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Authors Posts by Lily O'Brien

Lily O'Brien

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Snowapple debuts in Marin

Snowapple performs in extravagant outfits designed by fashion artist Mo Benchellal. Photo courtesy of Snowapple.

By Lily O’Brien

“In this band we have the freedom to do what we want to do and go where we wanna go,” says Laurien Schleuder, one of the three female singers/instrumentalist/songwriters making up the Amsterdam-based band Snowapple.

Having just arrived in the U.S. for a West Coast tour—and promoting a new, third album, Tracks—the band will be making its first ever Marin appearance on Thursday, March 23 at Sausalito’s Harmonia—located in the legendary former Record Plant recording studio.

With musical backgrounds that include such diverse styles as opera, jazz, Latvian folk music, Brazilian pop and gospel, and drawing inspiration from song stylists like Edith Piaf, Tom Waits and the Andrews Sisters, the trio is hard to place in any one genre. “We like to create our own sound, using elements from different music styles,” says Schleuder, who describes the band’s sound as “fairy-tale folk/dream-pop/improv, with a dash of cumbia.”

On this tour Snowapple is minus one—Una Bergin opted to stay behind with her 1-year-old son. But Schleuder (vocals and guitar) and Laura Police (vocals, keyboard, flute), will be joined by three Mexican musicians, adding “Latin grooves and lots of positive energy.”

The women of Snowapple, Schleuder says, were “naturally drawn together,” writing original songs inspired by world travels and sung mostly in English. Tracks is a “train-themed album with brand new songs about travelling between nostalgia and longing,” Schleuder says.

“I think it is an interesting blend of things, but it comes together very naturally,” Schleuder says of Snowapple’s music. “We don’t think about being different, we’re just constantly looking for new and beautiful things and moments. Both in music—and life in general.”

Snowapple, Thursday, March 23, Harmonia, 2200 Marinship Way, Sausalito; 7:30pm; $20-$25; 415/332-1432; harmoniamarin.com.

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Jai Uttal creates a divine blend of musical styles

Jai Uttal, who combines kirtan with world beats, says that he was one of the first musicians to blend Indian music into the world music scene. Photo by Jeffery Newbury.

By Lily O’Brien

“My musical path has been a journey of dichotomies,” says world music artist, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer Jai Uttal. Having just completed his 17th CD (one was nominated for a Grammy), Roots, Rock, Rama!, a blend of reggae, jazz, Indian, samba and rock ’n’ roll, Uttal will be celebrating its release with a performance at Spirit Rock Meditation Center on Saturday, March 18.

“I feel like it’s an expression of everything I’ve done–50 years of the practice of singing kirtan,” Uttal says of his latest work, by telephone from his Marin home. Kirtan, he explains, is the call-and-response practice of chanting ancient Sanskrit mantras, accompanied by music. “Every new musical color opens up an emotional color, which opens up the spiritual connection.”

Uttal, the son of a record company executive, grew up in New York. As a teenager, he got “deeply turned on” to Appalachian banjo music, but during high school, in the ’60s, was drawn to psychedelic rock—particularly that of Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Hanging out in Greenwich Village record stores led to the discovery of Indian classical, folk and devotional music. On the guitar, Uttal would jam along to recordings by Indian sarode master Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Hearing Khan live at a concert in Portland rocked Uttal’s world. “That concert just turned me inside out and blew my mind and blew my heart and everything that I felt that I knew about life and about music just got turned upside down,” he says.

In 1969 Uttal moved to the Bay Area and began studying sarode and voice with Khan at the Ali Akbar School of Music. Around 1971, he began playing with a reggae band (on guitar), and eventually formed his own world fusion band, the Pagan Love Orchestra.

“We really had an amazing reputation because in a lot of ways I was the first one to be blending this Indian music into the world music scene,” Uttal says.

These days, Uttal divides his time between performing at festivals, running kirtan camps with his wife and leading kirtan workshops at yoga studios-turned-venues all over the country.

“We’re going to raise the roof at Spirit Rock,” Uttal says of the upcoming CD release party. “It’s going to be a full-on dancing and singing experience.”

Jai Uttal, Saturday, March 18, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, 5000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Woodacre; 8pm; sliding scale, $20-$100; 415/488-0164; spiritrock.org.

