By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Don't even think of insulting Mystik Journeymen with a record deal. The Oakland-based hip-hop duo has been an autonomous entity for so long that they can be both in your face and in your head without the help of record companies. Street poets Pushin' Suckas Consciousness (aka Tommy) and Vision Tha Brotha From Anotha Planet (aka Corey) boast a prophetic sonic style that puts them at the center of the underground hip-hop scene in the Bay Area and far beyond. Skilled on the four-track, the Journeymen have self-produced 10 separate releases. Forget the hook-filled beats that mainstream artists lay down for commercial radio, these rap revolutionaries believe in aggressive lyrical constructions and tracks that will upset the system. "I'm independent as fuck/ I could walk up to an A&R and say hey yo wassup!/ Grab a pen, Mystik Journeymen, we wanna sign you/ Four hundred thousand, what you wanna do/ I kick that fool in the head with my shoe/ How'd you suppose I'd sign my life to you hoes," goes but one emphatic declaration of independence. With an underground reputation established in Europe, Australia, and Japan, the band knows how to turn a hip-hop crowd into a community in one set. As the Journeymen's legend says, hip hop should not just be seen and heard. It should be shared.
The next club-worthy dance groove you hear may come from a family singing the praises of the Sufi saint Ali. From the opening track "Ali Dum" on their album Taswir, released this summer on the City of Tribes label, Ali Khan updates the 500-year-old, Indian-based devotional music qawwali with infectious hip-hop rhythms. Brother/sister duo Sukhawat Ali Khan and Riffat Salamat share singing duties, backed by a band that includes Riffat's producer/electric-guitarist husband Richard Michos, an American who joined the family after studying with its patriarch, Pakistani classical musician Salamat Ali Khan. The music's rich texture springs from an international confluence of Syrian violin, didjeridu, ambient electronic samples, pedal-steel guitar, mandolin, accordion, trumpet, and burbling tabla and tanpura percussion. As the Ali Brothers, Riffat and Sukhawat's father and his brother helped introduce qawwali to the States back in the '60s and '70s, but this band has taken the music in new directions, incorporating classical, folk, pop, rock, and reggae influences -- ranging from Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix to rave and Latin music. Riffat's hypnotic voice guides "Hay Ni Allah" (a traditional wedding song Sukhawat has described as celebrational, but one that tends to "make old ladies cry" nonetheless), while Kelvin Luster raps over "Takbir" ("The Greatest"), a song Sukhawat wrote backstage in Santa Cruz. Like classical Indian ragas, qawwalis are devotional, but like the slower, more romantic ghazals, they use syncopated poetry to bring audiences ecstatically to their feet.
In the grand tradition of great New York salsa acts like Tito Puente, Louie Rodriguez, and Bobby Valentin, Mazacote burst on the San Francisco scene after co-founders Louis Romero and Raphael Martinez had cut their chops as supporting members in countless other bands. At the age of 21, legendary percussionist Romero began a 15-year association with Fania Records that resulted in seven gold and five platinum albums with the likes of the George Guzman Orchestra, La Conspiration, and the Willie Colon Orchestra. Percussionist Martinez spent years touring with the likes of Charlie Palmieri, Buddy Miles, and Bobby Rodriguez before he formed the Montuno Street Orchestra in which Romero was a fundamental member. In 1995, when Romero and Martinez formed Mazacote, it was with the intent of bringing the hard-core East Coast Puerto Rican dance sound to the foggy banks of San Francisco. Salsa-crazed fans have been strutting their stuff ever since, turning Mazacote into one the most highly regarded Latin dance bands the city has to offer.
Whether he's channeling American improvisational jazz giant Thelonious Monk or the Yoruban deities of the Santeria religion he practices, pianist Omar Sosa commands attention. At last year's live Wammies performance, an appreciative hush fell over the crowd as Sosa, his white knit cap bobbing rhythmically just above the piano keys, leaned into the dissonant but riveting Afro-Cuban jazz hybrid that is his signature, and that regularly draws SRO audiences to the Elbo Room and Cafe Du Nord. The Cuban-born pianist and former percussionist studied European classical music and Afro-Cuban folkloric tradition at Havana's Superior Institute of Art, where he and his classmates spent downtime absorbing Latin dance music and American jazz by old-school masters like Oscar Peterson and modern fusion experimentalists like Chick Corea. Sosa's first band, the folkloric ensemble Tributo, toured Angola, Ethiopia, and the Congo as well as Nicaragua as Cuban musical ambassadors. Later on, Sosa's collaboration with singer Xiomara Laugart led to his foray into hip hop; he joined the rapper Ofill in a video for the song "The Cha Cha Chaplin Boys" and helped popularize hip hop in Cuba. He launched the jazz fusion band Entrenoz after moving to Ecuador, and his subsequent relocation to the States yielded a collaboration with Afro-Cuban percussionist John Santos at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He followed up his first CD, Omar Omar, with Free Roots, which features an all-star group including Jesœs Diaz on percussion, Elliot Kavee on drums, Rahsaan Fredericks on bass, and Sheldon Brown on saxophone. All the influences Sosa gleaned from his studies and travels come together on the release, augmented by guest rapping from Midnight Voices vocalist Will Power, who invokes James Brown's funk legacy on "Put It Down, Man, Shit."