As we prepare to give thanks and count our blessings, it’s good to remember what we are thankful for. Oakulture is grateful for the amount of Afro-Caribbean vibes emanating through Oakland and the Bay Area on a regular basis. Recent weeks have been particularly good ones for fans of Diasporan culture, which has brought us world-class performances from West African female vocalist Rokia Traore, dynamic traditional East African song and dance from the Chingyakare Ensemble,  an off-the-chain club appearance by Elephant Man, and a new Latin supergroup, Alta California.
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Alta California

Alta California

Piero Amadeo Infante is a true East Bay OG who has forgotten more things about Berkeley and Oakland than most of us will ever know. Now 50 years of age, Infante’s long singing career first began in the 80s with pioneering, legendary ska-funk band the Freaky Executives. Since then, he’s fronted numerous outfits, including Los Angelitos, Los Mocosos, and Papamalo, and co-founded a new Latin-oriented label with DJ/Producer El Kool Kyle, Baylando Records. Two weeks ago, Infante made a return to live performance after six years away from the scene with a new band, Alta California.

As Infante tells it, the new direction came about through serendipitous means. In 2008, Infante was preparing to tour with his band Papamalo when he came to the uneasy realization that the combination of the music industry’s collapse and the looming recession made the tour financially unfeasible. In addition, the cumulative impact of the musician lifestyle had started to take its toll on his spiritual health.

“I had been in clubs for 35 years, my entire life, playing at least two or three nights a week, and I think I really needed a break,” he says. Infante ran music studios, wrote songs, blogged and “did some regular people work,” but performing live music remained his first love.

Orlando Torriente and Piero Amadeo Infante

Orlando Torriente and Piero Amadeo Infante

A chance meeting with guitarist Dan Fries led Infante to form an a cappella project with vocalist Orlando Torriente around 2010. “I’ve been wanting to sing with Orlando Torriente for about 20 years now,” Infante explains. “I was always busy in the Latin funk world, he was always busy in the more straight-ahead Cuban son world.  We had always wanted to work together but never really had a chance… Orlando is very much the definition of a street singer. When we write and when we sing, it’s not so much the product of an academic environment, we literally put on our tennis shoes and walk around the neighborhood and sing. I would see him do that when I was younger, and he would see me do that.”

Family and personal issues prevented the a cappella project from getting off the ground: “it wasn’t the right time, “ Infante says. Then, about four months ago, he got a call from Fries: “Hey Piero, we are in a band, it’s called Alta California. I’ll see you Thursday at rehearsal.”

Infante showed up at the rehearsal and was delighted to find Fries had assembled a top-notch group of players: in addition to himself, Fries and Torriente, the band included violinist Matthew Szemela, bassist Raul Perales, guitarist Jean-Paul Buongiorno, percussionists Alexy Berlind, and Surya Prakash, and drummer Valentino Peeps. “It was like the Justice League,” Infante says, noting that members have played with bands ranging from Trio Paz to O-maya to Fito Reynoso to Quartet San Francisco to Anthony Blea y su Charanga. As if that wasn’t enough, Alta California even has its own flamenco dancers: Holly Shaw, Anya de Marie, and Melissa Cruz.

Piero Amadeo Infante

Piero Amadeo Infante

The band has committed to monthly gigs on full moon nights at a Berkeley speakeasy and underground club (whose name can’t be disclosed for legal reasons). Yet the word of mouth was strong enough that Alta California’s first performance drew a packed house.

Alta California’s upside is obvious: the band members’ various experiences in all the different variations of Latin music come together live in a harmonious, Diaspora-affirming way, as son, salsa, meringue and mariachi-inflected rhythms are underscored by flamenco guitars. Infante and Torriente’s bromance is readily apparent, as the interplay between the two resulted in highly-emotive, passionate performances of new songs which already seemed classic. Guest vocalist Rossana Fiero added even more fire.

Infante seemed genuinely moved by the turnout and audience reaction, perhaps even a bit overwhelmed by the emotional impact of returning to the stage after such a long break. He gazed at the crowd, then broke into a big smile. He was back in his element, and the homecoming was joyous.
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Rokia Traore

Africa has gifted the world with some amazing female vocalists, from Miriam Makeba to Anjelique Kidjo to Oumou Sangare. To that list, you can add Rokia Traore, a Malian songstress who’s not just among the best female vocalists in Africa right now, but among the best vocalists in the world, period. Traore’s style combines experimental excursions into tonal harmonies a la Zap Mama with the powerful resonance of an Adele, topping it off with folkloric inflections that draw from Mali’s storied griot tradition. It’s a powerful combo, in a slight yet lovely package.

Her recent show at SF’s Nourse Theater was a breakout performance, establishing Traore as a star of the first magnitude. It’s a measure of her talent that she played guitar on the first three songs —  a bold move that sent a powerful message of gender equality. Guitar is usually a male-dominated instrument, yet here Traore was claiming it as her birthright, which it is:  Malian music is often said to be the root of the blues, as well as rock, reggae, funk, and jazz.