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Wake the Dead plays Grateful Dead songs with an Irish twist

East Bay-based Wake the Dead plays Irish folk arrangements of Grateful Dead tunes that are lively, folksy and dance-friendly. Photo courtesy of Wake the Dead.

By Lily O’Brien

Wake the Dead describes itself as “the world’s only Celtic all-star Grateful Dead jam band.”  

“The Celtic aspect was just a happy accident,” says Paul Kotapish, co-founder of the band, which, along with Grateful Dead tunes, plays songs from the Summer of Love era fused with traditional Irish folk music. Think classic Dead songs like “Box of Rain” and “Dark Star” played—complete with fiddle, mandolin and Irish bagpipes—as though you were hearing them while sitting in a pub in Ireland. The band takes the Sweetwater stage on Thursday, March 16—appropriately, St. Patrick’s Day eve.

Kotapish (mandolin, vocals) says that he had been playing bluegrass and old-time fiddle music for a while when he got hooked on Irish music at a folk festival in 1976. “I listened to those jigs and reels and just had to learn them,” he says.

Around 2000, Kotapish joined forces with Danny Carnahan (octave mandolin, fiddle, vocals), who shared the vision of making a recording of Dead songs with a more gentle, acoustic approach. “In our minds, that made a lot of sense given the deep folk roots the Dead—especially Jerry—were steeped in,” Kotapish says.

The musicians soon brought in others who shared their love of both the Grateful Dead and traditional Irish music, and “it just kind of fell into place without a lot of thinking,” Kotapish says. “We knew we didn’t want to try to compete with or emulate the kind of open-ended jamming that made the Dead so unique, but we wanted the songs to take off and go somewhere else during the interludes.”

Kotapish says that Wake the Dead’s all-ages audiences are “a wonderful mashup of Deadheads, folkniks, pop music fans and Irish-music enthusiasts,” but most in the crowd are probably old enough to remember when the band’s repertoire was brand new. “It’s material that seems timeless to us.”

Wake the Dead, Thursday, March 16, Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; 8pm; $20-$22; 415/388-3850; sweetwatermusichall.com.

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Preserving the heritage of an iconic architect

The design of the interior of the administration building at the Marin County Civic Center elegantly combines inner and outer space. Photo by Lily O’Brien.

By Lily O’Brien

“The first time I saw the [Marin County] Civic Center, I thought it looked like something from outer space,” says longtime San Rafael resident and Frank Lloyd Wright-trained architect Bill Schwarz. That was back in the early ’60s, and little did he know that this iconic building, and the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, would become the focus of his architectural career—and his lifelong passion. We chatted about all things Frank Lloyd Wright recently while we toured the center’s administration building and hall of justice.

Schwarz was doing graduate work for an advanced degree in architecture at Stanford University when he became interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and decided to take a year off in 1965 to study at Taliesin, Wright’s home-turned-architecture school in Wisconsin. The experience there turned out to be life-changing.

When he returned to the Bay Area in 1969, Schwarz was invited to work in the offices of architect Aaron Green, a senior student of Frank Lloyd Wright who had directed the completion of the Marin County Civic Center after Wright’s death in 1959. In 1972, Schwarz established his own architectural practice in San Rafael, and was hired by the Civic Center as an associate architect for Taliesin Architects and representative of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to work on various projects.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Schwarz is co-chairing the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy’s annual conference, taking place on November 2-6 in San Francisco. In addition to attending dinners and lectures over the course of the five days, the more than 200 attendees will be touring selected Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the Bay Area, including his largest, the Marin County Civic Center.

Schwarz, who calls Wright a “genius,” is passionate about the way Wright designed the Civic Center. He said that when Wright came to look at the site in the 1950s, “after about 15 minutes he said, ‘Aaron [Green], I know what I’m going to do here. I’m going to bridge one of these hills with the others and build a series of graceful arches and build the buildings on those arches,’ and this was a very profound concept.”

Schwarz explained that Wright’s structures are not necessarily defined by a style, but rather by “a philosophical principle underpinning his work.” These principles include the unification of interior and

Bill Schwarz stands in front of a window of the former Marin County Gift Shop that he designed. It now houses a mini-museum. Photo by Lily O'Brien.
Bill Schwarz stands in front of a window of the former Marin County Gift Shop that he designed at the Civic Center. Photo by Lily O’Brien.

exterior space, and designing flexible spaces that can adapt to the needs of its occupants. And of course, there is the artistic component.

