Recent rumblings about the possible demise of Oakland's Alice Arts Center sent shivers through the local nonprofit arts community, providing a grim example of how culture loses out in this body politic. That noted, we should thank our lucky stars that venues like Berkeley's Ashkenaz and La Peña Cultural Center still survive on grants and generous public support. But for how long?
"We're aware of the climate around us," says longtime La Peña staffer Sylvia Sherman. "Right now we're in a strong position, with monies committed from before, but in the next two years, particularly with the cutbacks to the California Arts Council and the shrinking portfolios from private foundations, we realize we need to shift to bigger sources of support from the community."
La Peña (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-849-2568, www.lapena.org) was started in 1975 by Chilean students exiled from Pinochet-era repression. They connected with North American supporters and collectively bought the building at 3105 Shattuck, patterning it after the South American peña tradition of neighborhood coffeehouses. Their mission was to give space to artists and activists speaking out on issues of social justice. The number of struggles -- as well as artistic careers -- launched there is countless.
La Peña celebrates its 28th anniversary this Saturday with a longtime friend, Bay Area Cuban singer Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes. It was here that she started singing traditional son cubano in 1981 as part of Trio Céspedes with her brother Luis and nephew Guillermo, and the family group eventually grew into a twelve-piece horn-driven ensemble. "I was well taken care of and felt very safe with Conjunto Céspedes," she recalls from her Oakland home. "Everyone was always respectful of my feelings, needs, and input. It was my first big band and everyone worked so that I could do it. In the end we produced great music."
Céspedes' voice, often compared to that of Celia Cruz, helped propel the band beyond the Bay Area. It was a natural step for a singer born in a small town outside Havana and raised in the Santeria religion (she's a priestess of Obatala). She showcased her Afro-Cuban musical heritage at La Peña long before the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, and later hooked up with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and his Bembe Orisha Band. This year she reinvented herself with a CD, the Greg Landau-produced Rezos (Six Degrees), that fuses her Afro-Cuban sounds with hip-hop beats. "It's important to stay connected with what's going on today," she notes. "I decided to mix my music in a way where everyone will listen. Perhaps those who have not heard Orisha music will now, by having a little beat behind it. You'll see in my lyrics and rhythms that it's nothing but what I've always done."
As La Peña ponders the future, Céspedes returns for two concerts on Saturday, June 14 (8 and 10 p.m.), bringing her back to where she began. No longer the shy twentysomething just discovering her voice, she now knows what she represents -- a perfect example of how La Peña nurtures talent, and an important reminder that if you appreciate this type of culture in your community, don't take it for granted.
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