Saturday's "Praises for the World" concert in Oakland's cavernous Scottish Rite Center is not Berkeley folk-rocker Jennifer Berezan's typical concert. It took her a good year of preparation to organize it. Further, the 1,500 seats in a hall that has hosted the Christmas Revels and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have been nearly sold out with no advertising, simply through word of mouth.
The Canadian-born singer-songwriter has gathered 55 performers -- singers, dancers, poets and writers, activists, and spiritual leaders from many cultures -- to collaborate, musically or otherwise, in her extended song, "Praises for the World" (7:30 p.m., 1547 Lakeside Drive, 415-575-6175 for tickets). Over the course of an hour or more, each participant adds a solo or improvisation to the ongoing song. Among Berezan's collaborators are Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, the Dance Brigade, Pakistani qawaali singer Riffat Salamat, Native American vocalist Sharon Burch, Yoruban priestess Luisah Teish, renowned Korean theologian Hyon Kung Chung, Linda Tillery, Barbara Higbie, and Erika Luckett (who sings in Portuguese and Spanish). Aerial dance pioneer Terry Sendgraff -- whose breakthroughs were appropriated by Cirque du Soleil -- takes to the air, while the Dance Brigade stays on the ground.
"It's very improvisational," Berezan explains. "The music is like a big canvas where everyone adds their own part." Each of her three large-scale productions (and accompanying recordings) over the past decade "is a different way of saying the same thing," she notes. "It's all these people coming from diverse spiritual and artistic traditions, and the common thread is devotion to the world. I love Alice Walker's quote, "Anything we love can be saved.' When you experience the world as sacred, things like war become obscene. When we come together like this, we're creating the world we want to live in at that moment."
"Praises" has been the focus of her attention for months, but Berezan is already at work on a more pop-oriented CD to be released later this year. She regularly tours the United States and Canada as a folk-rock singer, and teaches in the graduate program at the San Francisco-based California Institute of Integral Studies. And while her songs fit comfortably with those of Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, and fellow Canadian k.d. lang, Berezan has found her life more and more directed toward bringing the sacred into her singing. She has led annual tour groups to sacred sites in Europe and such Mediterranean countries as Turkey.
As for feminist and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, Berezan says, "She's a lifelong activist who's always spoken in an integrated way about issues not just to do with women, but all peoples. Her work was absolutely influential, and saved my life as a young woman." "Praises" is an expression of Berezan's worldview, which she admits is different from what is being promoted by most political leaders. "Historically, peoples all over the world have lived together peacefully. Of course they don't get into history books because they're cultures, not civilizations. Civilization is about hierarchical structures and centralized governments. Today's political and social reality is a recent development, where we've been taught that competition and war and survival of the fittest are man's nature. This concert is about people who don't believe that."
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