“He had an uncannily poetic gift,” Schwarz says. “I think that’s why people warm up to it and relate to it—it reaches them. It reaches all of us because we are all human beings. And frankly, this gift resides in all of us. He just developed it very skillfully as an architect.”

And the Civic Center is a showcase for Wright’s “gifts.” Over the years, Schwarz has spearheaded and designed numerous projects, and advocated against many that he thought would compromise the beauty and integrity of the design—and won.

Last year, the Civic Center was nominated to become inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with a group of other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. At a recent meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Istanbul, committee members expressed the sentiment that Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture had global importance, and should be recognized for its “outstanding universal value.” Needless to say, receiving this designation would be quite a coup for Marin County.

The conservancy provided the extensive documentation and paperwork required for the application. The nonprofit was founded in 1989 in Chicago by a group of “extremely impassioned” people who are dedicated to preserving and maintaining, “the remaining structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright through education, advocacy, preservation easements and technical services.” With thousands of members and supporters worldwide, it has been quite successful.

With only a three-person full-time staff, a board of directors and volunteers, the conservancy, Schwarz says, has initiated design easements on numerous Frank Lloyd Wright buildings to preserve their design integrity, and has saved many Wright buildings from being demolished.

Other accomplishments include expert technical conservation and restoration advice, and introducing Wright’s work to new audiences.

Along with co-chairing the upcoming conference, Schwarz will be receiving a prestigious Wright Spirit Award (the only Marin resident among five recipients), at a banquet dinner during the event. He was nominated for the award by his wife of 50 years, Patricia. In her introductory letter, she wrote, “Bill has been the Unsung Hero of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center,” and that since 1969 he has provided “unparalleled professional expertise, coupled with a staggering degree of persistent, heartfelt vigor” to advocate for and ensure that the buildings are preserved “in manners consistent and in harmony with Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy and sensibilities.”

Apparently, the conservancy agreed, and chose the “Special” award category for him. “Bill has done so many things, you can’t just point to one,” says Joel Hoglund, events manager for the conservancy. “The award is a culmination of decades and decades of service to Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Schwarz’s motivation has always stemmed purely from his passion. “It has been the core of my professional activity for more than 40 years,” he says, “and the center of my heart.”

Performing came naturally for Mia Rose Lynne

On top of singing in Nashville, Mia Rose Lynne, a Novato native, supports herself with gigs that include dressing up as a princess and singing at kids’ birthday parties. Photo by Kelsey Cherry Photography.

By Lily O’Brien

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Mia Rose Lynne is the first to admit that she doesn’t know exactly what to call her genre of music—so she just calls it “folk Americana.” The Novato native has a sweet, clear singing voice, decorated with just a bit of a country/bluegrass warble, probably the result of living in Nashville, Tennessee for the past four years.

Lynne grew up in a musical family—her parents, Barrie and Annie Ernst, perform bluegrass and Western swing. When they discovered that their daughter had a great ear for harmony, they made her part of their act. Her sister also sang with them, and Lynne says they were kind of like the “Von Ernst Family just traveling around and doing gigs.”

Lynne is back home for a month of gigs around the Bay Area, with her mom on string bass and her sister singing harmonies for some of them. “It’s definitely a family affair,” Lynne says.

Teaching herself to play guitar, Lynne initially learned to sing by listening to the Disney princesses, whom she was “obsessed” with as a child. But her first passion was theater, so after majoring in musical theater at Cal State Fullerton, she moved to New York City to give it a try. She ended up snagging a job on a cruise ship as part of a musical revue for a couple of years.

Lynne then landed a job in Nashville, which she soon discovered was not only a hub for up-and-coming musicians, but had a thriving theater scene as well. So she got involved with both.

For her 25th birthday, a bass player friend took Lynne into the studio to record one of her songs—and she got “hooked.” In 2014, she recorded Open Space, an album of original songs, and in January of this year, she made another titled Follow Me Moon.

