approaching the flavor zone

approaching the flavor zone

Much is being said these days about Oakland’s flavor. Over the past few months, the media buzz around Oakland has gone from “gritty” to “exciting,” whatever that means. On the cultural tip, what’s been holding that down is the Afro-Carib element which has been flying under the mainstream radar for a while. For Diasporan peoples who make, breathe and live culture every day, late April is a time of renewal and rebirth, symbolized by Carnival. The big SF festival’s arrival always means an uptick in Afro-Carib cultural activity; more and more these days, that energy seems increasingly centered in Oakland. It hasn’t hurt that temperatures here have ranged from mellow to downright California Dreamin’-pleasant, either.

Over the past week or so, Afro-Carib-themed events happening in Oakland have included a jerk chicken cook-off; a charismatic Cuban female vocalist; a Trinidadian pop diva; an old-school Jamaican vocal harmony group; a classic dancehall artist; a film screening of a documentary on Cuban hip-hop, and a Cuba-themed photo exhibit .

Hmm, could this Diasporan connection be Oakland’s secret sauce? Scroll down, check the photographic evidence, and decide for yourself.

A festive, flavorful atmosphere, aided by live steel drums and dancers in Carnival outfits, prevailed at the 4th annual Jerk Cook-Off, down at the Linden St. Brewery. There were plenty of versions of the tangy, spicy marinade (usually glazed onto pork or chicken) to peruse from, including authentic Caribbean options from local outfits Evil Jerk and Jamaica Station, and a damn good variation on the theme from A Cote. Also, plenty of craft beer, from Linden St. and Lagunitas. There wasn’t much to do here, except eat, drink, and be merry, not that Oakulture’s complaining.


Then of course, there was Sambafunk’s over-the-top performance at the Oakland Indie Awards. As King Theo, leader of the Funkquarians—the fierce Sambafunk dancers—noted, that show marked the debut of their house band Funkternal. The combination of band and dancers on the Rooftop Gardens stage was a visual and musical extravaganza. If you’re looking for a definitive sign that Oakland’s cultural arts scene has “arrived,” look no further than approximately 9:30 Thursday evening, when Funkternal launched into a shuffling, percolating Afrobeat tune – quite possibly the first time the musical style associated with Fela Kuti has filled the distinguished Rooftop Gardens. It was a triumphant, exuberant moment – as well as a reminder of this week’s arrival of the Fela musical to Oakland.


But that was just the tip of the Afro-Carib iceberg. Earlier in the week, “The Voice”– a monthly portal to Cuban culture and Afro-Carib vibes– presented jazzy hip-hop songbird Danay Suarez, who delivered a spellbinding performance, backed by a full band. Local emcees D.O.D.A.T. and Rico Pabon, and DJ Leydis also rocked it.

The next evening, the New Parish was blessed by the Wailing Souls, one of the last of the traditional roots reggae vocal groups. Founding members Bread and Pipe brought home classics from two different eras: the ‘70s (“Bredda Gravilicious”) and the 90s (“Shark Attack”). Nuff respect.

Two nights later, Mr. Vegas –Jamaican superstar and cultural dancehall specialist– came to New Karibbean City, sporting a t-shirt which read “Keep Calm and Bruk It Down.” Amidst laser beams and adoring fans, the majority of them female, Vegas did just that with hits like “Heads High” and “Hot Girl Today,” presented in his trademark “sing-jay” style.

This year’s iteration of the Oakland Indie Awards was unquestionably bigger than ever before. But was it better? For the first time, tables from local merchants and community orgs filled practically the entire paved area of the Rooftop Gardens, as well as the courtyard, and there were two active stages. As far as a schmoozefest goes, the Indie Awards are perfect (kudos to 38th Notes, Tina Tamale and all the other winners!) . But from the cultural side of things, the event seemed a little restrained overall, Sambafunk’s “turnt-up” closing performance notwithstanding. No major observation here, just a request to keep it funky (and perhaps get more interactive art happening).

