Skin City 

A new monthly dance party celebrates global sounds that have roots in African music.

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For the bulk of her nearly twenty-year career in event production, Candi Martinez has avoided using the phrase "world music." After all, it's an incredibly vague descriptor and umbrella term for anything that's non-Western. But Martinez, who managed the Shattuck Down Low in Berkeley until it closed last year, has recently come to appreciate it a bit more. The new monthly event she debuted in November at Venue in downtown Oakland is a celebration of dance music from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and beyond — which has much more in common rhythmically than most people realize.

Martinez co-hosts the event, which is called "Skin," with Cecil Carthen, aka DJ Cecil, a longtime resident of the monthly party thePeople at The New Parish. The three rooms of music at Skin are loosely divided by region, but you can expect to hear bhangra, up-tempo, celebratory music that combines Punjabi and Western styles; moombahton, a fusion of reggaetón and soulful house music that originated in the United States; festejo, Afro-Peruvian dance music; salsa; merengue; bachata, which is similar to American blues in terms of lyricism; cumbía, which was fused from the music of native Colombians and slaves brought from Africa; samba; soca, a combination of calypso and soul music; kudoro, a sound popularized in Angola in the 1980s; zouk, carnaval music from the Caribbean; kizomba, sensual music that mixes samba, zouk, and merengue; azonto, upbeat dance music from Ghana; soukous, which combines the music of the Congo with sounds from Cuba; Afrobeat; and highlife.

Nina Sol, one of five DJs who is slated to perform regularly at the event, wrote in an email that although she thinks the term world music is "completely useless," "[t]he music is united through the African diaspora and how African rhythms have blended with other indigenous sounds, contributing to our appreciation of reggae, salsa, samba, jazz, funk, disco, house, etc. This party acknowledges these influences and how they are being remixed and re-imagined into the future."

DJs Wally Scott (aka Son of Son) and Damian Diaz (aka Diaztek) host the party Refuge at Lounge 3411, which showcases global and tropical bass, which Diaz describes as modern dance music that draws from traditional rhythms. It's currently on hiatus, so they're lending their skills to Skin. "I play music from around the world, but it generally has its roots in African music," said Scott. "It has a lot of bass. And it's usually bangin.'"

Martinez named the party Skin partly to pay homage to the drum, the instrument that ties the different styles together. "A lot of them have their own types of drums, whether we're talking about congas or the Indian dhol.... Not only is it one of the most common rhythms our bodies respond to, it's also used so much in ritual," she said, adding that many of these sounds are being recreated digitally. As electronic dance music continues to grow in popularity, DJs are digging deeper and deeper into sounds from other cultures for inspiration. Sol wrote that she's annoyed by the fact that DJs who spin house and electronic music rarely give credit to those sounds' origins. The goal of Skin is to connect modern hybrid dance music like global bass, tropical bass, electro-tropical, and funk tropical with their roots.

"New artists are digging up these sounds and producing reincarnations in interesting places, like Berlin," said Carthen. "I want to get people connected to this music in the same place, to have an appreciation for where these sounds came from. I think it's great for the community to be exposed to."

While on vacation last Christmas in Hawaii, Martinez and Carthen were struck by the Tahitian drummers they saw perform during a Polynesian showcase, which crystallized the conversations they'd been having about creating an event like Skin: The polyrhythms they heard sounded similar to West African music.

"Those sounds are big right now," Carthen said. "I mean, those are Diplo's beats exactly. So many of the sounds we listen to today came from some other corner of the world.... We're reaching an audience that wants to share, celebrate, and be educated. That's not always the normal nightlife experience."

In addition to offering three rooms of music, Martinez wants Skin to support and promote other artists: Every second Saturday of the month the event will feature dancers and drummers, a visual artist, crafts from a local vendor, and food from a local chef. At some point, Martinez and Carthen hope to host live bands as well.

For these reasons, "Skin" is a pretty atypical dance party: It's more community-minded and social than the culture that surrounds "going out to da club," as Carthen put it. "We want people to have a unique experience — to walk away curious and having learned something," he said.

But don't think that it's not all about dancing. As Sol wrote, "This is not typical 'club music.' Yet, it's Saturday night and folks are partying as though we are at a Caribbean beach party."

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