Lynne says that in Nashville, many people pump out hits, but she only writes songs when she feels inspired—with lyrics from her heart. “I’ve tried to write more edgy stuff,” Lynne says, but admits that, “it just doesn’t come naturally to me.”

She acknowledges that a performer’s life can be financially unstable, but that she “wouldn’t trade it for anything.” And although Lynne would love to “make it,” she’s happy living in Nashville and working as a singer/songwriter and in theater. “I’m so lucky—I get to do both,” she says.

Mia Rose Lynne performs on Friday, July 15 at Trek Winery, 1026 Machin Ave., Novato; 415/899-9883. For a full list of Bay Area appearances, visit miaroselynne.com.

A taste of Cuba in Sausalito

Orquesta La Moderna Tradición plays a mix of modern and traditional Cuban dance music. Photo courtesy of Kike Arnal.

By Lily O’Brien

Imagine that you’re walking along the Malecón, the scenic waterfront walkway that stretches for five miles along the seawall in Havana, Cuba. You can almost hear the sound of the waves hitting the beach, and in the background, the distant sounds of a swaying Latin melody backed by an Afro-Cuban beat. Well, the good news is that you don’t have to travel to Cuba—just head to the Sausalito Seahorse on Sunday night and dance to the sounds of Orquesta La Moderna Tradición.

The original group was founded in the early ’90s by Tregar Otton, a violinist, along with several other original members of the band, and Robert Borrell, a well-known Cuban instrumentalist and dancer from Havana, who had hundreds of dance students who needed a place to dance. At that time, the band played mostly danzón music, which was derived from the music brought to Cuba from Haiti in the late 1700s. Orquesta is one of the only bands in the world that still plays this kind of music.

Along with playing violin, Otton arranges the music and manages the band. He says that when Borrell left around 1995, he took the band in another direction. “Danzón is mostly instrumental,” Otton says by telephone from his home in Pacifica, “so we got some other Cubans in the group and changed the focus from mostly danzónes to include other types of Cuban music.”

Otton says that one of the things that makes them unique is the variety of music they play. “A lot of salsa bands—the tempos and style of music is real similar,” Otton says.  “But you come hear us and we will play fast stuff and then we’ll throw in a danzón, which is slower and more elegant than a cha cha cha.”

Another thing that sets Orquesta apart is that they do a variation on the traditional salsa band instrumentation—conga drums, timbales, hand percussion, piano, bass, a rhythm section and vocalists. Otton says that most Cuban salsa bands use trumpets and brass, whereas Orquesta features two violins and a clarinet, giving them a much sweeter, mellower sound. “But the music does groove and does have a strong Afro-Cuban influence,” he adds.

Orquesta La Moderna Tradición plays at the Seahorse on Sunday, Feb. 9 (and the first Sunday of every month) from 5-10pm; $10; 305 Harbor View Drive, Sausalito; 415/331-2899.

Zulu Spear expresses passion for peace

Zulu Spear often performs in traditional African costumes.

by Lily O’Brien

When Zulu Spear burst onto the Bay Area music scene in the 1980s, there was simply no other band like it. Originally founded by South African expatriate singer, composer and dancer Sechaba Mokeoena and fellow South African singer, percussionist and dancer Gideon Bendile, Zulu Spear was one of the first groups to perform world beat/South African roots music–introducing traditional South African “mbaqanga” rhythms and harmonies, and mixing them with American rock and blues.

Bendile, who had been traveling the world with Ipi Ntombi, a South African musical, was in Las Vegas when the tour ended. “He [Mokeoena] called me when I was in Vegas to come and join him. So I came here and we became partners,” Bendile says by telephone from his Santa Rosa home. We all came from the show and ended up in the Bay Area, and that’s when we formed Zulu Spear.”

But the real story behind the band is historical. Back in the ’80s, apartheid was brutally being enforced in South Africa, and Zulu Spear wanted to call attention to the atrocities. “We were focused on apartheid,” Bendile says. “Very few people knew what was going on in South Africa … we were singing freedom songs … and we were asking Americans to put on sanctions—and they did, and thank God for that.”

In fact, when the late South African President Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum in 1990, Zulu Spear performed for him­—and a crowd of more than 60,000 people. “We played our music and that’s when we saw that what we did, had worked,” Bendile says. “We saw our leader right here in front of our eyes.”

