Musikal Menazeri

The local music scene is a significant part of what draws me again and again to the city of San Francisco. When living in Chiang Mai, it’s probably the single thing I miss the most about this city. While it’s easy to find live music in Chiang Mai, very little of it is original, the city being home to a scourge of cover bands.

This past Friday, my first full day back in San Francisco, I went to the Rickshaw Stop for the Michael Musika Spells novella/album release show. Musika is a local singer-songwriter who has been getting some media attention recently. I had seen him perform live before, but (somewhat ironically given my complaint about Chiang Mai) it was a show in which a number of different local bands each performed a cover from the Velvet Underground’s Niko album.

Friday night’s show opened with Toshio Hirano, a yodeling Japanese country singer. His set was ending as we were arriving and saying hello to friends I had not seen in a while, so I didn’t take in very much. I started to pay more attention when a brass section, including trumpeter Ara Anderson, started playing near the club’s entrance. It was a little bit of a let-down when the lively ensemble eventually made its way to the stage, only to disappear behind it.

Musika performed his first folksy song offstage, then climbed up in his black hooded wizard’s coat to join his band, which included Matt Adams of The Blank Tapes lurking behind a bass and a pair of colorful plastic sunglasses. Kacey Johansing, Indianna Hale, and Emily Ritz, all singer-songwriters in their own right, provided the delightful harmonies that went down like a spoonful of honey. About half way through the set, the brass section returned to the stage, giving Musika’s sound more energy and more gravity at once. Bodies swayed rhythmically in the dark.

When Musika’s set ended, my friend Tony, who had been hesitating all evening in his approval, finally declared: “Okay, it was good. But I’m glad it’s over.” We were all by then a little itchy for the main act.

Brass Menažeri is a nine-piece Balkan Romani (gypsy) ensemble I’ve seen perform numerous times and which I once described as the ultimate proof that there’s no free will. Wild and crazy dancing will happen. Struggle is futile. Having spent the entire day shivering on the sofa with both the heat and a blanket on, it was good to get out and sweat on a dance floor, and remind myself why it is I love this city.

The brass ensemble consists of a snare and tupan making up the percussion section, a sousaphone, trombone, and two baritone horns in the bass horn section, and a saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet as the lead horns. The band has been working on a lot of new material, including some compositions by band leader and clarinetist Peter Jacques, who occasionally also sings a Balkan song or two. Over half of Friday’s music I had not heard before.

Some of the time signatures of Romani music completely confound me, I have to say, and I’m unable to wrap mind or body around them. I sometimes think I would like a brief lesson on Balkan time signatures or even just for someone to count out the beats when they become too crazy for me to follow by myself. Because of this, I am always especially impressed by the tightness and virtuosity of Brass Menažeri.

Saxophonist Sheldon Brown, the band’s newest member, is a welcome addition to the mix. Apart from when he’s with Brass Menažeri, I’ve only ever seen Brown play jazz, but his ease and confidence with the material suggests he is an old-hand with this style of music. When jazz trumpeter Darren Johnston joined the band a while ago, replacing clarinetist/saxophonist Mary Harris, he told me how challenging he initially found playing some of the Balkan time signatures, which was very reassuring for a music pleb like me to hear.

The night ended with DJ Zeljko from Serbia spinning some infectious Balkan tunes. By then, the crowd had thinned out, which created more space for even more crazy dancing. My friend Roxy noted that in all her years of seeing Tony dancing like a madman, she had never before witnessed such . . . expressiveness. I’m paraphrasing a little here.