Mulatu Astatke w/ Meklit at The UC Theatre

We at CatSynth have long admired the music of Ethiopia from the 1960s and 1970s, with its blending of traditional rhythms and scales with funk, soul, and jazz. And there are few names as synonymous with Ethiopian jazz, or “Ethio-jazz” as Mulatu Astatke. Astatke developed his Ethio-jazz sound while studying in the U.K. and the United States, playing alongside with jazz and Latin artists, including many from Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. He combined the melodies and harmonies of Ethiopia with rhythms and instrumentations from his Western training and collaborations, along with his own unique complex system of poly-rhythms. There is also a strong element of funk is some of his work. The bulk of his groundbreaking recordings were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the “golden age” of Ethiopian music. After the fall of the Ethiopian Empire and the coup that brought a brutal new regime to power, the thriving music scene in Addis Ababa faded and these recordings fell into obscurity. But they were later prized by record collectors and eventually found a wider audience through reissues and inclusion in the French Éthiopiques series of records in the 1990s. Indeed, that was how he first came to my attention. Since then, Astatke and his music have had a renaissance, with frequent collaborations with musicians around the world, such as his 2008 recording with London based jazz/funk band The Heliocentrics and others. When we learned that he was coming to the U.C. Theater in Berkeley this summer, we know we had to be there.

The evening began with a set by Meklit, an Ethiopian-American musician, songwriter, and bandleader based in San Francisco.

Meklit

Like Astatke, Meklit combined jazz and Ethiopian influences in her soulful and energetic performance. Indeed, she was open about the influence of “Dr. Mulatu” on her own music and waxed poetic on being able to open for him in the concert. Meklit’s voice and movement were backed by a band that featured both a drum set and frame drum tupan, along with horns and bass. The result was continuous energy and rhythm that flowed from one composition to another, even when the tempo was slower. The group performed compositions from Meklit’s latest album The People Move and the Music Moves To as well as her earlier compositions and some more traditional tunes.

Meklit and band

And then it was time for the maestro himself to take the stage.

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu began on his signature instrument, the vibraphone, with fast runs in his unique tonality that were picked up by the horn players. But he also played electric piano and drums during the set. The rhythms were intricate and often poly-rhythmic or contrapuntal, with lilting triple time and odd times that propelled the music forward. The harmonies had a dark color but still delivered with energy and exuberance. This was music to dance to, and many members of the audience did (including Meklit who was dancing in the aisle not far from our seat). There was a mixture of newer compositions (I thought I heard at least one familiar tune from his work with the Heliocentrics) as well as classic 1970s compositions. The band was solid and deft at Astatke’s complex rhythms and fit with his more recent work that includes musicians from host countries.

Mulatu Astatke, Jason Lindner, and other band members

We did espy Jason Lindner on keyboards, including synthesizers and electric piano. We had previously seen him with Donny McCaslin a couple of months ago. He brought a similar sense of harmony and tight playing across instruments to this performance. He had a command of the complex rhythms and also provided the lush electric-piano sounds that I quite enjoyed in Astatke’s classic recordings.

It was a wonderful and unique night of music, and the audience at the sold-out concert showed their appreciation for it. And having now seen Mulatu Astatke perform live, I will be hearing his recordings in a new light.

Feline NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences

Most Thursday evenings, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco hosts Classroom Safari. I have long been fascinated by the small wild cats, so it was interesting to see them up close. The delightfully cheeky staff, however, started out the program with a “cat” that wasn’t a cat at all.

Genet

This feline-esque creature is actually a genet. It has many cat traits, including its appearance, claws, purring, etc. But it is it’s own subfamily of carnivorous mammal, quite distinct from cats. They bear a resemblance to fishing cats with the sleekness, but their snouts are a bit longer, more like a mongoose. Although genet species are native to Africa, they were introduced into southern Europe as the “common genets”.

Next up was a more familiar small cat, the ocelot, a commonly found wild cat of the Americas.

Ocelot

Ocelots are adorable, but they are wild animals, and our hosts were quick to point out that this ocelot in particular is quite ornery. Their membership in the leopard family is unmistakable. And they are superbly adapted for life in the forests as well as more desert-like scrub of their range.

One of the themes during the presentation was that these wild cats do not make good pets. It is not good for the animals themselves who retain their wild instincts. They also pose a danger for humans and other domesticated animals. One particularly amusing anecdote involved a “club” on Long Island where wealthy women kept ocelots as a fad, only to learn that ocelots eat small dogs. The next cat was another that is often kept as an exotic pet, the serval.

Serval

Graceful and athletic, with a sweet face, it’s understandable that people are captivated by these cats. Indeed, the Savannah breed is a cross between a serval and a domestic cat. But their wild instincts are honed for large ranges on the African savannahs and wetlands, including the Sohel region as well as sub-Saharan Africa. Such cats do not adapt well to domestic life.

The next and final cat was one that even as a kitten made our serval friend quite nervous.

Siberian Lynx kitten

This adorable baby is a Siberian Lynx. At first thought it was a caracal with the ear tufts, but once one sees the undercoat and the exceptionally large paws, it is unmistakably a lynx. It also came across a bit of a mini-lion, and as such there is no ambiguity about whether it would make a good pet or not. We’re happy to get a chance to see these cats, and grateful to Classroom Safari for sharing them with us, as well as their work rescuing wild cats.

Many local institutions were on hand as well to talk about their work with cats, wild and domestic. The was the Felidae Conversation Fund, a group that we at CatSynth have long supported. They are involved in small-cat research projects around the world and in our own backyard. The main project they presented at Feline NightLife was the Bay Are Puma Project.

