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Ashkenaz Cultural Treasures Gala

Doors at 6:00 pm; Event at 6:30 pm


Ashkenaz celebrates its 44th anniversary with a one-night festival of world music, our first Cultural Treasures gala, honoring six of our favorite and most dedicated Bay Area-based world artists who call the Ashkenaz stage their home: Nigerian bandleader Babá Ken Okulolo, members of the Caribbean Allstars, Balkan dance band Édessa, the dancers of Katherine Kunhiraman’s company Kalanjali: Dances of India, blues and Cajun fiddler-singer Suzy Thompson & Friends, and international dancer-choreographer Yaelisa with Caminos Flamencos.

This evening will have performances, artist discussions with Larry Kelp of KPFA, and a hosted beer/wine bar and will kick off with a variety of appetizers by Ashkenaz favorite Jeff “da Chef” Rosen. As always, Ashkenaz is an all-ages venue.

In 1973 David Nadel transformed a warehouse space on San Pablo Avenue into a dancehall devoted to presenting international and contemporary roots music and dance. As politically activated as he was, Nadel required that politics be left at the door and believed that understanding and peace could be achieved through dancing together. Since then, hundreds of artists have graced the Ashkenaz stage representing cultures from around the world, many of them cultural ambassadors in the vibrant ethnic landscape of the Bay Area itself. Tonight we honor artists who have made the Ashkenaz story one of decades of intercultural friendship through music and dance.

Babá Ken Okulolo is a beloved Bay Area-based Nigerian bandleader, vocalist, bassist, teacher, and multi-instrumentalist. He is one of the few popular African musicians of today whose roots extend deep into his country’s musical history. Okulolo first came to the U.S. as part of King Sunny Ade’s band and was also the bassist in Nigeria’s seminal Afro-rock group Monomono. Since moving to Oakland in 1985, he has created a stable of African bands including Kotoja (which inspired clothier Dan Storper to start the World Music label Putumayo Records), West African Highlife Band, and the Nigerian Brothers.

Okulolo has presented traditional Nigerian music at Ashkenaz for decades and has produced its cultural immersion production “Musical Night in Africa” for 15 years. He met Ashkenaz founder David Nadel in the 1980s while playing with King Sunny Ade and Monomono and various West African highlife bands. It was Nadel who asked if he would perform a set of more tradition West African Village music, and out of that performance the Nigerian Brothers were formed. 

The Caribbean Allstars are one of the pioneers of the San Francisco Bay Area world music scene. This talented ensemble of musicians began joining their musical forces and international backgrounds during the early 1970s. With geographical roots that range from Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, South America, West Africa, and the U.S., they truly possess an international sound. The Caribbean Allstars feature a unique mixture of instruments and styles. The exotic sound of the steel drums, invented in Trinidad, carries melodic rhythms over the bass, keyboards, guitar, and horn section, driving you to the dance floor. 

They have played and toured with such artists as Third World, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals, the Wailers, Steel Pulse, Jerry Garcia, and Bonnie Raitt. In l987, they were chosen “Band of the Year” at the Bay Area Reggae Awards. They have performed at the Bay Area Music Awards (aka the Bammies) with Carlos Santana, who affectionately introduced them as “my favorite band.” Santana also made a cameo appearance on the Allstars’ second album, “Paths to Greatness.” Their first album, “Live and Direct,” rose to #12 on the CMJ (College Music Journal) charts. They were the first amplified band to play at Ashkenaz. Their drummer, Hugh “Sweetfoot” Maynard, met David Nadel in the early 1980s, just as Nadel was considering transforming Ashkenaz from a mostly folk-dance studio into a live music venue. 

Édessa Balkan Border Music began in 1991 with a student model 10-button accordion and a room full of revelers who were gathered to enjoy the fruits of their cultural heritage, a long and continuous, very rich expression of music and dance. There was the suggestion that perhaps they could play music from yet another corner of this tapestry/crossroads of history, and out came the squeeze box. They were initially called “Édessa Power Block,” in reference not only to the town in Northern Greece where this music was from, but also to a subset of these very same revelers who were insisting that they play again and again. Edessa has continued to explore the intersection of music and dance. Accordionist and santouri (dulcimer) player Lise Liepman was in the Westwind International Folk Ensemble which was one of the original Balkan Dance ensembles to rehearse at Ashkenaz. Édessa is the headliner at Ashkenaz’s Annual New Year’s Eve Balkan Bash. 

