In the midst of a thriving practice as a musician, composer and arts presenter in Rome, Laura Inserra decided that a year or so in the Bay Area could offer a welcome change of scenery. That was 2007, and instead of returning home to Italy the North Berkeley resident has become an invaluable presence on the Bay Area arts scene, bringing evocative music to unusual settings.
A multi-instrumentalist who specializes in percussion, Inserra performs Saturday at the Subterranean Arthouse with BEL Trio, an improvisation-laced ensemble with a global sensibility featuring bassist Ben Levine and multi-instrumentalist Evan Fraser, best known for his work with Hamsa Lila and Beats Antique on kalimba, berimbau, calabash, and various frame drums.
While Inserra and Fraser collaborated for years as a duo, BEL Trio came together about seven months ago when Levine, who also plays with the alt-bluegrass band Honeywagon, brought his jazz training into the mix. “It was really interesting for us to combine our instruments and sonorities, to see how his elements came together with our world music,” Inserra says. “It was almost like a love at first sight. From that moment we thought let’s try to create a trio.”
The group debuted at the Berkeley Rose Labyrinth in Grace North Church, a resonant hall where Inserra’s arts organization Samavesha presents a regular concert series. Conceived as a vehicle for building community through creative collective encounters, Samavesha also produces several annual site-specific projects, including the Cave Concert Series in the Marin Headlands, the Art in Nature ~ The Nature of Art Festival in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, and the Create-With-Nature Earth Day Celebration at Stinson Beach (a collaboration with nature sculptor Zach Pine).
Inserra discovered the Rose Labyrinth when a student of hers told her about a beautiful room with a rose-patterned floor and acoustics that allow musicians to perform without amplification. She approached the space’s manager Jerry Cambra about presenting a concert, and got the OK for a March 2013 performance with Cornelius Boots and Mark Deutsch.
“I do love to find spaces that have certain personalities and create situations for those spaces,” Inserra says. “After the concert with Cornelius and Mark I started to do this series They’d never been using the room for performances. It’s the peace center for a church, this beautiful room with a rose labyrinth with the impact of a sacred space. It tunes the audience to a certain presence for deep listening.”
Inserra returns to the Rose Labyrinth on Aug. 2 for a solo concert with special guests. She’s probably best known around the Bay Area for her work on the Hang, a Swiss-made metal percussion instrument that looks something like a plump flying saucer from Mars Attacks! She acquired one in 2003 when she was performing around Rome playing percussion for dance productions.
“Most people when they see it fall in love,” Inserra says. “I had a chance to get one, and since then I’ve been playing it. People know me for it here, but it’s difficult to really identify with one instrument. Every instrument is about expressing part of me. I am the instrument. To me sound is everywhere. Sometimes I’ll play a door. Every instrument brings me into a world. And percussion is such a vast family.”
Born and raised in Sicily, Inserra experienced a childhood epiphany by surreptitiously playing her brother’s new guitar. “While he was sleeping, I remember tapping the guitar string with a pen,” she says. “That’s why I’m so connected to the sound itself, not the instrument.”
As a young teen she played bass guitar, percussion and studied piano for a year, but wasn’t emotionally invested until she discovered jazz and improvisation. She was largely self-taught but eventually decided to pursue more formal education and studied classical percussion at a conservatory. While playing implements she devised herself, she also learned to play and build an array of instruments, such as the West African djembe, Australian didgeridoo, and Indian bansuri.
Inserra moved to Rome in 1993 to study psychology, and started developing a multimedia vision that first found expression in her ambitious work Apologia della Gioia for a 30-member cast of musicians, actors, dancers, poets and performers. Rome provided numerous outlets for her expression, and Inserra created music for theater, dance performances, exhibitions and film soundtracks by award-winning composer Paolo Buonvino. Her cinematic experience makes itself felt in the spacious music of the BEL Trio.
“There are pieces we’ve composed together, and pieces that I bring in,” Inserra says. “We have more specific compositions and other pieces are structured improv, a jazz approach. You have a structure and leave space for new expression of the music depending on the day and audience.”
Trumpeter Billy Buss, a Berkeley High alum now based in Brooklyn, makes it back to the East Bay regularly and I’ve had several opportunities to talk with him for Berkeleyside. On Sunday afternoon, he performs as part of the California Jazz Conservatory Rising Stars Summer Concert Series with drummer Hamir Atwel, bassist Scotty Thompson, pianist Mike Aaberg, and rising alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, a New Yorker who recently placed third in the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition.
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