting things came out of that conversation, such as Skeme revealing that the controversial word “graffiti” – which has been eschewed by aerosol practitioners of late – is actually his preferred term. “I ain’t no aerosol muralist, I’m a graffiti writer,” declared Skeme, who noted that the original Italian word graffiti is derived from, graffito, is a technique which involves making a drawing by covering a surface, then etching away at it, revealing the undersurface.

Skeme at Solespace

Skeme at Solespace

Skeme also ran down the storied history of the original TMT crew, whose moniker stands variously for The Magnificent Team, and Ten Million Tags, among other acronyms. The veteran writer encouraged younger artists to learn about the artform’s history, and also decried the cultural appropriation of graffiti by Caucasian writers whose efforts, he opined, tended to be more linear and less “funky” then black and Latino artists.

Refa explained the show’s inspiration came from Twilight 22’s classic 1983 electro-hop song as well as the energy conducted through the process of making art, which he said had “flow, vibration, rhythm.” There’s a connection, added Kufu, between present-day urban hieroglyphics and “ancient Egyptian electro-magneticism” reflected in color patterns which remain similar through “spans of eons and millenniums.”
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Deuce Eclipse w/ Bang Data

Deuce Eclipse w/ Bang Data

Teleporting back to the previous day, we find ourselves yet again at Ogawa Plaza, where Art + Soul’s EBX stage hosted all-local acts. Following Hruby was Bang Data, the popular local cumbia/hip-hop/rock hybrid band fronted by charismatic bilingual singer/emcee Deuce Eclipse. Bang Data’s rockin’ set brought them many new fans as they ran through tracks like “Caminante” and “El Pacino.”

 

Bang Data with Dhol Rhythms

Bang Data with Dhol Rhythms

Just when you thought the show couldn’t get any more multicultural, the band was joined onstage by not one, but two sets of ethnic dancers: the SE Asian stylings of Dhol Rhythms and the South American flavor of Maisa Duke and Energia do Samba, who shimmied and shook to the crowd’s wild approval.

Maisa Duke and Energia do Samba

Maisa Duke and Energia do Samba

That was a hard act to follow, but Los Rakas brought the energy up even higher with an a hour -and-a-half-long performance which filled the crowd all the way to the top of the amphitheater bowl, and then some – spreading out into the grassy field East of the plaza. Again, not much to say about Los Rakas that hasn’t already been said, except that they’re really getting comfortable with doing bigger shows.

For longtime Art + Soul-goers, it’s been interesting—and rewarding—to see the event’s progression. A few years ago, the festival avoided live hip-hop acts (probably because of the threat of youth violence, after the demise of Festival at the Lake).

Raka Rich greets a fan

Raka Rich greets a fan

But since breaking the mold with Hieroglyphics in 2009, Art + Soul has embraced the multicultural direction local hip-hop has leaned to, with wholly gratifying results. On Saturday, Los Rakas, Bang Data and the two dance groups connected Oakland with Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, and India, which is super cool, when you think about it.
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Too Tight: Con Funk Shun

Too Tight: Con Funk Shun

Fast-forward to Sunday at Art + Soul, a day reserved for traditional black music: funk, blues, and soul. Seemingly every Con Funk Shun fan in a 20-mile radius crowded in front of the Main Stage to hear the Vallejo smooth-funk masters, who regaled all with their showmanship, as well as their catalog of classic hits, including “Ffun” and “Too Tight.” CFS veterans Michael Cooper and Felton Pilate were in fine form, but bassist EQ stole the show with some slick slap-bass finger’ poppin’.

A force of nature: Leela James

A force of nature: Leela James

According to Oakulture’s notes, Sunday headliner Leela James was a “force of nature,” which is about right. A throwback to the days when soul singers were gritty and full of sass, James rocked it extremely hard with a full-throttle performance which left no booty unshook. A lot of artists have covered Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come,” but few have made it theirs the way she has. You gotta be a bad-ass to make an already-classic tune your signature song, but that’s just what James has done. Bonus props to Ms. James for pulling a bunch of Oaklanders on stage with her for some spontaneous dancing.

Oakland takes it to the stage!

Oakland takes it to the stage!

Blues fans, meanwhile, got to enjoy an afternoon’s worth of 12-bar progressions and revved-up laments, courtesy of the Bay Area Blues Society , whose Caravan of All-Stars band backed various singers, including Tommy Nunnelly, Wylie Trass, Teddy “Blues Master” Watson, “Terrible” Tom Bowden, Fillmore Slim, and Johnny Rawls.

Teddy "Blues Master" Watson

Teddy “Blues Master” Watson

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And just like that, we’re back in the New Parish on Friday night, just in time to be transported to Funkternia, the home planet of the Funkquarians, the colorful, dance-happy troupe which grew out of Theo Williams’ popular SambaFunk classes and has recently sprouted a live band, the Funkternals. Life on Funkternia is a happy and joyful one, it seems – filled with music, rhythm, and non-stop grooves. If you need to reach Oakulture, that’s where we’ll be.

Funkquarians communicate through rhythmic body movements

Funkquarians communicate through rhythmic body movements

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This Week’s Picks:

Reggae Gold, 8/10,  10pm, $10 w/ RSVP, the New Parish, 579 18th St.

Bay Area Female Rap Legends Tour, 8/7, 10pm, $10, Shashamane, 2507 Broadway

Rebirth Brass Band, 8/8-8/9, $29, Yoshis, 510 Embarcadero West

Grand-Live Opening Night w/ DJ Quik + live band, 8/9. 8 pm, $20-$50, 420 14th St.

Monterey Bay Reggae Fest, 8/9-8/11

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