With nine members currently blending Afro Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds and dance moves, Califa certainly refrains from limiting itself. The new Los Angeles-based ensemble – which features members of Fishtank Ensemble, Plotz, and Ballet Asaneh – is something of a world music supergroup. It's a blend of other acts, and of live music, live dancing, and obscure instruments.
Still in its infancy (it formed in May 2011) Califa takes its first tour up the northern coast this week, with show stops in the Bay Area at Red Poppy Art House and Ashkenaz Music & Dance Center. I spoke with band member Ursula Knudson, who sings and plays theremin along with the occasional hand-held percussion instrument, on the eve of the tour and got the lowdown on Califa's origins, its interest in global music, and the group's desire to draw out movement in crowds.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: How did Califa form, and where does the group write its music?
Ursula Knudson: Originally the idea was to have a group of all women superstars who could sing, dance, and play instruments. We decided to have a mixed group because we knew we didn't want to limit the quality of the musician by sex – meaning if there was a kickass bass player that was female we'd take her but if there was an even better one who was a man, we wanted that choice as well.
Basically, we wanted our dream group. Different members of the group offer either arrangements or original compositions, and with nine people, there is a lot of choice! The original concept was [created by] our singer Rosa Rojas, and my husband Fabrice Martinez, also with Fishtank Ensemble, they were the two who dreamed up the group.
SFBG: Why did Califa decide to focus on the music of North and East Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East?
UK: Like I mentioned, this is intended to be our dream band, so even though those [sounds] are what we are focusing on now because it is our new interest, whatever else strikes anyone's fancy could be pursued later.
We wanted beautiful singers, rock players, traditional players, experimental plays, and it seems we are getting all of it! Right now we chose those regions because most of us have experience already with Balkan music or Middle Eastern music, we have a Morrocan in the band, and ever since I visited Senegal last year I have been in love with the music of West Africa.
SFBG: And are there personal connections with those regions within the band?
UK: Momo Loudiyi is from Morroco and plays sintir and got our violinist is playing bendir, and he brings an awesome North African love power vibe to the group. Four members of the group are in a band called the Plotz, which is like crazy Balkan time signature rock, and of course Fabrice and I are both in Fishtank Ensemble which is known to play a lot of Eastern European/Balkan music, so that is our connection as well. And Rosa Rojas, our other singer, has spent years studying the dances of the Silk Road and performed for a while with Ballet Afsaneh in Bay Area.
SFBG: How do you incorporate those styles into your music?
UK: We play some original songs composed by various members in certain ethnic styles (rhumba, a Ukrainian song that sounds slightly African, Momo's music) and also the Balkan and Middle Eastern songs, already in our repertoire, that we have arranged for this particular ensemble.
SFBG: Was it intentional to create a sound that encourages dance?
UK: Of course! The show should extend beyond the stage; it should encompass the whole room!
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