Known for both musically and visually exciting shows—many of the members wear Zulu warrior outfits—Zulu Spear has toured all over the world, sharing the stage with groups like Ladysmith Black Mombasa, the Neville Brothers, Dave Brubeck and even the Grateful Dead.

The band has had many incarnations, and recently went into the studio to record a new album, Dancing in the Jungle, with five of the original members: Ron Vanleeuwarde (guitar and vocals), Matthew Lacques (guitar), Jerome Leondard (drums), Morgan Nhlapo (vocals, dance) and new member, Pope Flynn (congas and percussion). Bendile says that they would like to tour again, but that this time, the music is being inspired by something different. “Now we are singing mostly about peace and ‘Ubuntu’ (human kindness),” Bendile says. “I am passionate about it … because there is a lot of greed and corruption and there is a lot of war, so we are all about peace now.”

Zulu Spear performs on Friday, August 28 from 6-9pm at Pacheco Plaza, 366 Ignacio Blvd., Novato. Free. 415/883-4648; pachecoplaza.com.

Mads Tolling blends jazz and classical

Last February, Mads Tolling performed ‘Begestring,’ a jazz violin concerto he composed, with the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

by Lily O’Brien

Jazz and classical music might seem like a strange combination to some, but if you listen to it, the result is quite provocative. And Mads Tolling, a classically trained violinist who has earned international recognition for his work as a jazz/classical/rock fusion performer, is currently at the forefront of this innovative and ever-expanding genre.

“I think in classical and jazz, as opposed to a lot of other styles, you are really taking the instrument and playing it to the extreme—as far as what’s possible technically,” Tolling, 35, says by phone. “Certainly there is very much of a different aesthetic when it comes to the written note—in jazz you are supposed to mess with that and in classical the written note is kind of gospel and you don’t mess with it—so in that way they are different, but I think that’s kind of the fascination between the two sides.”

Tolling, who moved from his native Denmark to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, began playing violin at age 6; after hearing Miles Davis at 15, he was hooked on jazz. Listening to jazz violinists like Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen inspired Tolling’s direction, and he grabbed the attention of jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

Tolling has since worked and recorded with an impressive roster of jazz musicians, including the groundbreaking jazz fusion group Turtle Island Quartet, which earned two Grammy Awards in ’06 and ’08 for Best Classical Crossover album.

These days, Tolling performs with his own group—The Mads Tolling Quartet—and with another version of it, the Mads Men, which puts a new spin on ’60s TV show and movie theme songs. “It was a great period of time in music history when everything changed—music kind of became art and it moved to another place,” Tolling says of the Mad Men era.

The musician, who says that many people have a hard time connecting with jazz, feels that crossover music can help them understand it better.

“[Jazz is] a bit too cerebral for them and it’s a little bit intimidating, too, because they don’t understand what’s going on, and I think some of these tunes provide the right kind of vehicle for an exchange to go on with the audience that would otherwise be a little tougher to have.”

The Mads Tolling Quartet performs Friday, August 14 at the Marin Country Mart’s Friday Night Jazz Concerts; 2257 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur; 6-9pm; free. For more information, call 415/461-5700, or visit marincountrymart.com/calendar.

If you have a blank wall screaming for color, you're in luck.

by Lily O’Brien

Celebrate your inner and outer artist at the 22nd annual Marin Open Studios the first two weekends in May. This exciting, inspiring and free event lets you tour the studios of more than 270 local Marin artists—from painters to sculptors to jewelers to stained-glass artisans. You not only get to see really cool stuff, but you get to meet and chat with the artists who created the work, and purchase those pieces you just can’t live without. This is a do-it-yourself tour, so you can see as many—or as few—as your art heart desires.

A Marin Open Studios gallery exhibition will be held April 21 through May 10, 11am-6pm, Tuesday-Sundays at 302 Bon Air Center, Greenbrae.

Marin Open Studios: Saturday and Sunday, May 2-3, artist studios in south and central Marin. Saturday and Sunday May 9-10, artist studios in west and north Marin. 11am-6pm. For more information and to get the free MOS Artist Tour Guide, visit marinopenstudios.org or call 415/343-5667

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There are countless things to love about Marin County—from its thriving art, theater, film and music events, to its food scene, to its natural beauty. Our...