Zimbabwean singer and mbira (thumb piano) master Stella Chiweshe -- one of a scant few African women bandleaders -- brings her ensemble to Ashkenaz tonight, Wednesday, at 9 p.m. to launch African Music Month. Over the next few weeks, half a dozen concerts at the nonprofit Berkeley world-dance club embrace both acclaimed international touring acts and the best Bay Area-based African groups. A commanding figure in her home country, the "Queen of the Mbira" has long used her music to empower righteous underdogs and to highlight social issues, from calling for her country's independence to expanding the roles of women in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa. Chiweshe's lyrics are set to modern and ancient musical styles, using the mbira and other traditional instruments for a lilting, hypnotic sound. On Friday, at 9:30 p.m., the Congo's Soukous Stars play a far different style of dance music. Soukous is built on the rumba rhythm as transplanted to Africa, and the Stars' version of that hybrid is led by guitarist-singers Lokasa Yabongo and Ngouma Lokito. The folk-rooted vocal duo Pape & Cheikh (Wednesday, August 13, 9:30 p.m.) from Senegal are influenced as much by Bob Dylan and other American folk-protest singers as by their own country's music. Pape Amadou Fall and Cheikhou Couibaly write songs on issues of the day -- personal as well as global -- buoyed by dance rhythms. Bay Area-based African Rhythm Messengers mix Caribbean and African styles on Saturday, August 16, at 9:30 p.m. The influential guitarist and leader of Mali's Super Rail Band, Djelimady Tounkara, brings a new group on Thursday, August 21 (9:30 p.m.), for a high-energy night of dance music. The best known locally based Afro-beat band, Kotoja, closes the monthlong series on Saturday, August 30, at 9:30 p.m.
For information and tickets for Stella Chiweshe and other concerts in the African Music Month series, call 510-525-5054, Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center, 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. -- Larry Kelp
Air It Out
The Carquinez Regional Environmental Education Center styles its Scene on the Strait 2003 as "the largest outdoor art and environmental festival in California." That's a pretty grandiose claim, but it's based on a desire to celebrate the natural beauty of the strait by painting it, in a simple, straightforward gathering of artists and spectators.
The two-day event -- Saturday and Sunday beginning at 11 a.m. -- at the Martinez Regional Shoreline offers plenty to see and do: more than 250 paintings for sale, artist discussions, a display and sale of native plants, a live jazz trio, food, etc. But the real draws are the 23 artists who set up their easels and paint plein air on Martinez's historic waterfront, and the students who explain their work in restoring wildlife habitats. Proceeds benefit CREEC's after-school and summer environmental work programs for young people, as well as ongoing natural restoration efforts along the strait. Parking and admission are free. For further information and directions, phone 510-787-9772 or log onto CREECyouth.org -- Kelly Vance
The Monterey wine country doesn't usually get as much publicity as Napa and Sonoma, but this weekend it's blowing its own horn with the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association's eleventh annual Wine Celebration at Custom House Plaza in downtown Monterey. Saturday's wine fest -- with 35 wineries participating -- lets visitors go as deeply as they want into wine culture, with educational seminars on such topics as blending techniques and organic wine growing. There's also the requisite gourmet food stalls, a wine auction of rare vintages, wine art, VIP winery tours and the like, live music by the Eldredge and Rossi Band, and other opportunities to drop serious change on degustation and such. Tickets cost $35 at the gate, which includes a wineglass that you'll need for the tastings. 831-375-9400 or Montereywines.org -- Kelly Vance
Free metal in Union City
Musicians don't usually get the fairest treatment from the "straight world" -- parents, leasing agents, and the like. That's why an organization like Bands4Bands is so precious. The Bay Area coalition of bands is dedicated to helping bands with networking, cross promotion, and live performance support, and this weekend, the group celebrates itself by presenting its Fourth Annual BandFest at Charles F. Kennedy Community Park Amphitheater, 1333 Dakota Rd., Union City. The free event goes from noon till 7 p.m. with roving belly dancers, jugglers, and all the usual outdoor festival trimmings, plus ten metal and rock acts, including Age of Aggression, Bad Penny Boys, Mystic Rage, Stone Vengeance, Diferential, Blitzenhamer, Tommy Merry, Color Black, Foot Patrol, and HepCatz. For details, visit Bands4bands.com/bandfest -- Stefanie Kalem
Culture Spy - February 19, 1:45 PM
What the Fork - February 15, 2:00 PM
Culture Spy - February 15, 10:30 AM
Culture Spy - February 12, 5:45 PM
What the Fork - February 8, 3:57 PM