Kalanjali: Dances of India’s leader, Katherine Kunhiraman, is one of the West Coast’s foremost teachers of classical Indian dance. Like many young people of her era, she went to India as a free-spirited teenager. There she fell in love with her future husband, dance master K.P. Kunhiraman, and the dance discipline he taught. In 1975, the Kunhiramans moved from India to Berkeley and soon thereafter opened their dance school, Kalanjali. As the local Indian community grew, so did the classes. Over the years, the duo conducted a large number of performances and trained hundreds of students. In 1978, the Kunhiramans stepped on to the stage at the first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and gave the U.S. audiences a taste of the classical Indian dance form called Kathakali. In 2014, they received the annual Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award. Katherine has been teaching at Ashkenaz since 1985; the origins of her dance company were formed at Ashkenaz.

Suzy Thompson, as fiddler, bandleader, and singer, was instrumental in everything from the late, beloved California Cajun Orchestra that ruled our stage for years to helping guide Ashkenaz into its role as a nonprofit community center following owner David Nadel’s murder in 1996. However, tonight she is probably digging into the blues, another of her specialties. She is one of the rare musicians who has mastered the acoustic blues violin, following in the footsteps of Lonnie Chatmon, Clifford Hayes, and Eddie Anthony. A powerful blues singer in the styles of Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith, and a highly respected blues fingerpicking guitarist, Thompson is unique in her ability to combine fiddle, vocals, and guitar in the blues and ragtime idioms. She currently records and performs in a duet with her longtime musical partner, renowned flatpicker Eric Thompson, with Thompsonia (Suzy, Eric, and Allegra Thompson), with the Aux Cajunals, in a duet with resonator guitar goddess Del Rey, and with Eric in the Todalo Shakers. She often works with Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin and collaborates with other musicians including Mary Flower, Craig Ventresco and Meredith Axelrod, Foghorn Stringband, and Laurie Lewis. 

Suzy’s passion for old-time music caused her to start the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which has become a five-day celebration attended by old-time musicians who travel from all over the US to attend. Suzy was one of the founding musicians of the Cajun/Zydeco/old-time music scene at Ashkenaz. Since playing here in the 1980s with the California Cajun Orchestra, she has performed with dozens of bands on the Ashkenaz stage and remains an integral part of the Cajun/Zydeco scene in the Bay Area, as well as has becoming well-known as an event producer in that genre. She was on the founding board of Ashkenaz when a nonprofit was formed. 

Yaelisa is one of the most gifted flamenco artists of her generation and has performed with many of Spain’s finest artists, including Alejandro Granados, Antonio “El Pipa,” Manuel and Antonio Malena, Domingo Ortega, Enrique “El Extremeno,” Yeye de Cádiz, Mateo Soleá, and many others. Since 1986 she has spent extensive periods of time living and performing in Spain, presenting her choreography there and in the U.S. In 1996, she returned to the U.S. where she continues to develop and train dancers for her company, Caminos Flamencos, which includes some of the finest flamenco dancers outside of Spain. The group is led by Yaelisa and its virtuoso music director, Jason “El Rubio” McGuire, one of the most-watched guitarists on YouTube. Yaelisa received an Isadora Duncan Dance Award for excellence in the category of “Best Company Performance,” and in 2006 she was chosen as one of ABC-7’s “Profiles in Excellence” Hispanic leadership awardees.

Yaelisa’s mother, renowned singer/dancer Isa Mura, had a long and vibrant association with Ashkenaz as a teacher and performer in the 1980s and ’90s, during the time that David Nadel was establishing Ashkenaz as a cultural and counter-culture center. When her mother passed away, Yaelisa returned from Spain and continued her connection as a performer and teacher at Ashkenaz by starting her own weekly classes. Twenty years later, she has cemented her own legacy here with a student population that has also participated with her over the past decades. 

Eventbrite - Ashkenaz Cultural Treasures Gala
Earlier Event: March 19
Soul Sanctuary Dance
Later Event: March 21
Mitch Polzak & the Royal Deuces