Pass the Aux: New Tracks by MaJo, Nenci, Jwalt, Avi Vinocur and Zyah Belle

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María José Montijo stands among the trees in the park nearby her home in Oakland, California. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Do you miss packing your friends into the car, playing your favorite tracks and dancing in your seat? Us too. Welcome to Pass the Aux, where every other week the KQED Arts & Culture team introduces you to new(ish) releases from Bay Area artists. Here’s what we have on deck.

María José Montijo (MaJo), “Lejos De Ti”

Amid the dreariness of mid-pandemic existence, Puerto Rican-born healer and musician María José Montijo (MaJo) offers a balm for shelter-in-place angst for anyone who’s been longing for that feeling of an old friend's embrace. With her latest independently released track and music video, “Lejos de Ti,” MaJo drops us into her sunlit childhood home in Puerto Rico, alive with hues of green and gold. Against a crescendo of strings and the slow bounce of drums, MaJo's echoes of “amor” fill the void of an empty house. Interstitials of familiar Bay Area artists light up the screen as she sings to each loved one across time and space: “Aquí, lejos de ti / seís pies de distancia / es demasiado / cuando quiero / tu abrazo.”

MaJo dances in place to her own rhythm, inviting us to bear witness to her solo rituals as she passes pandemic time in the virtual company of chosen family. And though the song immediately reminded me to send a text to that one-friend-I’ve-been-missing, MaJo also presents a powerful portrait of spending time in the company of ourselves—especially when friends feel far.—Lina Blanco


Avi Vinocur, “Tell John Prine Hello”

On April 7, the day John Prine’s death was announced, Avi Vinocur sat down at his typewriter and composed lyrics to a song titled “Donald Trump Killed John Prine”—an indictment of the Trump administration’s inaction to contain the novel coronavirus, and an ode to the brilliant songwriter whose life it squelched. Since Vinocur publicly posted the lyrics, the phrase “Donald Trump Killed John Prine” has become ubiquitous, and appeared on T-shirts, hoodies and bumper stickers, which may have inspired the San Francisco songsmith to change direction. On his latest album, Hindsight (“a set of songs about the year that was”), Vinocur opted not to record the song, and instead wrote a new one. “Tell John Prine Hello” is sung from the viewpoint of someone who knows exactly what'll happen after they die: they’ll ride on up to heaven, and find John Prine, and introduce themselves. Recorded like the rest of the album—on an iPhone—the song has an earthy, grounded feel, even as the ascending melody of the chorus evokes spiritual transport. A little bit like a John Prine song itself, actually.—Gabe Meline

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Jwalt, “The Taking”

Treading the line between classic ego rap and self awareness, 18-year-old rapper Jwalt strikes a rare and refreshing balance between pride in what he’s done and humility for how far he has left to go with his new single, “The Taking.” “It’s crazy they look at the gram / And they’ve seen what I’ve done / And they think that I made it,” he raps over a steady beat and flute loop. “When I go back to the town they look up to me / They want a pic like I’m famous.”

Reflecting on traveling between his hometown of Oakland and college town with the opening lines “Just landed back in the Bay a couple hours ago / It feels good to be home,” the New York University freshman offers us an honest look into his aspirations and the pressure he feels to make it—not just for himself, but for everyone watching. With acknowledgements from figures like the Bay Area’s own Mistah F.A.B. and the artist Logic, Jwalt’s future certainly is bright and he knows it.—Samuel Getachew


Nenci, “lydia”

The nymphs and mermaids in the feminist strip club of my imagination are pole dancing to “lydia” by Nenci, a down-tempo, undulating R&B track from the Oakland-based, Vallejo-raised artist. Out this week on San Francisco’s Text Me Records, the new song mixes an experimentalism that evokes the likes of Kelela and Yaeji with an alternative pop sensibility more akin to Rihanna’s ANTI. Throughout “lydia,” Nenci surprises her listeners with sneaky production tricks like footwork-esque drum fills, flute riffs, tempo changes and atmospheric, smoky synths that recall ’80s electronic music greats Art of Noise. (Oh yeah, did I mention she’s classically trained in flute?) An ode to her beloved, and centering queer love, “lydia” is bound to melt the hearts of women who love women—and those who love them.—Nastia Voynovskaya

Zyah Belle, “I Think I Love You”

Vallejo’s Zyah Belle just dropped an aesthetically pleasing, dream-like, nature-themed new visual for the track “I Think That I Love You.” The video features an a capella version of a single she originally released last year. Dropping content at her own pace is something the R&B and hip-hop artist talked about recently during a chat on Instagram live. While jumping rope, in between sets she spoke openly about choosing patience, retaining agency and putting out music when she deems the time is right.

Falling in line with that, Zyah dropped the aforementioned video, shot by Riley Brown. The song is a tale of that nerve-racking journey of honoring your feelings and cautiously expressing them to another person, and features Zyah’s ability to hit the high notes and spit rhythmic poetry. About halfway through showing off her vocals, she breaks into a bit of a rap, “Yeah, I know you had your heart broken a few times before / but this time we spend is lavish; no Audemar.”

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Coming off a year where she was featured on Terrace Martin’s Village Days project and E-40 and Too $hort’s joint album Ain’t Gone Do It / Terms and Conditions, Zyah started off 2021 by dropping a dance remix to “I Think That I Love You.” She says she doesn’t have immediate plans to drop anything else, but it’s pretty clear that she’s going to continue to publish her work as she pleases.—Pendarvis Harshaw