Review of the 4th Annual San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival: A Sunday Kind of Love

Tiny - Posted on 17 October 2011

Dahil Sa Iyo—Lena Sunday’s voice weaved through the syllables—unfamiliar vowels and consonants—slowly becoming familiar and vibrant like the sweet fragrance of Sampaguita—blooming into the centerpiece of the 4thannual San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival at Yoshi’s, located in San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District.  Sunday, a gifted singer and daughter of a Filipina mother and African American father shared with the audience that she did not learn Tagalog growing up, that her Filipino identity was something she was still embracing and claiming as her own.  Lena Sunday’s rendition of the classic Filipino love song, dedicated to her mother, was one of many heartfelt moments for jazz kababayans and community members to listen to, remember and celebrate in the month of October—Filipino American History Month—highlighting the Fillmore’s Filipino roots, Filipino Jazz performers and their contributions to the African American gift which is jazz. 


The San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival is in its 4thyear celebrating and showcasing outstanding and world class Filipino jazz artists from both the US and the Philippines. The festival has featured artists including Mon David, Primo Kim, John Calloway, Tateng Katindig, Sandra Viray and Jo Canion. The founders and organizers of the festival are Carlos and Myrna Zialcita—2 musicians whose marriage reflects their love of sharing music and culture—a love that gave birth to the festival. Being immersed in the music business they saw many talented Filipino jazz musicians whose gifts were not being exposed—underappreciated in roles as side musicians, not being afforded opportunities to shine as headliners.  The festival is their effort—in tandem with community educators, activists—to showcase these talented Filipino jazz musicians and vocalists to a wider audience. 


The journey to Yoshi’s—a major jazz venue on the West Coast—followed a year of events featuring Filipino jazz performers including a concert commemorating Jazz Appreciation Month, The Asian Heritage Street Celebration, the “People in the Plaza Concert Series” and various events throughout the Bay Area.  “It took a year for us to get the festival to Yoshi’s” said Myrna Zialcita.  “There are so many Filipino musicians that are world class—musicians that need to be heard”. 


It is befitting that the festival be hosted in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, home of many Filipino families that settled in the neighborhood in the 1920s.  Among those families were the Robles and Sorro families—large families whose lives were inspired by the sounds of jazz coming from clubs like Jimbo’s Bop City and the Blackhawk.  Poet Al Robles—widely regarded as the Poet Laureate of San Francisco’s Manilatown and who was honored by the Festival in 2009—paid homage to  Pinoy jazzmen Charlie Abing and Flip Nunez—two musicians with deep ties to the Filipino community and who paved the way for Filipino musicians to follow. 

Bill Sorro, activist and community leader who would later be a central figure in the struggle to fight the eviction of Filipino elders from the International Hotel, was inspired by jazz in his physical being—becoming a dancer—with a goal of joining the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.   The Fillmore was home to African American families, Filipino families, mixed families that were both Filipino and black, as well as Japanese American and other multiracial families.  One legendary performer who grew up in the Fillmore to Black and Filipino parents was Sugar Pie DeSanto—who Carlos Zialcita has performed and toured with and has lobbied for induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.  So inspired was Al Robles by this African American art form, this language that touched his life that he wrote:


                                    Sometimes my heart is Filipino

                                    Sometimes my heart is black

                                    And sometimes my heart is Filipino and black

                                    At the same time


The language of jazz is the language of heartbreak, struggle, survival and resistance.  The Fillmore was a neighborhood under attack in the 50s and 60s.  Slowly the neighborhood was demolished to make way for redevelopment—the idea being that the neighborhood was blighted and needed to be cleaned up.  Many families were forced out—mostly low income families of color.  Beautiful Victorian houses were demolished.  The antique dealers with their affluent clientele from Marin County converged on those abandoned houses—taking door knobs, banisters, and fixtures—anything that could be sold.  The landscape was bulldozed and scarred but the sound of jazz remained—nothing could erase its memory deep in the soil and in the concrete canvasses where songs and scores were yet to be composed.    