Felidae

The results show that pumas are doing relatively well in some areas, but not others. In particular, pumas in the East Bay hills seem be quite fat and happy in their wild area amidst the urbanized surroundings. By contrast, Marin County is not sustaining a healthy population, most likely due to habit fragmentation and such. It’s a good reminder that wild cats are not just “exotic”, but animals in our neighborhoods.

On the domestic front, our friends at Cat Town were on hand as well. They are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable shelter cats of the East Bay through their fostering program as well as their cat cafe in Oakland, the first in the Bay Area. We wrote about our first visit to the cafe here. The San Francisco SPCA was also on hand, with several adoptable kittens including this adorable black baby.

Black Kitten

It is clearly a great opportunity to advocate for shelter pets and even maybe initiate some adoptions. It was crowded around the SPCA booth, and I can only imagine it might have been stressful for the kittens. But we also hope some found new homes as a result.

The Cat Man of West Oakland (aka Adam Myatt) is a one-man local institution advocating for domestic cats in our communities. He was worked extensively with Cat Town and co-founded their cat cafe. But he also continues his own work with Hoodcats, documenting the beautiful outdoor cats of Oakland neighborhoods. He had several of his photos, including some cute black cats. We managed to acquire one of those black-cat pictures, along with a classic print, from a vending machine he had a fund-raiser.

Cat Man of West Oakland pictures

We had a lot of fun at Feline Nightlife, with all the cats as well as the cocktails, people watching and general exhibits of NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences. It was a bit different, but we hope to be back for another themed night some time, perhaps something musical?

SF Symphony Music for a Modern Age: Ives, Thomas, Harrison, Antheil

Today we look back at the San Francisco Symphony’s “Music for a Modern Age” concert that took place in late June. This wasn’t simply a concert or even a concert focused on American music of the last 100 years. It was a theatrical event, with video projection, staging, and more.

The evening began with two pieces by Charles Ives. First, there was the incantation-like From the Steeples and the Mountains with its interconnecting tones on chimes, followed The Unanswered Question. This was a more complex piece both musically and logistically, as it featured a small wind-and-string ensemble on stage and an offstage antiphonal string ensemble (conducted by Christian Rief). The two groups alternated in a call-and-response form. It isn’t necessarily one ensemble asking the questions and another answering, as the wind instruments are involved in both, but it added another dimension to nature of the piece, which was deliberately unsettling but also hauntingly beautiful. Both Ives pieces featured video by Adam Larsen and lighting design by Luke Kritzeck.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Spencer Lowell. Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony.

The segment featured a piece by conductor and music director Michael Wilson Thomas, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. It was an interesting format, with the orchestra alongside a standard jazz/rock bar band with horns, bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums, complex video and lighting (again by Larsen and Kritzeck, respectively) and singers in elegant dress. The music freely mixed modernist orchestral sounds with jazz and rock idioms as the moved through the text by Carl Sandburg. The subject matter was quite dark – with images of death and decay and ruins of a once-great city that overflowed with pride – ”We are the greatest city. Nothing like us ever was” – that is now left to rats and other wildlife. But it was also a very playful and fun piece, especially in the sections with singing and dancing by the three lead vocalists (Measha Brueggergosman, Mikaela Bennett and Kara Dugan) around the stage in a cabaret style to the rhythms of the jazz band. MTT stated that his influences for the vocal sections included Sarah Vaughan and James Brown, as well as classical influences Leontyne Price and Igor Stravinsky. It is safe to say that we really liked this piece and the performance. Even at a length 32 minutes, it kept our attention and enjoyment throughout.

Lou Harrison was a major force in American music, but is also considered one of California’s own, blending influences from the landscape and culture of the state and bridging them with his interests Asian music. This simultaneously local and world character was well represented in the selections from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The American Gamelan is a collection of instruments inspired by the materials, timbres and tunings of traditional Indonesian gamelan but new and different. Harrison often combined his Asian and invented instruments with more conventional western orchestral instruments, in this solo violin played by Nadya Tichman. The piece unfolded as a series of movements. The first, “Threnody” was a lamentation as the title would suggest, showcasing the violin, but all four movements had a distinctly Asian or abstract sound from the preponderance of sounds from the American gamelan.

The final piece of the evening was George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony. It is musically and sonically quite different from Antheil’s most famous piece Ballet méchanique in that it is less noisy, more tonal, and focuses on traditional orchestral and popular instruments. Think of it as a predecessor of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was in fact influenced by Jazz Symphony. Once again, however, this was not simply an orchestral performance. The lighting and video (this time by Clyde Scott created an enveloping environment reminiscent of a jazz-age cabaret or club. This was further enhanced by the dancers (directed by Patricia Birch) who wore 1920s-style costumes. The overall result of music, visuals, costuming and choreography was energetic, but also rather sexy – as our romanticized view of that era tends to be. There were a lot of fun and even comedic moments a the dancers attempted to distract and even “lead on” members of the orchestra (some of whom turned out to actually be dancers themselves who were soon replaced by the actual musicians).

Overall this was a very strong concert, and perhaps one of my favorites I have seen with the SF Symphony – and we have been going to quite a few in the past year or so. As the symphony often has intriguing programming outside the traditional catalog of 19th century classical works, we certainly expect to be back again soon. I do leave the experience pondering what it means to be “modern” or be in a “modern age”, however. Perhaps the span of time marked by these compositions is in some ways more “modern” than the period that is unfolding now, but that is a discussion for another time.