Everyone talks about Oakland’s diversity. It’s frequently touted by the mayor as one of the things that makes the city unique. But a lot of times people take that diversity for granted. We’re not just talking about diversity from a demographic standpoint, as in there are many diverse ethnicities and a broad spectrum of economic and social strata, blah blah blah. When we look at Oakland, we’re looking at true multiculturalism, that is: many different cultures intersecting in a variety of interesting ways.
A case in point: this past Saturday night. Oakulture started out by strolling through the Uptown area, on our way to the “Taste of Oakland” restaurant and bar crawl. Before we could even get to Uptown, we were transfixed by some amazing sounds emanating from Latham Square. We heard the unmistakable sounds of hip-hop emcees, along with classical instrumentation, including a cello, acoustic bass, and an opera singer.
This wasn’t just a mash-up; this was Ensemble Mik Nawooj, who seamlessly fuse chamber music with hip-hop – which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Led by composer JooWan Kim, Ensemble Mik Nawooj have been experimenting with the form since 2005, and have worked with a plethora of local emcees, including Rico Pabon and Kirby Dominant. On Saturday, lead vocal duties were supplied by Do D.A.T. and SandMan of The Attik (a supremely-verbally-talented group who first emerged in the late 2000s, but were overshadowed somewhat by the hyphy movement). Do D.A.T. and SandMan’s rapid-fire, alliterative flows lent themselves well to the Mik Nawooj format, which is more conceptual and cutting-edge than 99% of today’s rap. The most impressive part was not just how musical Mik Nawooj sounded, but how cohesive they came off.
The outdoor show was part of the Latham Square Concert Series, curated by Oaktown Indie Mayhem and the Awaken Café. The series continues through November, and is part of an ongoing effort to activate the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph, turning it into a pedestrian-friendly space for community engagement. Oh, and if you missed Ensemble Mik Nawooj, their next show is Nov. 1 at Yoshis.
From there it was on to “A Taste of Oakland,” which was billed as an “Uptown Block Party.” The idea was that, for the price of one ticket, participants could sample food and drink from many Uptown businesses. Great idea—and one embraced by foodies, who bought up all the $20 advance tickets—but the execution needed a little refinement.
Some of the establishments were unprepared for the crush of people and ran out of food early. Others didn’t fully embrace the concept, like the spot–which shall remain nameless–that served up popcorn. Another listed restaurant hadn’t yet opened – it was still in the process of being remodeled. There were long lines to wait for small bites at most places, which was an issue since there was a limited time window for the event. Unfortunately, not all the restaurants in the Uptown area participated, and some of the eateries only contributed cocktails. The event needed more music and/or arts programming to truly have a “block party” feel, especially on those long stretches of sidewalk in-between participating venues. But hey, that’s just Oakulture’s opinion; photojournalist Thomas Hawk offers another, less critical, take on his blog.
Those gripes aside, it was kinda fun walking around and checking out all the places, especially spots which just recently opened, like Torpedo Sushi, Ethiopian café Anfilo, and Southeast Asian fusion restaurant Camber. Ozumo’s tempura shrimp were also mighty tasty. Besides the diverse cuisine, the wine tasting at various locations along the way, like Feelmore 510, Solespace, and Owl N Wood, made the walk go easier, as did the Dickel and pickle shots at the Legionnaire. Props must also be given to Vo’s, a longtime Oakland favorite, which not only served up the largest portions out of any of the establishments, but allowed the tasters actual plates and a chance to sit down, like regular diners. That level of service surely earned the establishment some return visits.
On our way back, we heard beautiful sounds emanating out of another public space, the Uptown Art Park. This time, the music was traditional Balinese folk, courtesy of internationally-renowned dance and music company Gamelan Sekar Jaya. The ensemble went all out, with extra-percussive gamelan rhythms, video projections and dancers dressed in shiny traditional costumes; in-between performance segments, guest Music Director I Dewa Peru Berata engaged the audience by leading interactive chants.
The night still wasn’t done, however. Oakulture’s last stop for the evening was Venue , a multi-level entertainment complex, which featured hip-hop and reggae DJs, as well as live hip-hop, courtesy of Detroit emcees and J-Dilla associates Slum Village , who performed songs from their newest album Evolution, as well as classics like “Players” and “Raise It Up.”
Oakulture rarely ventures out to SF these days, so we hadn’t yet been to SF Jazz’ new venue—the first in the country specifically “built for jazz”– which is, frankly, awesome. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and the acoustics may be the best of any venue in the Bay Area, surpassing even Yoshi’s Oakland location.
In case you’re just coming up to speed, Glasper resurrected jazz from the dead with his Grammy-winning Black Radio album, which applied a contemporary, yet quite experimental, sheen to the well-worn genre. On Friday night, joined by multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Mark Colenburg, the pianist performed two sold-out shows. Glasper is a supremely talented musician, yet his gift is to make the complex aspects of what he does seem simple. On Friday, he let Benjamin’s vocoder and effects take center stage while he noodled about on grand piano and electric piano, frequently playing both simultaneously.
There was plenty of stretching out with long, expansive groove sections, including an extended bass solo by Hodge. The audience got a taste of new songs from the upcoming Black Radio 2 like “Let it Ride,” a cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” a guest appearance by SF soul singer Martin Luther, and a closing medley of “A Love Supreme” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Coltrane and Cobain may seem like an unlikely combo on paper, but in practice, Glasper and his band made it work.
Jazz is one of the key components of Afrobeat, a genre originated by Kuti, the legendary musician-activist who blended West African highlife and traditional Yoruban folk music with African American grooves. Afrobeat surges along with punchy, swinging horn sections, and Lagos Roots is no exception.
While Fela tribute bands are a dime a dozen, Lagos Roots might be the most authentic Afrobeat outfit outside of Nigeria playing today. Lead vocalist Geoffrey Enibu Omadhebo, a longtime member of Sonny Okosun’s band, is a contemporary of Fela’s and his sister Christy Agbeh was a dancer and singer with Kuti’s Africa 70 band. Lagos Roots got the New Parish crowd dancing and shaking to Kuti classics like “Gentleman” and “Water Na Get Enemy,” as well as their own material like “System Breakdown.” It was a “yeah yeah” kind of night, to paraphrase Omadhebo’s favorite saying.
On Sunday night, movers and shakers of the Oakland art scene gathered in force for “Flourish Oakland,” the annual fund-raiser for the Oakland Art Murmur, held at one of Oakland’s artsiest restaurants, Mua. The event featured tasty food, local wines, and sparkling vodka cocktails from the provocatively-named Strip and Go Bare. There was also a silent auction, lots of local art, awards, and appearances by members of the Oakland Ballet Company. But, to be perfectly honest, the event was really a schmoozefest for the see-and-be-seen crowd.
Of course, just the fact that Oakland even has a see-and-be-seen crowd is something of an accomplishment, considering that a few years ago, from a cultural standpoint, the city was firmly rooted in the eternal shadow of San Francisco. Much of that change in perception is due to the resurgence of the visual arts, and much of the credit for that goes to the Art Murmur, which made the gallery scene here a happening, hip thing. While the Art Murmur folks have moved away from their association with the First Fridays street party, they’ve attempted to keep the emphasis on art with weekly Saturday Strolls – which often include artist talks, film screenings, and other activities.
This Week’s Picks:
10/23, 9pm-2am, The Night Light, 311 Broadway
10/25, 6-9pm, $7-$15, Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., SF
10/25, 6-9pm, $30, Pro Arts, 150 Frank Ogawa Plaza
10/28, 6-10pm, $5-$20, Impact Hub, 1423 Broadway