Berkeley’s soundtrack for Black History Month: Our 10 picks

With Black History Month upon us, some venues go all out to celebrate the country’s foundational music styles. Here are 10 acts we’re particularly eager to catch (a list that could have easily doubled).

Percussionist Kahil El’Zabar shamanic Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays The Back Room on Saturday, Feb. 1 with trumpeter Corey Wilkes (right) and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding (left). Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Berkeley venues don’t wait around ‘til February to present African-American music. On any given week of the year some of the nation’s most exciting and inventive black artists can be found on Berkeley bandstands. But with Black History Month upon us, some venues make a concerted effort to celebrate the country’s foundational styles. Here are 10 acts I’m particularly eager to catch (a list that could have easily doubled).

1. Broun Felinis

Drummer Kevin Carnes returns to the East Bay from the frigid climes of Wisconsin to celebrate his birthday with longtime collaborators Kirk Peterson (electric bass) and David Boyce (tenor saxophone, keyboards, vocals). One of the last bands standing from the 1990s creative upsurge known as the acid jazz movement, Broun Fellinis honed an idiosyncratic mélange of improvisation-laced funk, rock, hip hop and jazz. Billed as a Black Herstory celebration, the Fellinis’ two-night run includes Friday’s double bill with the all-women rockers Skip the Needle and Saturday’s twofer with Voodoo Dolly, who describe themselves as “an all Black futurist tribute to Siouxsie and the Banshees” with Carnes on drums.

2) Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar is a rhythmic shaman who turns performances into ecstatic rituals. The latest version of his long-running Ethnic Heritage Ensemble trio features the charismatic trumpeter Corey Wilkes and powerhouse baritone saxophonist Alex Harding (who played a series of extraordinary gigs around the region last October with Romanian pianist Lucian Ban). El’Zabar and the EHC was the subject of an acclaimed 2019 documentary Be Known directed by Dwayne Johnson Cochran and executive produced by actors Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance. The trio also performs at Bird and Beckett on Friday, Jan. 31.

3) Kalil Wilson and the Good Luck Trio “A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan and Oscar Peterson”

Classically trained East Bay-reared vocalist Kalil Wilson possesses a silky tenor and a sense of time so supple and lithe he seems to glide frictionlessly across a phrase. I love the idea of him paying tribute to the incomparable Sarah Vaughan, even if Oscar Peterson wouldn’t crack my top five favorite Sassy accompanists. Wilson will be in good hands with rising pianist Javier Santiago, bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto, and Berkeley drummer Genius Wesley, who’s already a seasoned player at 17.


4) Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir

In what has become an annual winter tradition the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir returns to the Freight & Salvage for the sixth year, bringing the good news that gospel music can lift spirits to joyous heights outside of church too. Under the direction of Terrance Kelly this beloved institution holds fast to the music’s sacred roots while embracing singers and audiences of every persuasion.

5) George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic

In 2018 George Clinton announced that he was going to retire from touring the following year, but it appears he’s not ready to trade in the mothership quite yet. The architect of funk and ringleader of boogie brings his groovalicious entourage to Cornerstone on what he’s billing as his Farewell Tour (Parliament is also is session at Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre on Feb. 17 and Santa Cruz’s Catalyst on Feb. 19). At 78, Clinton has been freeing minds and asses for more than half a century.

6) Kenya Moses and Friends

Classically trained Oakland vocalist Kenya Moses has been featured in some excellent bands over the years singing in jazz and Latin music settings, but lately she’s started to lead her own combo exploring her love of Brazilian music and her Afro-Brazilian roots. With first-call bassist Aaron Germain, percussionist Ami Molinelli, an expert in Brazilian rhythms, and Rebirth Canal pianist/vocalist Camille Mai, just back from a performance at the Havana Jazz Festival, Moses is joined by a stellar cast of collaborators.

7) Azure McCall and Tammy Hall

Born and raised in Berkeley, vocalist Azure McCall has performed around the world and graced stages playing with jazz legends like Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Lovano, and Frank Morgan. She’s presenting a program celebrating the legacy of seminal black jazz artists with pianist Tammy Hall, an indispensable creative force known for working with the region’s finest singers.


8) Mulatu Astatke

The conceptual and creative force behind the Ethio-jazz movement of the late 1960s and 70s, vibraphonist, pianist and composer Mulatu Astatke created a striking new sound when he combined his deep knowledge of jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms with the traditional pentatonic scales of Amharic music. The Bay Area’s leading Malian band Orchestra Gold opens on Friday, and Oakland’s Sun Hop Fat, the Bay Area’s longrunning Ethio-jazz combo, opens on Saturday.

9) Martha Redbone Roots Project

Soul-steeped vocalist Martha Redbone grew up in Appalachia and Brooklyn, locales that inculcated the music of her shared African American and Native American heritage. She created the Roots Project with her creative partner, music director and husband, pianist/keyboardist Aaron Whitby, as a vehicle introduce a more complicated notions about the culture of Kentucky. Her band bristles with brilliant players, including guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Fred Cash, drummer Kevin Johnson and violinist Charlie Burnham, a prolific improviser and studio musician best known in jazz circles for his galvanizing work with guitarist James Blood Ulmer and Cassandra Wilson.

10) Kim Nalley Sings Black Broadway

The great jazz vocalist Kim Nalley, who recently finished her doctoral course work in American Studies at Cal, knows how to delve deeply into a topic. She’s explores the rich history of African-American music and musicians on Broadway, from Sissle and Blake’s landmark Shuffle Along and the Gershwins’ and Dubose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess, while celebrating breakthrough artists such as Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Leslie Uggams, Melba Moore, Stephanie Mills, Nell Carter and Phyllis Hyman. She’s joined by her world class band with pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Michael Zisman, and drummer Kent Bryson.

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