Evie Ladin: Stompin’ In the East Bay

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Ladin performs Friday at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. Photo: Mike Melnyk

Evie Ladin was practically born dancing, and she’s made it her life’s work to get everyone around her moving and grooving. Best known as a founding member of the all-female East Bay old-time combo The Stairwell Sisters, she’s also a bandleader in her own right who has released two albums featuring her inventive arrangements of old-time tunes and consistently captivating original songs.

Ladin performs Friday in a duo distilled from last year’s Evie Ladin Band CD with guitarist/banjoist Erik Pearson at Starry Plough as part of a twangy triple bill featuring Bay Area honky-tonkers Emily Bonn and the Vivants, and Michigan’s Western swingers Lindsay Lou and Flatbellys. At full strength, Ladin’s band is a rollicking quartet featuring her husband, body music maestro and bassist Keith Terry, Pearson, and the ubiquitous fiddler/vocalist Dina Maccabee, though Ladin can hold an audience as a one-woman band.

“I do a mix of music, song and dance,” Ladin says. “Some traditional songs done with a different feel, and some straight up. I play old time claw hammer banjo, clog dance, and sometimes dance and sing and play all at once.”

Ladin’s other major creative outlet is Crosspulse Percussion Ensemble, a group steeped in an array of African diaspora rhythmic traditions. Founded by Terry, Crosspulse spent years on the folk and world music festival circuit, but over the last decade the group has focused on educational outreach, performing at schools around the country.


Next week Crosspulse celebrates the release of its first album geared for children I Like Everything About You (Yes I Do!) with a March 2 matinee at The Taoist Center in Oakland’s Laurel District. Featuring Terry, Ladin, Amber Hines, Omar Ledezma, and Tacuma King, the talent-laden group also collaborates with the Young Women’s Choral Project directed by Susan McMane at Freight & Salvage on March 9.

“Crosspulse started as a touring festival band, bringing together a multicultural group who could all sing and dance and collaborate,” Ladin says. “But the show became more about the African diaspora. Each person has really strong roots in traditions that came to the New World from Africa, and the foundation of that is body music, looking at the original instrument and what it’s possible to do with nothing else.”

The producer of the highly regarded video “Buckdancing for Beginners: The Basics of Southern Appalachian Flatfoot Clogging,” Ladin grew up central New Jersey, immersed in an environment where music and dance was inextricably interwoven with every day life. Her mother was an international folk dance teacher, and the family’s house served as a way station for folk musicians traveling around the East Coast. Music and dance were so integral to her family’s social life that “it shocked me when I got to college and found that was not the case with my peers,” Ladin recalls.

“I feel like this is something I’m trying to create and continue and expose people to, not as a one-time thing, but as a participatory endeavor when people are dancing and playing together. That’s one reason I call square dances.”

The Evie Ladin Band. Photo: Mike Melnyk

Ladin started clogging at five and picked up the banjo at eight at the encouragement of a family friend, the New Lost City Ramblers’ John Cohen. Fascinated by the music and dance of Appalachia, she studied African dance, choreography and anthropology at Brown University, and continued her investigations into the West African roots of American culture with a Fulbright Fellowship in Eastern Nigeria.


Ladin spent most of the 1990s performing with the Dayton, Ohio company Rhythm in Shoes, a troupe focusing on traditional American dance styles. She met Terry when Crosspulse came to town to work with Rhythm and Shoes in 1999, and “by the end of the collaboration I was on the other team,” she says.

She moved to Oakland to be with Terry in 2000, just as UCLA hired him as a professor in the Department of World Arts and Culture (a gig for which he commuted down to LA until 2007). Joining Crosspulse Percussion Ensemble she immediately embarked on an extensive round of school performances through the San Francisco Symphony (Crosspulse is also the non-profit organization that presents the International Body Music Festival).

“I’ve always been really interested in African roots of old-timey music, and the music I make with Keith is a real collaboration between the old-time Appalachian stuff and its African roots,” Ladin says. “It’ really exciting that I’m able to present banjo music in a very funky context for inner city audiences.”

While she considered herself more of a dancer than a player before moving to the Bay Area, she didn’t connect with her terpsichorean peers here. Within months of arriving she encountered fiddler Stephanie Prausnitz, bassist Martha Hawthorne, string expert Lisa Berman, and guitarist Sue Sandlin. “We played one song and became the Stairwell Sisters,” she says. “I spent the next decade more focused on music than dance.”

These days, with the Stairwells winding down, she’s looking for new ways to bring music and dance together. “I’m doing some really fun workshopping in the dance realm. The International Body Music Festival artists have really inspired me to pursue these new directions.”


Don’t miss… Leni Stern

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Leni Stern. Photo: Ebet Roberts

As one of jazz’s most acclaimed female guitarists, Leni Stern is used to elbowing her way onto male dominated stages. But over the past decade, she’s gracefully pulled off a far more daunting transgression, emerging as a welcome muse for many of West Africa’s greatest bandleaders. Through her collaborations with Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour, Toumani Diabate and Baaba Maal, Stern has become a ubiquitous presence in Mali and Senegal, while developing an evocative body of original songs that combine her jazz-steeped singer/songwriter sound with traditional West African grooves and instruments.

She performs Friday at Ashkenaz with electric bassist Mamadou Ba, Alioune Fave on djembe (drum), sabar and backing vocals and special guest George Brooks, the Berkeley saxophonist best known for his persuasive synthesis of jazz and classical Indian rhythmic forms.  Singer and multi-instrumentalist Malima Kone from Burkina Faso shares the bill with the German-born Stern, who has long lived in New York City with her husband, fusion guitar great Mike Stern.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.