On any given month African-American music is well-represented in venues around Berkeley. But several of the town’s signature clubs make a point of honoring Black History Month with a spate of special programming, and nowhere is black music better represented in February than Ashkenaz
“I’m trying to recognize, showcase, and honor the incredible diversity of African-American music and culture,” says Brandi Brandes, Ashkenaz’s executive director. “We’re just small enough that we can take some risks. We can showcase incredible talent that people don’t know about, but we’re big enough to bring in some well-known people.”
Ashkenaz sometimes falls into a programmatic rut, presenting a predictable rotation of artists with little variation. Brandes intentionally stays in the venue’s comfort zone for the Black History Month kickoff on Saturday with the Zydeco Flames, a regular presence at the venue for years. “These guys are tapping into an indigenous style we have black culture to thank for,” she says.
On February 8, Ashkenaz puts a Black History Month spin on its recent comedy programs with Diane Amos and Friends, featuring Donald Lacy, Tim Jackson and Valerie Vernale. The focus shifts south on February 10 with the Afro-Peruvian music and dance company De Rompe y Raja and the Afro-Brazilian ensemble Fogo na Roupa, a program drawn from the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.
“They’re preserving and showcasing mestizo styles,” Brandes says. “You could see them at the Ethnic Dance Festival, but at Ashkenaz you can get up shake it too. You get to experience another culture and participate.”
On Feb. 11 the East Bay’s socially conscious hip hop aggregation Alphabet Rockers make their first appearance at home since returning from New York, where they performed around the city in advance of the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. Their album “Rise Shine #Woke” (School Time Music) didn’t win for best children’s album, but they were the toast of the town.
Rhonda Benin, a veteran vocalist who spent years touring and recording with Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir, makes her Ashkenaz debut on Feb. 16 presenting an interactive workshop exploring the lyrics of seven African-American singer/songwriters whose music helped shape and define America in the years after the Civil Rights Movement (namely, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble). Her set is followed by a second-line celebration with MJ’s Brass Boppers, a band steeped in the celebratory music of New Orleans.
In another Ashkenez exclusive, literature meets music on February 17 with “Black, Brown, and Beige,” which features Bay Area poets and artists including D Scot Miller, giovanni singleton, Mark Sabb, and Michael Warr reading excerpts from signature works of the Harlem Renaissance and a set of music of the era by vocalist Tiffany Austin and her quartet.
“I was acquainted with Tiffany from when she was studying at the Jazzschool,” Brandes says. “Then I went to see her doing a program of Billie Holiday at Savanna Jazz and she just transported me to another era. I’m extremely excited about that program.”
Kathy Reyes, who often presents Dominican bachata programs at Ashkenaz, turns her attention to Angolan music on February 22 with “Kizomba Nightz,” a program of dance lessons to kizomba and semba, “an Angolan partner dance that’s part salsa and part tango and extremely sexy,” Brandes says. “It’s not very familiar in the Bay Area, and you can see a lot of cultural influence from Haiti.”
Them People Productions presents “A Tribute to Black Composers of Dance Music” on February 23 with MoonCandy and Michael Gabriel providing a live soundtrack. The Black History Month series closes on February 24 with the Anita Lofton Project’s tribute to blues great Big Mama Thornton. Featuring Kofy Brown, Sandy House, Kevin Carnes, Bryan Dean, and Brian Hill, the show highlights a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer active on the Bay Area scene in the 1960s who introduced the hits “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain.” The show serves as a bridge from Black History Month to March’s focus on women in music. “With February and March I’m trying to program Ashkenaz the way I’d like it to be year round, a good series that tells a story,” Brandes says.
Ashkenez isn’t the only Berkeley institution that is telling a compelling story for Black History Month. The California Jazz Conservatory presents a series of concerts highlighting the various currents of African-American and African-diaspora music that came together to create jazz, starting Saturday with flutist/composer John Calloway’s quartet and special guest Terrance Kelly on vocals. The series continues on February 9 with rising Richmond drummer Malachi Whitson and Something With Soul, a powerhouse ensemble that includes tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, trumpeter Mike Olmos, and soul-steeped vocalist Courtney Knott, a graduate of Berkeley High.
A surfeit of soul is on the bill February 17 with pianist, vocalist and CJC educator Janice Maxie Reed celebrating the 81st birthday of her mentor Nancy Wilson, with a program inspired by Wilson’s classic 1961 collaboration with altoist Cannonball Adderley. Directed by Oakland piano master Glen Pearson, the band includes bassist Mark Williams, altoist Melvin Butts, trumpeter Geechi Taylor, and drummer Al Marshall.
The Back Room marks February by bringing back the Dynamic Miss Faye Carol’s Sunday residency. She’s holding forth every week at the club, playing 5 p.m. sets with pianist Joe Warner. The longtime Berkeleyan is a Bay Area institution and a celebration of Black musical history unto herself.
Freight & Salvage presents the venue’s 4th Annual Black History Month Celebration on February 11 with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and special guest Linda Tillery. And while not billed as a thematic event, Cal Performances presents the extraordinary jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant on Wednesday, fresh off winning her second consecutive Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album (for 2017’s Dreams and Daggers).