Grateful Sounds in Berkeley

Vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia makes a rare Bay Area appearance Dec. 11 at Freight & Salvage. Photo: Sahiba Kaur Chawla.

It’s all too easy to get down on this town, where our civic failures aren’t neatly tucked away out of sight. The dismaying condition of people trying to survive on the streets, the disrepair of our infrastructure, and the insane cost of housing can test the resolve of even the most devoted Berkeleyphile. But given the time of year, I’m concentrating instead on all that I’m thankful for as a Berkeley resident, starting with the sheer abundance of extraordinary music from around the world.

Issac Delgado
at Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Dec. 2-3

At a time when Cuba’s economic failures were laid bare, Issac Delgado was at the forefront a musical movement that fueled the roiling creativity of the island’s leading dance bands. The ingenious vocalist joined N.G. La Banda in 1988 as the group continued to expand its cutting-edge timba sound with turbo-charged percussion, jazz harmonies, and funk-informed bass. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered its privation-laden “special period” and as if in response to the pervasive shortages of just about everything, Delgado step forward as a powerhouse solo act, releasing his 1991 solo debut Dando La Hora in collaboration with piano maestro Gonzalo Rubalcaba (they followed up with 1992’s even more formidable Con Ganas).

Part of what’s so fascinating about Delgado’s career is the way he’s bridged the scenes in Havana and New York City, where a mélange of Latin American styles flowed together with Cuban dance music in the late 1960s under the rubric of salsa. As San Francisco pianist and Cuban music scholar Rebeca Mauleon explains “While many Cubans viewed the commercialization of their music as antithetical to post-revolutionary ideology, Issac and his fellow bandmates reclaimed and reframed it, defiantly marking their new style as ‘salsa cubana.’” Recording for labels outside of Cuba and touring internationally, Delgado earned renown as both a romantic salsa crooner and a hard-hitting salsero who could improvise with nonpareil rhythmic dexterity over a surging horn section. Celebrating the release of his 17thalbum Lluvia y Fuego, he makes a rare return to the Bay Area with his 13-piece orchestra, exploring a heady mix of intoxicating Cuban rhythms and tributes to iconic vocalists Benny Moré and Cheo Feliciano (he also performs Dec. 4 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center).

Venezuelan Music Project
“La Parranda” at La Peña 9 p.m. Dec. 7

Jackeline Rago’s Venezuelan Music Project leads one of the Bay Area’s most singular and spirited holiday celebrations with “La Parranda.” Over the past two decades the VMP has forged an enchanting synthesis of folkloric Venezuelan styles and jazz. This dance party is less about musical innovation than communal celebration. Joining Rago, a master of the four-string Venezuelan cuatro and expert percusisonist, and her longtime VMP partner Donna Viscuso (flute and alto saxophone) are vocalists Anna Maria Violich-Oliver, Jimmy Kansau, Francy Hernandez Crowley and Omar Ledezma Jr. (who’s also a stellar percussionist), bassist Ayla Davila, percussionist Yonathan Gavida, trombonist Mara Fox, and stilt dancer Chiquy Boom.


Kiran Ahluwalia
at Freight & Salvage 8 p.m. Dec. 11

New York vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia first made an impression on the world music scene in the late 1990s with her startlingly beautiful ghazals, a love-besotted Persian poetic form that flowered with Sufism in the 11th century. Born into a Punjabi family in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar and raised from the age of nine in Toronto, she brought a decidedly contemporary sensibility to a classical form. After earning an MBA and working in finance, she decided to follow her love of music and started composing new ghazals by searching out contemporary Urdu poets in the Indian diaspora and setting their verse to music (while also lacing her sets with flirtatious Punjabi folk songs, delivered in rippling clear-water cadences).

Ahluwalia mastered the tradition ghazal via apprenticeships with ghazal masters in India, but she says that her music’s penchant for cross-cultural fertilization flows from Canadian multiculturalism. Many of her first public performances took place at Canadian folk festivals where “they put you on the stage with three or four other bands and expect you to collaborate,” says Ahluwalia, a two-time winner of the Juno Award, Canada’s version of the Grammys.  “Those festivals were my proving ground,” she continues, speaking from her apartment in New York City. “You have to figure out how to enter their songs and make room for them in yours. I’ve collaborated with Celtic fiddlers, Portuguese fado players and Afghan musicians.”

An encounter with Mali’s storied desert rockers Tinariwen added a sinwey thrum to her fourth album, Wanderlust (Times Square Records), which won the 2007 Songlines/WOMAD Best Newcomer Award in the UK. The collaboration deeped on 2011’s Aam Zameen: Common Ground (Avokado Artists Recordings), an album that earned a Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year. Her latest release, 2018’s 7 Billion (Six Degrees Records) seamlessly synthesizes all of the sounds she’s absorbed, jazz and Tuareg blues, R&B and Punjabi love songs. One reason she’s gracefully melded so many influences is her superlative band. Her husband, the brilliant Karachi-born jazz guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi, has been her primary collaborator. The group she brings to the Freight also features her longtime tabla player Nitin Mitta, Portuguese-born drummer Marito Marques, and the highly versatile jazz artist Sam Barsh on organ.

Bobby Black “Hawaiian Paradise”
at The Back Room 8 p.m. Dec. 14

Legendary pedal-steel guitarist Bobby Black puts down his cowboy hat and dons a lei for an evening of Hawaiian steel guitar, hapa-haole standards, and hula dances. Playing his favorite Hawaiian songs, Black will be backed by special guest musicians, singers, and hula dancers, with an opening set by Bay Area Hawaiian band Haopinaka.

An incurably curious musician, Black has taken pedal steel far beyond its usual contexts. Not to be mistaken for slide guitar, which is a technique, the pedal-steel is an instrument unto itself with two or three necks positioned horizontally in box-like console. The strings are played with a metal slide (the “steel” in pedal steel). It’s a modern invention that emerged out of Hawaiian music but came into its own as a staple of Western swing in the 1930s. That’s the music that caught Black’s ear and with which he’s most closely associated. He introduced a new generation to the inimitable pedal-steel sound in the early 1970s when he joined the pioneering country rock combo Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, while also touring with New Riders of the Purple Sage and Asleep at the Wheel, “my favorite band to play with,” Black says. “They were so tight. They did a lot of ensemble stuff I used to do with my brother.”

These days he’s reaching another generation with acts Crying Time, the excellent East Bay alt-country combo that has put on a series of sold-out tributes to George Jones (with whom Black recorded on the future country music icon’s first sessions). A life-long lover of Hawaiian music, Black has performed with stars such as Cyril Pahinui, Genoa Keawe, Dennis Kamakahi, Jerry Byrd, Richard Ho’opi’i, Benny Kalama, and George Kahumoku. For this talent-laden show at the Back Room he’s joined by Crying Time guitarist Myles Boisen and multi-instrumentalist Tony Marcus (Cheap Suit Serenaders, Laurie Lewis). Special guest singers include Crying Time’s Jill Rogers, Maurice Tani, Sheilani Alix, Kathy Sparling, and others.