Like documentary films? You’ll love DocFest, an all-documentary-program presented by SFIndieFest which lands at multiple Bay Area venues, including Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, starting this week. Oakulture previewed several of the films skedded for Oakland; here are some capsule reviews:

  • Gut Renovation tells the story of one neighborhood’s losing battle with gentrification – a topic not without relevance for Oakland. Filmmaker Su Friedrich painstakingly details the five-year saga of the transformation of Williamsburg, an industrial/artist neighborhood in Brooklyn, into “Condoburg .” As long-time residents and businesses are displaced one-by-one by pricey, high rise lofts, Friedrich channels her frustration into documentation; the result is not unlike a tragic love letter to a terminal paramour. Keen observers might note, however, that the neighborhood wasn’t all that diverse to begin with.
  • F*ck For Forest is a documentary about the eponymous Polish eco-porn activists who raise money for environmental causes by having group sex with strangers.  Director Michael Marczak follows FFF on a neo-hippy journey from Berlin raves into the Amazon rainforest, but tells a confusing narrative which lacks both context and clarity. We see FFF members—all of whom look like bottom-shelf Burners fresh off the playa–performing really bad folk music, espousing their free-love, save-the-planet rhetoric, and, in the film’s best scene, getting called out for being clueless Eurotrash by the Peruvian indigenous tribe they’d hoped to save—though it’s not quite clear how they planned to do that. The last third of the documentary is interesting, but much of the first tw0 thirds is barely watchable.
  •  Public Sex, Private Lives puts the offscreen lives of employees Lorelei Lee, Princess Donna, and Isis Love front and center. A thought-provoking, often poignant film, it challenges our preconceptions and judgments about relationships, personal limits, gender roles, and attitudes about sexuality, by showing that porn stars are people too: they’re single mothers, someone’s daughter or cousin, and just as capable of being in satisfying long-term relationships as the rest of us. The film challenges myths and stereotypes by suggesting that sex-positive, empowered female actors and directors can be “in porn for the right reasons,” as one male producer insists.  Whether it succeeds is largely dependent on how open-minded the viewer is.
  • Edible City is a feature-length documentary on the urban agriculture movement, which zeroes in on SF and Oakland as being at the center of the food justice revolution. The film makes a good case for “independence from the corporate-industrial food system,” proposing grassroots micro-agriculture as a solution for larger social and economic issues, such as fossil fuel dependence, crime, underemployment, and environmental health. “If you can’t fix things in the flatlands, you have no business trying to fix things anywhere else,” says Hank Herrera of Dig Deep Farms.

This year’s DocFest schedule is here, and the New Parkway schedule is here.

This week’s picks:

“Fela!”, 6/6-6/9, Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway.

Official Fela Cast Party, 6/6, 8pm, $25, the New Parish, 579 18th St.

Warehouse 416 First Friday reception and open studios 6/7, 6pm-9pm, 416 26th St.

Mstique: new works by Cricket Alexander, Sasha Laurel, Joanne Ludwig, Nina Wright, and Erin Yoshi, 6/7, 6pm, Rock Paper Scissors Collective, 2278 Telegraph Ave.

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3 Responses

    • Theo

      Afro-Caribe is short for Afro- Caribbean, which is short for African Caribbean.
      It is a term that refers to the African influences in the Caribbean region. Cultural influences that have developed and defined Caribbean lifestyle.

      These influences are present in the food, food preparation, agriculture, arts, music, dance, vocabulary, speech patterns, behavior, and personal interactions.

      African traditions are inter woven in the general culture. The origin of these cultural traditions are often unspoken, ignored or total forgotten.

  1. Eric K Arnold

    Well said, Theo. Tagging onto that, the Afro-Caribe cultural sphere–often called the Diaspora– referenced in this column covers Jamaican and Trinidadian variations on jerk sauce, steel drums from St. Lucia, Jamaican roots reggae and dancehall, Cuban jazz/hip-hop, Trinidadian soca, Afro-American funk, Brazilian samba, and Nigerian Afrobeat. It’s kind of cool to have all that flavor happening in Oakland, isn’t it?


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