Where's the Bay Area Filipino-American Jazz Scene? Hiding in Plain Sight

The Autonomous Region plays the 9th Annual San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival Sunday afternoon at Vallejo’s Empress Theatre. Photo by Ted Jocson.

Okay, it's trivia time: What's the largest Asian-American community in California?

If you guessed Chinese Americans, you’d be wrong. Korean Americans? Nope. With a population of nearly 1.5 million and roots going back to the Spanish Empire’s dominion over Alto California, Filipino Americans have long outnumbered any other Asian-American group in this state.

A testament to the group's history here is the vast creativity and diversity of experience that falls under the umbrella of "Filipino American." Both will be on display this Sunday, Oct. 30 at the 9th Annual San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival at Vallejo’s Empress Theatre.

The quadruple bill features On the One, a teenage acid-jazz trio from Vallejo; Philippine-born Bay Area guitarist Raffy Lata; the reggae and soul San Francisco combo CRSB; and the Autonomous Region, a band that fuses jazz standards with kulintang, the pre-colonial percussion music of the Philippines. The event not only introduces these acts to new audiences, it serves as a forum for a disparate and multi-generational cast of artists to discover each other’s work.

“We’ve never shared the stage with these folks,” says Autonomous Region vocalist Caroline Cabading, a veteran jazz and R&B belter who also spent two decades touring and performing with the recently departed kulintang master Danny Kalanduyan.

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“It’s an interesting definition of jazz, a celebration of the different kinds of voices of Filipino Americans," says Cabading. "Raffy Lata is a self-taught player who’s almost a classical guitarist. CRSB is a popular world music reggae ensemble and our set is built to segue from tribal work and straight ahead jazz into a more fun, jazz direction that will set the stage for them.”

It might be overstating it to say that Filipino Americans constitute a secret force driving culture and politics in California, but the community’s influence is often overlooked and underappreciated by outsiders (on the page, Filipino Americans are easily mistaken for Latinos due to the frequency of Spanish surnames).

Filipino Americans played a crucial but oft-forgotten role in the historic 1965 United Farm Workers strike, as Lisa Morehouse reported in an award-winning piece for KQED's California Report last year. A generation later, Filipino Americans musicians were in the thick of the action launching the politically charged Asian-American jazz movement, contributions often overshadowed because the best known bandleaders were Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent.

One reason harmonica ace Carlos Zialcita and his wife, vocalist Myrna Zialcita, decided to launch the San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival was to create a forum for artists to connect with the Filipino American community in a non-commercial context. Born in the Philippines, Zialcita grew up hearing American rock and R&B, but he fell in love with the blues after moving to San Francisco as a teenager in the late 1950s. He paid dues as a harp player with heavyweights like T-Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton, and eventually took up the chromatic harmonica and started studying jazz.

He already had a long track record of infusing R&B with Filipino consciousness, both through his band El Dorado and sideman work with the great San Francisco singer Sugar Pie DeSanto (who will receive a lifetime achievement award at the event). But Zialcita says he experienced an epiphany when he first heard Los Angeles jazz vocalist Charmaine Clamor reinvent the Rodgers and Hart standard “My Funny Valentine” as “My Funny Brown Pinay.”

San Francisco R&B great Sugar Pie DeSanto receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival on Sunday.
San Francisco R&B great Sugar Pie DeSanto will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival on Sunday.

“Charmaine turned my head around,” Zialcita says. “I got the vision to do that music and shortly there after formed Little Brown Brother with Ben Luis. For the first festival, we got a little bit of seed money from the Filipino American National Historical Society and presented vibraphonist Nerio Degracia. From the beginning we’ve really juggled representing American-born Filipinos, Americanized Filipinos like me and more recently arrived people.”

Caroline Cabading’s family arrived in the Bay Area in the first years of the 20th century, and her vision of kul jazz brings together her disparate musical experiences. She founded the Autonomous Region with Conrad Benedicto, a fellow alumni of Danny Kalanduyan’s touring kulintang ensemble, to serve as the house band for I-Hotel's Club Mandalay pop-up jazz club in 2015. "It was a community engagement project," she says. "To provide the community with access to music and tribal rhythms, poetry and spoken word, and make sure a whole family could afford it."

Part of what makes the festival such a protean event is that it casts a net as wide and encompassing as the Filipino-American experience. As fluid as identity itself, the music flows from California’s multicultural crucible where traditional rhythms can merge with jazz rhythms, soul refrains and hip-hop cadences.

“Someone was asking what Filipino-American music meant, and I said it can be whatever a Filipino-American person wants it to be,” Cabading says. “It’s an aesthetic, not just singing American standards with Tagalog lyrics. In my definition, it would have to bring in our pre-colonial and colonial influences. Like when you talk about African-American jazz, historically, that’s something that exits here. There are things that are beautiful that can only happen in America.”

The 9th Annual Filipino American Jazz Festival begins at 2pm on Sunday, Oct. 30 at the Empress Theatre, 330 Virginia Street in Vallejo. Tickets ($15 - $65) here

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