The event was a homecoming, anchored by the music of the Pinoy Jazz Quartet—whose passionate playing and relaxed presence showed deference and respect to the audience—a multicultural gumbo of jazz lovers, friends, elders, youth—a multiethnic Bay Area audience who came out en masse to support the gifts of our community within the spacious yet intimate setting of Yoshi’s.  The quartet included long time musicians Ben Luis on bass, Rey Cristobal on piano, Melecio Magdaluyo on sax and flute and Richard Aguon on drums. Their range was impressive, expertly handling standards from the great American songbook, as well as classics and fusion. 


San Francisco born vocalist Lena Sunday wowed the audience with her vocal prowess on songs such as “Centerpiece” and “Throw it away”—showing why she was the featured singer in Lou Rawl’s band for 4 years, as well as a session singer/songwriter for artists such as Stevie Wonder and Nancy Wilson.  Her self-effacing presence was engaging and refreshing in a world of self-absorbed lesser performers who are too often given the label of “diva.”


Millbrae based, world class vocalist Ann Marie Santos revved up the audience with classics such as “Love for Sale” and “It don’t mean a thing (If it ain’t got that swing)”.  Santos, who started singing at the age of 6 and has toured and performed all over Asia, is a returning performer to the Festival, having appeared in 2009, performing a duet with Mon David, bringing down the house in the event’s finale. Her passionate performance prompted host Carlos Zialcita to declare, “Somebody call the fire department ‘cause it’s getting real hot in here”.  Her rendition of “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life” got me teary eyed (but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one).


Pianist Winston Raval shared his gifts—which include being a pioneer in the area of jazz fusion as well as a band leader and musical director.  His playing struck an emotional chord that somehow connects jazz with our indigenous past.  Raval is a pioneer in connecting jazz with indigenous Filipino instruments bringing about—what Myrna Zialcita describes as “A redefinition of what jazz means.  You can’t keep people’s influence from coming into the genre.  When you bring your culture into jazz, you add it to that gumbo.”  Winston Raval is an extremely accomplished musician, having written the scores to 23 films in the Philippines.  During the evening, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the Festival.  His humor was not lost on the honor—in introducing the song “Who Can I turn To (When nobody needs me)”—he changed the title to “Who can I turn to when your GPS is driving you crazy.”


Annie Brazil showed why she is called “Asia’s Queen of Jazz.”  Her style and repertoire is classic and classy—her songs coming from the Great American songbook.  Singing since the age of  6, she grew up in the district of San Miguel near Malacanang Palace and has performed all over the world.  She performed with bands led by Iggy De Guzman, Pepe Merto, Cesar Velasco and Ding Yalung.  Brazil ran clubs and booked acts which brought her into contact with American jazz performers. She jammed with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, James Moody, Ellis Marsalis and Sarah Vaughn.  When asked about Billy Eckstine, she once said, “I bow to Billy Eckstine.”  Her unique voice nailed timeless songs such as “Satin Doll,”  “Smile,” and a medley of Tagalog songs.  The 78 year old Brazil recently released an album of classic songs with new arrangements, produced by her son, vocalist Richard Merck.  Currently based in New York, she continues to perform regularly.


The festival honored Annie Brazil, Winston Raval and Bob Parlocha with lifetime achievement awards.  Parlocha, a native of Vallejo and son of a Filipino father and Afro Filipino mother, is a musician and was music director for legendary radio station KJAZ, was affectionately spoken of for his radio programming and knowledge of jazz—a genre that he celebrated on his syndicated program “Jazz with Bob Parlocha”—a program that is aired in both the US and Canada. 


The close of the show featured the three vocalists on stage together, singing in the scatting style that is beyond words but is all feeling.  And the feeling was that we were at home—in the Fillmore, in the heart of jazz, in the heart of our story that is in a big pot of gumbo and rice and adobo--that pot of jazz in which Filipino musicians have added their own flavor to the many flavors that it is. 


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