Asked to name four or five of the most important Bay Area venues where musicians can try out new concepts and even savvy music fans are likely to overlook Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective. But with two acts a day Tuesday through Saturday, the informal setting has proven to be an invaluable proving ground for acts like internationally acclaimed jazz crooner Ed Reed, the versatile blues combo Kickin’ The Mule, and most recently the incandescent Latin American songsters Cascada de Flores.
Celebrating the upcoming release of a gorgeous new album, Radio Flor, the duo of vocalist Arwen Lawrence and guitarist Jorge Liceaga perform Saturday at Freight & Salvage with a bevy of close collaborators, including percussionist Brian Rice, bassist Saul Sierra-Alonso, and Marco Diaz on piano and trumpet.
Founded in 1999 with the mission of celebrating the classic songs of Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico from the first half of the 20th century, Cascada de Flores originally featured the lush vocal harmonies of Lawrence and Sabra Weber. The mission hasn’t changed, but since Weber relocated to Santa Barbara a few years ago the group’s sound has naturally evolved to focus on the Richmond couple’s telegraphic interplay, with Liceaga’s passionate guitar and backup vocals accompanying Lawrence’s lustrous voice.
Due out in July, Radio Flor is the group’s forth release. The second half of Saturday’s Freight show features the VL Trio with Sierra-Alonso, Diaz, and percussionist Carlos Caro (with a closing number or two featuring all the musicians). For Lawrence, who cut her teeth in musically prim concert settings, the Cheese Board provided an ideal setting to loosen up.
“Once I became a performer I was already on this big stage, but at Cheese Board I was allowed this casualness I never had before,” Lawrence said.
She notes that Liceaga’s background in flamenco and the other musicians’ training in jazz leaves them well equipped for making musical decisions on the fly, a skill that she’s started to acquire too. Liceaga is particularly pleased to be included in the Cheese Board’s musical fold, along with the blues, jazz, soul, and Latin jazz acts. “The Cheese Board opened the door to the musicians’ community,” he said. “They pay the musicians and respect them.”
Featuring heart-on-the-sleeve boleros, celebratory Cuban country music, and earthy Mexican son, Radio Flor puts a new frame around the fertile musical map that Cascada de Flores has explored from the beginning. While today Cuba and Mexico seem like different worlds, divided by disparate political and economic systems, for most of their post-conquest history the two nations were not only part of the Spain’s new world empire, they were closely linked by a constant flow of people, trade and culture.
Like on the group’s critically hailed 2002 album Puente a la Mar, the group highlights the Cuban roots of much Mexican music, particularly trova, a broad category of popular song styles that include sones, boleros, guarachas, puntos and habaneras. It started as working class music, created by laborers on the eastern side of the island where Spanish, mestizo and African laborers mixed and blended various musical forms and rhythms. Constant travel between Cuba and Mexico’s Caribbean coast, particularly Veracruz and the Yucatan Peninsula, brought the music to the mainland, where it flourished. At the same time that the music transcended borders, it was put to use by governments seeking to shore up shifting national identities.
“There was this idea of nationalism in both countries, while at the same time they were ignoring that and the music was flowing back and forth,” Lawrence said. “The role of the radio was so important in how fast the music moved. Cubans were doing things that Mexicans considered very much theirs, and there’s still arguments today.”
Whatever a song’s origins for Liceaga and Lawrence tunes like “Estrella Solitaria” and “Como Fue” are akin to the American Songbook standards of Berlin, Porter and Gershwin. They want to make sure that the vital cultural heritage of Latin American popular songs and traditional tunes doesn’t get lost in the United States.
“People in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico, they’re learning the oral tradition from their fathers, mothers,” Liceaga says. “But here we have a problem. We don’t have the opportunity to grow up and listen, and that’s why we’re looking more and more closely at what happened in the past to absorb the ideas.”
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.
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