The long-running all-ages music venue Ashkenaz will start airing its own show on Berkeley public access channel 28 in the next few weeks. Initially starting as a half-hour program, “Ashkenaz Live” will feature select live performances from some of the diverse bands that appear on the venue’s stage, plus interviews with some of the principal performers, according to Ashkenaz Executive Director Larry Dekker. He hopes the show will eventually expand into an hour format and cover topics such as Ashkenaz’s history as well as feature interviews with some of the older members of the community.
As the state of the economy has shrunk the number of people going out to see shows, local venues have been coming up with creative ways to get folks out of the house and keep their businesses afloat. Uptown has free shows and burlesque nights; 924 Gilman is seeking nonprofit status; the Stork Club has mixed up its calendar with Rock Band nights and shows booked by different promoters. With Ashkenaz Live, which was just awarded a grant from the San Francisco Foundation, Dekker hopes it will help the venue reach a new, larger audience. He thinks that some people will learn about Ashkenaz for the first time, others will be reminded that it exists, and a younger crowd might think of it in a different light — i.e., not “an old hippie place.” And he’s not worried that folks will stay home in front of the boob tube rather than pay cash to see the shows. “Our focus has always been participatory music and dance — people don’t come here to sit on their hands,” he said. “No one’s going to choose to watch it on TV versus coming here. It’ll be cool to see but I don’t think it will discourage people — in fact I think it will encourage more people to come check it out.”
Dekker got the idea to do the show late last year while filming a public service announcement at Berkeley Community Media, which operates Berkeley’s public access cable channels, BTV 28 and 33. “We were trying to find new and innovative ways to reach out into the community because after 37 years, it’s easy to sort of blend into the woodwork,” he said. Dekker approached Berkeley Public Media Executive Director David Jolliffe, who he said was very receptive of the idea. In fact, Dekker says the whole process was pretty easy: all they had to do was become a member of Berkeley Public Media and pay to get his staff trained on BCM’s equipment. Now, Ashkenaz can use BCM’s cameras and editing equipment for free. They started filming in late April and will submit the first show — which will feature performances by Baba Ken and the West African Highlife Band, Cuban outfit Pellejo Seco, and dancing from a recent Haitian benefit — next week. Dekker estimates it’ll air at the end of May or early June, but doesn’t have a firm date yet.
Dekker says he’s also in the process of putting together a book on Ashkenaz’s history in the context of the Berkeley political scene. But mostly, he’s excited about the new TV show. “It kind of puts Ashkenaz on the map in a more contemporary way,” he said. “It’s gonna be really helpful in establishing new ground, new audience, new street cred.”