Community Arts Rock the Bay

In a world of flux and change in the arts, community organizations are stepping into the void and creating exciting, new and exceptional concerts that set a new standard and new hope for music fans

By Ken Vermes
Karim Baer, the director of the California Institute Integral Studies Public Programs & Performances has a problem. And it is a problem that many arts organizations would love to have. It seems that audiences at his recent Mali Fest Weekend, that took place April 18 and 19, featuring Fatoumata Diawara and the band Tinariwen, were causing audiences at the Nourse Auditorium, in Hayes Valley, just off Market Street in San Francisco, to start riotous dancing, some of it almost immediately when the bands started performing. This would not have been a problem, had it not been noticed with some concern by the "front of the hall" audience members who paid a premium price for what they thought would be a concert a la the SF Symphony or ballet. Karim seemed somewhat concerned about this, since it violated some of the rules of the auditorium, and somewhat bemused, in that he was thrilled to have both types of participants at his shows. One group, some of who had seemed to have travelled from the North and East Bay, were in a ready state to party and dance. They had probably been to many world music shows, and had their broken-in dancing shoes, and youthful limbs ready to go. The other group, were harder to pin down. On the one hand, they were probably excited by the audience participation vibe, and on the other, they realized that the hall's configuration meant that they might not see another part of the performance all night. Karim had been meeting that day with his small and dedicated staff, to understand how to handle such situations. But one thing was clear in his mind; there was probably a lot more excitement and even dancing to come. His music program is becoming established as one of the top community based, smaller scale performance series in the San Francisco scene. The Mali Weekend and the series of performances Karim is organizing generally are examples of a new breed of groups, leaders and artistic happenings that are suddenly filling a large void in the San Francisco scene. For decades, going back to the early 20th century, San Francisco had low cost food and entertainment that featured outstanding players from North Beach Jazz, to folk, and to rock and blues. And of course the entire scene exploded into the summer of love in the mid-1960's, the Bill Graham led the charge into concert promoting until his untimely death, and a music and party environment that mostly evolved around medium size clubs and bars and restaurants. All this is quickly changing in a new century and with a new generation of listeners and participants. Whether much of any of the old club and medium size concert venues will survive these changes and the lightning fast gentrification of the city is anyone's guess. There is also the fact that some old dependable music styles, like rock, blues, Latin music, and soul, are almost nowhere to be seen or heard except on satellite radio oldies stations and in giant concert scenes with tickets that start at $100 and up. But there is hope for music fans. Deep in the musical firmament is the emergence of a new kind of musical presentation entity that is led by patient and ambitious promoters. The music has a world point of view, and is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. It can be sung in languages you not only do not understand, but never heard of. It could be from the tradition of classical performing, old-style blues or rock, and Latin folk roots. Members of the audience will surprise you with the fact that even though you have not heard of the bands or performers, they have some of the songs memorized and seem to have been practicing their dance steps at home. Four of these groups that we have recently experienced are the California Institute of Integral Studies Public Programs & Performances Malifest series, the Undercover series of tribute concerts, La Bohemia produced performances, and the Opera Parellele. We will be reviewing concerts by each of these organizations and seeking to explain why you should be joining in and supporting these fresh, challenging and even thrilling musical groups. And it is becoming certain that if you love the new, creative and eclectic side of artistic presentations, you are in for some delightful and uniquely West Coast times. California Institute of Integral Studies' beginnings go back to 1951 when Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri was invited to come to San Francisco to found an institution to promote "intercultural understanding" in San Francisco. In 1980 the institute was renamed and began to take shape as a fully
Accredited school of graduate study. CIIS Public Programs & Performances has been part of the University for some years. Karim, who leads this, is setting a new, broader course for the musical presentations, to the point that their concerts are now leading the community for their scope and adventurous programing. In a recent interview at Samovar Restaurant, at Yerba Buena, scene of another community arts program, he spoke with a twinkle in his eye, about his roots with punk rock bands, his travels around the world to catch unusual music groups, and his excitement about planning a new series for 20014-2015 that will feature groups like the collaboration between Idan Raichel and Vieux Farka Toure; a series curated by Terry Riley to include John Zorn, Thollem Mcdonas, Kala Ramnath; Lila Downs and others.
In a wide ranging conversation, Karim demonstrated the real responsibility that he feels not only to the institution he works for but to an audience that "seeks transformation, not just entertainment." He stated that he once encountered a woman audience member who wanted a refund because she was not changed by the music she had just heard. Amazingly, Karim did not seem surprised. "She had come to have an experience that
would change her, and I really respect that. We are an organization that really depends on a community to support us. We do not have the budget to advertise like the mainstream cultural organizations with large donor and subscription supporters. "He also stated that "we are planning eight to ten large shows a year, and also planning to have more programs with dialogues between audiences and the artists themselves. We are also looking at the possibility of having a smaller venue, as well." Speaking with Karim and hearing about his program leads to a question. Can this and other such groups resolve the challenges that smaller arts, and community based organizations, face? Will they find a broader audience than the relatively small community of their existing music fans and be able to unite the older listeners with a younger, more excitable population of fans? Only time will tell. But one thing is for certain, right now, for those music fans interested in a new sense of creativity and energy, they will not want to miss this exciting generation of music programmers who are solving the problems of support, planning and staging, one step at a time. This could very well be a new day in the City by the Bay. Next, a community based music promotion group that creates shows that celebrate classic albums from the past. But if you are not recognizing the tunes, relax, it just be more interesting than the original.

Add a Comment

You need to log in to comment on this article. No account? No problem!

  • Email E-mail
  • Share Share
  • Rss RSS
  • Report Report

Community Authors

Ken V