The Berkeley City Council declared last May 10 Avotcja Jiltonilro Day and issued a proclamation honoring her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry. The distinction was well deserved, but to get the full measure of this extraordinary woman, come by La Peña on Sunday for her 73rd birthday bash. As a poet, radio producer, playwright, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, and invaluable DJ on KPOO (89.5) and KPFA (94.1FM), she’s connected with a vast and varied array of artists, many of whom will be on hand at the party to read their work, tell their tales, sing their songs, and play their tunes.
“It’s not about me, the show is the star,” says Avotcja, who goes by the single moniker pronounced Avacha. “You wind up hearing from lots of different people, and you have a whole different way of looking at the universe.”
Though she doesn’t describe herself as Nuyorican, Avotcja grew up in New York City in a family of performers who hailed from Puerto Rico. Long before scientists began studying the intellectual benefits of a bilingual upbringing, Avotcja insisted on embracing her heritage from the United States and Latin America, a linguistically flexible identity captured in her latest volume of poetry and prose With Every Step I Take (Taurean Horn Press).
“People have tried to divide me, to put me in an all English or all Spanish box,” Avotcja says from her home in Emeryville. “But if you lose a language, you lose a different way of looking at the universe. And there’s a whole lot more to language than words. There’s a world of culture, of sounds and movement and history.”
Drawing on a rich mélange of cultural expression Avotcja & Modúpue (which means gratitude) is an improvisation-laced project that features a dazzling cast, including violinist Sandi Poindexter, tenor saxophonist Francis Wong, bassist Eugene Warren, percussionist Hector Lugo, and pianist Glen Pearson (filling in for Jon Jang on Sunday). Avotcja delivers rhythmically charged recitation while contributing grooves and textures on hand percussion, but the band is far more than a vehicle for accompanying her soulful recitation.
Since the concept first came together in the late 1990s, the band has served as a forum for the musicians to present their own compositions, a treasure trove of music by artists who have performed around the world. Poindexter is probably best known for her 15-year tenure in John Handy with Class, though she’s performed widely in classical, jazz, mariachi, flamenco and Cuban settings. Wong has been a leading force in the Asian-American jazz movement since the 1980s, and is a co-founder of the essential label and arts organization AsianImprov.
“All of us are leaders of other groups,” Avotcja says. “Sandi played with the great danzon combo Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion. It’s a breathing space where everybody writes and everybody listens. It’s a beautiful thing. There’s no ego warfare on stage.”
Among the artists who will be reading and performing are poets Ramon Piñero and Jeanne Powell, Odila Galván Rodríguez, Maurisa Thompson, Carlos Disdier Kirk Lumpkin and Bill Vartnaw, whose Taurean Horn Press published Avotcja’s latest book. The powerful blues vocalist and guitarist Augusta Lee Collins will be holding forth, as will Kwama Thompson, a singer and storyteller from Ghana. The vibe at Avotcja is embracing and celebratory, an outpouring of love for a woman who spends her days championing artists and cultural activists.
“Often times Avotcja’s birthday bashes bring people together who might not normally perform together, or who’ve known each other for many years and it’s a reunion,” says Wong, who’s long served as an invaluable cultural nexus himself. “We get past the marketing categories of music and literature. It’s really reflective of a community that’s been built over decades and rooted in a certain concept, a broad vision rooted in culture and community expression that Avotcja has fostered so powerfully.”
Describing herself as a “theater baby,” Avotcja grew up in a family of professional dancers and musicians. After a disastrous early attempt to study piano (“my psychopath teacher would hit me with a ruler,” she says), she took up guitar, flute, bass, clarinet and later percussion. By 14, she was working professionally, picking up whatever gigs she could at cafes and coffee houses. By 15, she had lit out on her own and landed in Los Angeles, where she found a home in the Southland’s thriving folk scene.
“I was mostly performing stuff that I wrote,” she recalls. “I’ve always written a lot and those days were a big singer/songwriter time. There were some folk musicians who blew me away, and some blues stuff. I like storytelling music. I went toward whatever sounded good to me, from Lead Belly to Arsenio Rodríguez.
With the Ash Grove serving as a homebase, she became close with jazz and blues singer Barbara Dane, the blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and Bobby Valenzuela (the older brother of Ritchie Valens). At the end of the 1960s Avotcja spent several years working in Europe, mostly based in Denmark. When she came back to the states she gravitated to the Bay Area, moving to San Francisco in 1971.
While active on the folk scene, she also forged close ties with resident jazz masters like pianist Ed Kelly and drummer Smiley Winters. Percussion greats Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo were in the Mission, so Avotcja made her way there too. She had written poetry and fantastical fiction since childhood, but it wasn’t until she was goaded by charismatic reed legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk that she performed her work publicly. Using a bit of reverse psychology, he got her to read at the Both/And Club, and she’s been sharing her words ever since.
“He announced that I was a poet, but not very good, and my ego got up,” Avotcja. “I jumped up on stage and read, and he was grinning from ear to ear. I got a standing ovation at the end, and I started getting known after that.”
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