It didn't take much cajoling for trombonist Wayne Wallace to sell the board at La Peña Cultural Center on his idea for a 35th anniversary suite. Wallace had been closely associated with La Peña for many years, not to mention his idea gelled with the board's desire to put together an oral history project that would feature some of the principal artists and activists associated with La Peña since its inception. All they needed was a librettist to glue everything together, and spoken-word poet Aya de León seemed like the obvious choice. Aside from her local stature, de León straddled two generations: Her mother helped paint La Peña's mural in the 1970s, and de León came of age in the era of hip-hop. It was her idea to bring a DJ onboard and present the audio portion of the suite in a pastiche format. Thus, it would genuflect to La Peña's founders — a motley group of Chilean exiles, local community activists, and artists with a polyglot sensibility — while resonating with a younger audience.
Now two years in the making, La Peña — Ayer, Hoy P'alante is ready for its second unveiling. Last year's orchestra included musicians who represented Arab, Chilean, Caribbean, and Afro-Cuban traditions, along with hip-hop artists and spoken-word poets. What was lacking, said development director Sylvia Sherman, was folkloric music of the Andes, which is elemental to La Peña's history. To rectify that absence, the center hired two guest composers, La Peña Chorus director Lichi Fuentes and multi-instrumentalist Fernando Torres, who plays in the band Grupo Raiz. Besides incorporating more musical influences, participating artists also transformed the show's audio by pressing the oral history interviews onto vinyl. DJ Wonway Posibul will cut and scratch them while de León delivers her spoken-word libretto. The idea, said Sherman, is to "jog people through time."
Next year they hope to add a new multimedia element by digitizing all of La Peña's archival footage and splicing it together. The whole thing is organized thematically, rather than chronologically, so that audiences get the sense of unified artistic purpose and continuous flow of activity over 35 years. Sherman cites one piece of found footage that must have been from the late 1970s. It was an activist presentation on shanty towns in Chile, scored by two local musicians. Although it was made long before Internet technology, at a time when the average person wasn't expected to stay abreast of world affairs, it was nonetheless quite similar to the work La Peña produces today.
La Peña — Ayer, Hoy y P'alante happens Saturday, June 13, at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). Preceded by a 7 p.m. art installation viewing of Hector Salgado's Creating Home Away from Home, which commemorates exiles from Chile. 8 p.m., $12, $14. LaPena.org
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