Sounding Out . . . The San Francisco Bay Area

Written by Jeff Kaliss

Lovely, charming, and irrepressible, San Francisco has long extended an enticing embrace to creative wanderers from other parts of the United States, as well as the wider world. The city helped spawn the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the Hippies of the 1960s and ‘70s, along with the jazz and rock with which these seekers celebrated themselves. Some sought roots in their new soil in the form of American
traditional music, and formed bands and venues to explore those roots; German expatriate Chris Strachwitz took that process further by setting up a label, Arhoolie, to preserve roots music, and a store, Down Home Music, across the Bay Bridge in El Cerrito, to sell his and others’ recordings. The spirit and setting of the late ‘60s also attracted international musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan of India, Hamza El Din of the Sudan, and Seiichi Tanaka of Japan, all of who moved here and began teaching students of all ethnicities. Crossover between world, jazz, and rock sounds was inevitable. Since then, the Beats and Hippies have aged, and there’s been no definable generation to take their place. But many of them have retained their region of residence and their musical preferences. And they’ve been supported in these preferences by an influx of new fans, festivals, venues, record labels, and resident world music artists who keep the sound of the San Francisco Bay Area eclectic and exciting.


Alternative weeklies
sprouted in the Flower Power days and have bolstered their ad revenue and
respectability since then, but they remain a good source of information on cool
stuff. Check the music listings in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (online as, San Francisco Weekly, East Bay Express, and the various regional editions of the Metro, including coverage of San Jose, Santa Cruz, and the North Bay. Listings and dollops of world music are heard on KPFA-FM (94.1 MHz), KUSF-FM (90.3MHz),
KALW-FM (91.7MHz), and KPOO-FM (89.5 MHz).


The largest festival of Jewish music in Northern California is
presented in early Spring by the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, with
which you can connect at
and by phone at +1 510 848-0237. This Jewish Music Festival makes use of a
number of indoor venues around the Bay to showcase Yiddish, Sephardic, klezmer,
and other forms of world and classical music. In April, the Cherry Blossom US
Japan Taiko Festival, for which Seiichi Tanaka serves as Grand Master (see his
school’s site at
), sets its big drums up in the Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post Street in San Francisco’s Japantown neighborhood.

Outdoor events must deal with San Francisco’s unique climate.
Audiences in early May, aboard the venerable sailing ships docked at the
Hyde Street Pier for the Sea Music Festival, (+1 415 561-7100), may find themselves warmer than attendees at the summertime
Stern Grove Festival (19th Avenue & Sloat Boulevard, +1 415 252 6252), who must fortify themselves against possible seasonal fog with sweaters and blankets as well as picnic baskets. And the riotous annual Carnaval {sic} Parade through San Francisco’s Mission District had to be shifted from the days before Lent, when much of the tropical Christian-influenced world celebrates, to the warmer Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, for the comfort of participants scantily clad in the tropical fashions of South America and the Caribbean. For more about Carnaval, which this year reached its 25th anniversary go to, Even more eclectic is the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which occupies the historic Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon Street, for three
weekends in June. Locally-based world music ensembles accompany the dancers, and
the array of sounds is as dazzling as the costumes. Several of the dance
programs are presented in partnership with Door Dog Music, which has also put
together the San Francisco World Music Festival at a variety of venues, with a special interest in Middle Eastern musics. In 2003, the Festival is set for the month of September in Yerba Buena Gardens, with entrances near Mission and Third Streets in downtown San Francisco.


A pair of places in Berkeley, in the East Bay, stand as survivors of
the halcyon ‘60s and ‘70s. The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse (1111 Addison
Street, +1 510 548-1761,
) hosts traditional and new-crafted American folk music with a bit of ethnic
stuff from elsewhere. The latter is better represented at Ashkenaz (1317 San
Pablo Avenue, +1 510 525-5054,
), where you can not only hear live African, American roots, Balkan, Caribbean,
Celtic, Cajun/Zydeco, and Middle Eastern bands but also learn how to dance to
them before the sets begin. La Pena Cultural Center, also in Berkeley (3105
Shattuck Avenue, (+1 510 849 2568,
), favors Caribbean, Latin American, and politically progressive acts.

The University of California’s Berkeley campus is the location of
the headquarters and halls where Cal Performances (+1 510 642-9988,
) includes such world artists as Ravi Shankar, Cesaria Evora, Paco de Lucia, and
Baaba Maal in its 2003/2004 season. A more specialized learning institution, the
Ali Akbar College of Music ( )
, is located north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael, not far from the San
Anselmo offices of Moment Records (
), founded by the College’s former head of percussion, Zakir Hussain. Both Hussain and College founder and sarodist Ali Akbar Khan were early pioneers in the sort of fusion of world music with jazz and rock which is still active in the Bay Area, but the College also produces concerts of North Indian classical music at various local venues.

For fans who don’t mind staying up late in a party setting, there are several smaller San Francisco clubs, including the Elbo Room (salsa, samba, reggae, newgrass, and world groove, 647 Valencia Street, +1 415 552-7788, ). Earlier in the evening, and at Sunday brunches, you can drink and dine on South American specialities at Peña PachaMama (1630 Powell Street, near the historic North Beach center of the Beat culture, +1 415 646-0018. Sukay, the Andean recording artists who established this combined eatery and performance space, perform during and after meals, as do other Andean and world musicians.


The unassuming building at 10341 San Pablo Avenue, in El Cerrito,
north of Berkeley, is something of a world music factory. Upstairs are the
offices of Flower Films, from which Les Blank has produced a bouquet of
documentaries showcasing Cajun, Zydeco, Tex-Mex, and blues artists and their
lifestyles. Out back is Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie, which continues to issue
valuable recordings of these and other genres. And for fans eager to peruse and
purchase Strachwitz’s and Blank’s output and other albums, books, and
hard-to-find magazines, there’s Down Home Music (+1 510 525-2129,

), the retail spin-off store front opened by Strachwitz in 1976. Savvy staff
will guide you though new and used cd’s and vinyl, and give you time in the
listening booths.

Right near the heart of the hamlet of Mill Valley in the North Bay,
Village Music (9 East Blithedale Avenue, +1 415 388-7400) offers customers a
similarly knowledgeable approach to reggae, Cuban, and Hawaiian music and
collector-quality European lp’s, as well as the rhythm-and-blues for which the
store is best known. Look for seasonal discounts and displays of music

Much Middle Eastern music on cd and cassette is sold alongside
exotic videos, publications, spices, and foodstuffs at Semiramis (2990 Mission
Street, +1 415 824-6555) in San Francisco’s Mission District. San Francisco
stores with a wider selection of world music range from the neighborhoody
Streetlight (3979 24th Street, +1 415 282-3550,

) in Noe Valley and the Record Finder (258 Noe Street, +1 415 431-4443,
) in the Castro to the spacious Amoeba Records (1855 Haight Street, +1 415

) in the Haight-Ashbury, where wizened and would-be Hippies are still in
evidence. All these shops sell used as well as new recordings, as does the
well-stocked Rasputin (2401 Telegraph Avenue, +1 510 848-9004,

) in Berkeley.

For a deeper and geographically broader look at the fertile world
music scene in Northern California, e-mail the writer, Jeff Kaliss, at

Author: World Music Central News Department

World music news from the editors at World Music Central