Cooking up a new world in the Music Action Lab

The Music Action Lab 2.0 premieres new music Saturday at Ashkenaz. Featuring (l to r) Sevana Tchakerian, Ernesto “Matute” Lopez, Kauzeni Lyamba, James Brandon Lewis, Erika Oba, Avery Waite, Rona Nishliu, and Chris Bastian (Kasiva Mutua not pictured). Photo: Omeed Manocheri

Television producers take note, a situation ripe for a reality series is unfolding right now in Rockridge, where an international cast of nine young musicians is living together and creating new music. Rather than competing in pursuit of evanescent celebrity, they’re cooperating in a quest to elevate their communities and create new forms of expression.

Judging from a recent rehearsal at Ashkenaz, where the Music Action Lab 2.0 ensemble presents a set of new creations Saturday night, the collective is in the midst of forging a gorgeous blend of sounds flowing from their disparate musical backgrounds. Every composition is the result of varying degrees of collaboration, says Berkeley High graduate Erika Oba, a jazz flutist/pianist who’s living at home in South Berkeley rather than the Airbnb house with her ensemble-mates.

“It’s a smoother process than I might have expected,” she says. “We spent our first few days together doing duos, what we call musical speed dating. We got paired off for 15 minutes each and we’d come up with something to present to the group. If it was an idea that everyone was feeling, we’d see if we could develop it. A lot of our songs actually came from those musical speed dates.”

At the Ashkenaz rehearsal I attended last week, Ernesto “Matute” López, a drummer from Nicaragua, was leading the ensemble on an incantatory song in Spanish about necessity of clean water. He lived in the Bay Area a few years ago and performed widely with groups like Afrolicious, Ginger Ninjas, and LoCura, but eventually returned home and worked with La Cuneta Son Machín when the cumbia-metal combo became the first Nicaraguan band nominated for a Grammy Award.


He also co-founded and directs Apapachoa Foundation, an eco-cultural center in Santa Julia, a largely indigenous community within a 2,300-acre natural forest reserve outside Managua. As the MAL ensemble elaborated on the chant for “agua limpia,” vocalist Rona Nishliu from Kosovo and Sevana Tchakerian, a French/Armenian accordionist, added vocal harmonies while Kenyan percussionist/vocalist Kasiva Mutua spun a polyrhythmic undercurrent (she also participated in The Nile Project, whose co-founder Mina Girgis is on the Giant Steps advisory board).

Taking it all in were this year’s MAL musical mentors, drummer extraordinaire Eric Harland and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a Berkeley High alumnus. Widely regarded one of his generation’s leading jazz musicians, Akinmusire has kept a fairly low local profile since moving back to Oakland last year. “I try not to get involved in many things at home,” Akinmusire said, “but I had to see this. It’s pretty amazing watching how they’re creating all this new music together.”

Produced by the San Francisco-based non-profit Giant Steps, the Music Action Lab is based on the idea that music can serve as a vehicle for social change. It’s a project created by Drew Foxman, who helped turn SFJAZZ’s education program into a powerhouse.  When he’s not running Giant Steps he’s the director of marketing and communications for the American India Foundation, and has spent years putting the pieces into place for what he calls “a global musical social entrepreneurship incubator.”

The idea is the musicians gain leadership skills that they can take back home to better build transformative projects. He launched the initiative last year with an international cast of 10 young musicians in San Francisco with Eric Harland and Tunisian singer/songwriter Emel Mathlouthi as mentors. The ensemble spent three weeks playing together and composing songs, some of which are gathered on the album Foundation (Giant Steps).

This year’s ensemble also features Bay Area bassist Chris Bastian, New York saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, Portand, Oregon cellist Avery Waite, and Kauzeni Lyamba, a flutist, saxophonist, percussionist and vocalist from Tanzania. The collaboration doesn’t stop when they leave the stage. The Rockridge house has become a buzzing hub where the musicians dine and hang out. “Matute is an incredible cook and he’s been making dinners,” Oba says. “I’ve gone over a couple of mornings for breakfast. We all hold hands before we eat and talk about how thankful we are for each other. We’re doing dishes talking about song structure and lyrics.”


“One of the things that’s really amazing is how easy it’s been to work together despite everyone’s really different background,” Oba continues. “Everybody’s got crazy ears. Someone plays something and within a few moments everyone’s contributing. I was working with Sevana, a vocalist from Kosovo, and she gave me a polyrhythm common in Balkan music, a 7/8 groove. I started messing around with different chords and she started improvising on top of that. We did that on our speed date and presented it to the group. Someone liked it and started workshopping into a new song.”

It’s not entirely luck or happenstance that the group has melded so well. Foxman and his team took pains to identify musicians game to collaborate. “There was a pop star from Pakistan this year with three million followers on Facebook,” Foxman said about a musician who didn’t make the cut. “But just because you’re famous or really talented doesn’t mean you’re the right fit. We’re also looking for a commitment to social change work and advancing some issue or cause. We’re looking at artistic excellence, character and personality. We really feel we’re building a family here.”

What’s most impressive is that Foxman has created the Music Action Lab on a shoestring. Partnering with various organizations and institutions, including Ashkenaz, the 49ers Academy, the University of San Francisco, and the innovative Oakland studio doubleOone, where the ensemble is recording an album on Friday. After Saturday’s Ashkenaz performance Music Action Lab concludes the month-long program in Ixtapa, Mexico at the Opportunity Collaboration.

Funding the project largely out of pocket, Foxman is hoping the model will prove enticing to some foundations or deep-pocket donors drawn to the Giantsteps mission of seamlessly combining music and social change. With two seasons under his belt, he’s got ambitious plans for the future, including taking the ensemble on tour.

“After the first year we had our proof of concept and applied for grants, but we ended up raising $15-thousand with a crowdfunding campaign,” he says. “We’ve gotten a lot of people who are interested in this model and we really need someone to step forward.”