Dina Maccabee: A string queen departs

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For East Bay native Dina Maccabee, it’s the end of hometown ubiquity. Since moving back to California in the mid 1990s after studying at the University of Michigan, the violinist, violist and vocalist has played in an array of bands, from the dizzying world-bluegrass of Japonize Elephants to the lush folk pop of her duo with multi-instrumentalist Jesse Olsen, Ramon and Jessica. But graduate school has coaxed her away and she says farewell to the Bay Area with a series of performances over the next week, including a solo set Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Subterranean Arthouse (on a double bill with accordionist, pianist and saw player Dan Cantrell), and Aug. 15 with Real Vocal String Quartet at the UC Botanical Garden’s Concerts in the Redwood Grove series on a double bill with the jazzy roots band Tin Cup Serenade.

At a time when adventurous string players are reshaping musical currents in New York and Boston, Maccabee has been part of an elite cadre of conservatory-trained Bay Area players who range freely across an array of traditions. Drawn to Wesleyan University by the presence of heavyweights like composer Anthony Braxton and sound artist Paula Matthusen, she’ll be studying composition.

“It’s something I’ve been contemplating for several years,” Maccabee says. “Now that I figured out I like writing music and I have some on-the-job experience it seemed like a good time to learn from some creative mentors. It’s exciting that Anthony Braxton is there, and the big factor is the world music program. I’m not going to be in ethnomusicology, but I love lots of different kinds of music.”


Maccabee has significant Berkeley roots. Her parents met at Cal as grad students, and they moved to Walnut Creek around the time she was born. A graduate of College Prep in Oakland, she worked at Rasputin’s and lived for a while in Le Chateau, the infamous and unlamented UC student co-op. She’s composed scores for Shotgun Players, and has long been a regular presence in Berkeley venues.

For Thursday’s Subterranean show, Maccabee plays a rare solo set for violin and voice focusing on songs she wrote while composer in residence last year at the Byrdcliffe Artist Colony in Woodstock. Her solo repertoire also includes her arrangements of songs by the likes of Elliott Smith and Pinback, but the bulk of her solo material is a loosely interlinked body of work “inspired by the atmosphere of a creaky, haunted old farm house,” she says.

“At Byrdcliffe I lived in what had been ice house for an old estate, surrounded by forest. There was no Internet in the studio, and my phone didn’t work, and the only sounds were trains coming by, the rain, these crazy loud crickets, and this very loud electric fan. It was either on, or off, in which case it was way too hot and stuffy.”

While the solo material offers an outlet for Maccabee’s singer/songwriter muse, Real Vocal String Quartet is a roomy vehicle for her variegated musical interests, which range from old Cajun songs and Brazilian choro, to psychogenic Tropicalia, blues and pop. Since coming together about eight years ago the group has gained international exposure, particularly through a collaboration with Canadian singer/songwriter Feist on her 2011 album Metals. Founded by Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer, the quartet has also gained considerable attention at home with high profile gigs like last month’s spot at Stern Grove opening for Kronos Quartet.

Maccabee isn’t counting on maintaining a bi-coastal presence for the next two years, but as an irreplaceable creative catalyst for many of her peers, her absence is going to be palpable. At this point, Real Vocal isn’t contemplating a replacement, and she foresees no end to her partnership with Jesse Olsen in Ramon and Jessica, which has thrived despite the fact they’ve lived in different cities for the past decade. With a grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music they’re at work on an extended a cappella piece based on Gertrude Stein’s children’s book The World Is Round.

“A lot of colleagues have been willing to go on a wait and see basis, to see whether I’ll be totally swamped, working through the weekends,” Maccabee says. “From what I’ve learned it sounds like it’s as hard as you make it, and I tend to make things as hard or intense as I can.”

Recommended Gig

Doug Carn. Photo: Jazz Music Archives
Doug Carn. Photo: Jazz Music Archives

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Hammond B-3 organist Doug Carn recorded several albums for Los Angeles-based Black Jazz Records, cosmic soul jazz sessions that became eagerly sought after collector’s items. At a time when the organ was fading as a populist force in jazz, he offered up a spacious new sound. Out of sight for much of the past three decades, he plays Friday at Freight & Salvage with a top-shelf Bay Area band featuring guitar maestro Calvin Keys, Berkeley tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, and irrepressibly swinging drummer Deszon Claiborne.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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