Rokia Traore

Rokia Traore

Performing songs from her new album, Beautiful Africa, Traore proved to be a stylistic virtuoso. There’s always a strong sense of tradition in her music, but it was truly impressive to see her fuse traditional African rhythmic templates on top of Westernized forms without tilting too far in the latter direction. Malian music thrives on trance-inducing, hypnotic grooves, around which Traore’s voice deftly ambled, adding just the right amount of yaw – some trilling here, a vibrato there, jumping a key or octave when necessary, setting the stage for her ace in the hole, a deep-throated sustain which she could probably keep up for a week, if she had to.

Rokia Traore

Rokia Traore

Aided by another lead guitarist, a drummer, a bassist, two backing vocalists, and a dread-locked ngoni player, Traore’s sound was solid, impressive, and engaging. The rockish parts rocked, the subtle parts swooned, and the vocal harmonies were off the chain, whether sung in French, English, or a Malian tongue.

Two-thirds of the show, however, seemed slightly staid – a response to the sit-down venue, as it turned out. For the final portion of the evening, Traore called the audience down in front, and that’s where the party began. People started dancing, and she led the crowd through some groovy improv which had the audience joining in with handclaps. Traore alternated between what looked like meditative self-reflections and up-on-your-feet exhortations.

At one point she delivered a statement, telling the audience, “this is about freedom, about equality, about the fact that we are here, just for a time… let’s celebrate freedom!” Called back for several encores, including an impossibly slinky, bluesy ballad sung in English, it was evident Traore was doing just that.

Rokia Traore

Rokia Traore

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A day later, Oakulture traveled to the other side of the continent, via Berkeley, as the Chinyakare Ensemble hosted a vibrant showcase of traditional Zimbabwean music and dance at Ashkenaz.

Julia Chigamba and Chinyakare Ensemble

Julia Chigamba and Chinyakare Ensemble

Ceremony and ritual were never too far from Chinyakare’s expressive songs and dances; the concert began with mbira groups, then evolved into different manifestations of Shona and Zim culture, as different musicians and dancers joined or left the stage.  There were harvesting dances, warrior dances, love songs, party songs. Dancers frequently took turns on the mic, thumbed mbiras, or sat behind marimbas for a spell. There were frequent costume changes as well, from vibrantly printed cloth to feathered headdresses, furry skirts, and ruffled armbands.

Ronnie Daliyo

Ronnie Daliyo

The longer the show went on, the crazier lead dancers Julia Tsitsi Chigamba and Ronnie Daliyo seemed to get, as each tried to outdo the others’ troupe. The winner in all that mock competition was the audience, who got to see the most authentic Zimbabwean folk ensemble this side of Harare.

Chinyakare Ensemble

Chinyakare Ensemble

Looking at all the memorabilia hanging on Ashkenaz’ walls, Oakulture couldn’t help but be reminded the community center was one of the first venues in the East Bay to regularly feature world and African music, as well as being a mainstay of the dance and folk communities. It’s easy to take our cultural institutions for granted, so let’s be thankful we have them.
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We should also be thankful for dancehall, the Jamaican relative of hip-hop, and for the strong yet cultural vibes it brings.

Elephant Man

Elephant Man

Sunday night at the New Parish’s weekly reggae club, King of Kings, it wasn’t hard to see why Jamaican dancehall star Elephant Man is called the “Energy God.” Simply put, he’s non-stop, perpetual, and high-powered.

“Ele” – another of his nicknames — has earned that moniker by being a constant source of kinetic vibes since first emerging in the late 90s as part of Bounty Killer’s Scare Dem Crew. After launching a solo career in 2000, he became a consistent hitmaker, known for introducing new slang terms into dancehall vernacular (among them: “shizzle”) as well as new dances, like “Pon De River, Pon De Bank,” “Sweep De Floor,” “Willie Bounce,” and “Signal De Plane.” His tunes “All Out” and “Gully Creeper” have become anthems for Jamaica’s Olympic track team and its world record-holder Usain Bolt, while “Jook Gal” fuses high-octane dancehall with Southern crunk music.

Elephant Man

Elephant Man

But as impressive as Ele’s studio career has been, it’s nothing compared to his live show. Dressed almost comically, a shock of orange, ponytailed braids contrasting a white pants and shirt and black vest ensemble, his appearance on the KOK stage (following a warm-up set by Mega Banton) took Oakland’s dancehall vibes to a higher level of intensity. Spitting lyrics like an automatic sprinkler, Ele was a physical presence and a constant blur of activity, exhorting the crowd to action by jumping around, waving towels, or demonstrating moves with two female dancers.

His authenticity was undeniable, especially on a fevered version of “Nuh Linga,” and while it would be easy to reduce him to a buffoonish character, his outsize personality masks a mastery of his craft matched by few others in the past decade.  The show was a good look for KOK, a party promoted by DJ Smoky aka Smoke-1, which shows no signs of stopping after 11-plus years.

Nuh Linga

Nuh Linga

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This week’s picks:

Reggae v. Cumbia, 11/27, 9pm, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.

Lower Bottom Playaz present Fences by August Wilson, 11/28-30, 7 p.m. African American Museum and Library at Oakland, 659 14th. St

Betti Ono x Plaid Friday x Oakland in the Black, 11/29, 11-6pm, 1427 Broadway

EnVogue, 11/29-11/30, $49-$55, Yoshis, 510 Embarcadero

King of Kings, 12/1, 10pm,  $10, ladies free before 11, the New Parish, 579 18th  St.

 

 

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