This ain't gangsta rap. The lyrics of Daara J -- a Senegalese trio that formed in the early '90s, whose name translates into "school of life" -- contain no braggadocio and plenty of upbeat messages, and the music is infused with an array of styles and rhythms that make American rap sound, well, boring. Or maybe like a less sophisticated, and less soulful, genre altogether: Daara J's mission is to make the world understand that rap should be traced to the pre-slave-era storytelling poetry known as "tasso," created in Senegal and eventually shipped across the Atlantic. "Born in Africa, brought up in America, hip hop has come full circle," the group proclaims on its most recent album, Boomerang, which contains elements of Cuban, jazz, reggae, and other island sounds. The lyrics, meanwhile, are smoothly thrown down in English, Spanish, French, and Wolof, a native tongue to Senegal.
And lest you think Daara J's positive message, fixated on spreading the culture of the group's homeland, is just a bunch of hopeless posturing, consider this: During Senegal's 2000 presidential election, Daara J was hired to write speeches and campaign for the anti-corruption political candidate, who won in a country whose capital, Dakar, boasts some 6,000 hip hop acts. An entire nation following the political lead of a rap group that urges citizens to pick up litter and look out for the elderly? It's a shame 50 Cent is too busy buffing his newest Hummer.
Urban Fairy Tales
Outrageous, brutally honest spoken-word nights that feature heartwarming tales of heroin-addicted boyfriends with huge wangs, and evenings dedicated entirely to tales of star-fucking -- these are not as unusual as you might think. Still, "Porchlight," the monthly storytelling series hosted by local raconteurs Arline Klatte and Beth Lisick, is a cut above the rest. The duo mark the series' third anniversary with "Eye of the Tiger: Stories of Weird Little Triumphs," featuring 10-minute yarns from their favorite guests over the past year. Mussy-headed Matt Gonzalez, Navy veteran/transgendered activist Veronika Cauley, and many others share the stage tonight at 8 at the Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market (at Sanchez), S.F. Admission is $12; call 431-7578 or visit www.porchlightsf.com.
-- Jane Tunks
Last funnyman standing
The very idea of "theater sports" comes across as something of an anomaly. A contest pitting rabid Shakespeareans against pretty-boy Broadway divas is unlikely to pop up on ESPN, so let's make a slight revision. Say ... improv actors sporting clever team names like Napa Valley Soccer Dads or Colma Stiffs? Eight diverse troupes duke it out in the "Battle of the Bay Theatresports Finals" this Friday, in a valiant display of unscripted wit. It still probably won't make it to the Monday-night lineup, but it might be the closest you'll see to theater people going all apeshit on one another.
The games are followed by the opening-night reception for the 11th annual Summer Improv Festival, and it all begins at 8 p.m. at the Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Building B, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Admission is $15-18; call 474-8935 or visit www.improv.org.
-- Nirmala Nataraj
Andre Karpov leans on folk
Blending different types of folk music, if done with at least some respect for the traditions involved, is usually a good idea. In the case of Andre Karpov & the Kazaks, it's a great idea, and involves klezmer, Appalachian, and emo. (What, you didn't think emo was folk music?) Sad, slow, and drenched in vocal harmonies, Karpov's songs are made to sway along with; nothing that would spill your glass of cheap red, but plenty to inspire overflowing romantic notions. Charming and handsome, the bandleader tends to set girls' hearts to fluttering anyway. The band counts Tom Waits and Neil Young as influences, but neither of those guys makes such good use of the accordion.
It's a delicate premise, fit for a knowledgeable playwright: A bureaucratic mix-up sends Karl Marx back to Earth, but instead of returning to 19th-century Soho, London, he drops down in SoHo, New York. Fortunately, Marx in Soho was written by Howard Zinn (yes, that Howard Zinn, the left-leaning political scientist and author), so rest assured it's not a mere rant (though there's plenty of haranguing) or a dumbed-down comedy (yet it's clearly funny). Gerry Levy stars as Marx, a man with a lot of people to set straight. The show opens Thursday at 7 p.m. (and continues through Saturday) at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission (at 11th Street), S.F. Admission is $20; call 554-0402 or visit www.jonsimsctr.org.
-- Michael Leaverton