The Afro-Brazilian side of Kenya Moses

A classically trained vocalist and former dancer who spent some time with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Moses is now exploring her Brazilian roots in a show at the Back Room on Feb. 20

Vocalist Kenya Moses celebrates her Afro-Brazilian roots Thursday at the Back Room with percussionist Ami Molinelli, bassist Aaron Germain and pianist/vocalist Camille Mai. Photo: Shoott.

Growing up in the small town of Woodland about 10 miles north of Davis, Kenya Moses felt that Salvador da Bahia may as well have been in another galaxy. It wasn’t so much the hemispheric separation of 6,400 miles. The distance was written in her mother’s silence, which made it abundantly clear that no information about her experience growing up in the northeastern heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture would be forthcoming.

“She left Brazil on not great circumstances, and she would never talk about it,” Moses says. “Growing up what I heard was ‘We’re Americans.’ I knew of it, but I really grew up in a very African-American home. Now as a mother myself with two little boys, I want to be able to share that part of their heritage.”

As a classically trained vocalist and former dancer who spent some time with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the North Oakland resident naturally gravitated toward music in exploring her roots. Still very much in the process of tending her patch of Brazilian sounds, Moses presents some of the initial fruits of her investigations Thursday at the Back Room. She’s joined by a stellar quartet featuring ace bassist Aaron Germain, pianist/vocalist Camille Mai, and percussionist Ami Molinelli, a player deeply versed in Brazilian rhythms.

A motivational speaker, marketing and website design consultant for artists and nonprofit organizations, and Education and Partnerships Manager for the Stern Grove Festival, Moses spent many years away from musical while concentrating on developing her various professions. She had performed with various East Bay opera companies before she “completely stopped singing. I knew I don’t want to do this, but I don’t know what’s next. After a handful of years raising kids and working I wanted to get back to singing.”


Moses took a major step back into performing with Guarandinga, an Afro-Caribbean dance band that was co-led by bassist Jeremy Allen and the late Venezuelan-born vocalist Rowan Jiménez. Moses connected with Molinelli through Guarandinga drummer Brian Andres, and as she started to turn her attention to Brazilian music, they began to forge a friendship.

Moses was studying popular Brazilian music with Sandy Cressman at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Jazzschool when Molinelli invited her to sit in at a gig last year at Marin Country Mart at Larkspur Landing with Duo Violão, a superlative Brazilian guitar duo. That led to Moses recording a demo with bassist Scott Thompson, Molinelli and her Grupo Falso Baiano bandmate Brian Moran on seven-string guitar.

“It’s been really fun to watch Kenya figuring out her path,” says Molinelli, who performs March 13 at Piedmont Piano Company with Duo Violão+1 and Berkeley reed master Harvey Wainapel on a program celebrating the music of choro and samba pioneer Pixinguinha. “She’s a mom and her two boys are about the same age as mine. We both work in education and there’s been a heart-to-heart connection.”

Moses has known Mai, who leads the band Rebirth Canal, since the pianist was studying composition at the San Francisco Conservatory, and Germain is another longtime friend, though Thursday’s gig is their first time playing together.  Focusing on the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and a few American Songbook standards set to bossa nova grooves, Moses is taking her next musical step in the trusted company of friends.

“I love them all, and having that connection beyond the music makes the musical side easy,” Moses says. “When I started this Brazilian journey I said, let me find my people. That’s how things evolved. I wanted to get back into music and find my voice. Connecting with Ami has been so inspiring. I can’t wait to see where this goes next.”