San Francisco vocalist, pianist, and composer Camille Mai leads her band Rebirth Canal at the Back Room on Sunday. Photo: Ria Burman.

What’s most striking when Camille Mai talks about music is her insistence on keeping every door open. A pianist, vocalist, composer, and leader of the band Rebirth Canal, Mai has created a protean body of songs infused with Latin American rhythms filtered through an abiding affection for the slinky grooves of the late, pervasively influential producer J Dilla. But that’s just the rhythmic foundation of a sound that can encompass traditional Vietnamese modes, jazz improvisation and harmonies, French chanson and beyond. Rebirth Canal plays the Back Room on Sunday.

“When you start to define yourself in concrete terms is when you stop growing. Miles reinvented himself a billion times,” Mai says, referring to the ever-evolving trumpet legend Miles Davis. “I love the process of thinking of a song, starting to compose, staying open to how things can sound, and figuring out what would fit really well.”

Rebirth Canal — she nicked the name from a book by visual artist and writer Alex Grey — draws on a polyglot pool of talent. The edition she brings to Berkeley includes Cuban bassist Yadier Noa Chamble, Daniel Riera on electronic wind instrument (EWI) and flute, Nicaraguan-American percussionist Ahkeel Andres Mestayer, and Salvadoran-American drummer Marcelo Pérez, a graduate of Berkeley High.

In many ways Mai’s wide-open sensibility flows from her cosmopolitan upbringing. Born in Mountain View and raised as a child in Palo Alto, she was 11 when her parents relocated to Paris, where her Vietnamese mother was born. Mai studied piano and taught herself to improvise on a keyboard with a MIDI program that allowed her to create her own orchestrations. She harbored serious ambitions to work as a composer, though she didn’t have a clear idea of what that would entail.

“As a kid I thought the way that worked is you owned a store and people came in to buy your scores,” she says. “I was always playing piano and singing. I think it’s natural for everyone to sing to express your emotions and it gets repressed so we’re not singing all the time.”

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In high school Mai started leading a jazz trio and found some work gigging around the city with another ensemble. Looking to return to California, she moved back in 2011 to study at the California College of the Arts and earned a degree in illustration. Plunging into the roiling Occupy movement,  she connected with a disparate cadre of fellow musicians, including Iranian percussionist Shahab Paranj, who was studying composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Working as a host at the Red Poppy Art House greatly expanded her musical network, but it was Mai’s 2014 stint as artist in residence at the invaluable Mission District performance space that really established her as a new voice on the Bay Area scene. She first gained attention with the band The View From Bernal Hill, which featured an extended group of San Francisco musicians supporting Mai, Argentine guitarist Nahuel Bronzini, and bassist Schuyler Karr. Over the course of the Red Poppy residency she honed a collection of mysterious and baroque songs combining odd-meter rock, chamber jazz harmonies, and hip-hop lyricism.

“They really nurtured me as an artist,” she says. “Working there as a host I got to know an amazing community, a really international group of artists from all continents. My band was part of this artist development track and people would come in and talk about different aspects of being an artist, not just the creative side but about making a living.”

In recent years she’s been absorbing an array of rhythms from South America and the Caribbean, particularly Brazil and Cuba. Living with Daniel Riera, the music director of the sprawling Latin music collective Soltron, provided a regular dose of Caribbean soul.

Camille Mai and Daniel Riera with electronic wind instrument. Photo: Ria Burman.

“They were rehearsing at our house every week, so salsa and cumbia and everything else got deep in my ears,” she says, noting that the band also brought her into the orbit of Oakland percussion maestro John Santos and producer Greg Landau (who boast seven and eight Grammy nominations, respectively), who collaborated with her on her most recent recordings.

She launched Rebirth Canal three years ago, but after the recording sessions with Santos and Landau she put performing on hiatus to deal with an onset of chronic pain. After several years of intensive yoga and searching for the right meds she’s ready to get back on stage. Rather than feeling rusty “not being able to play allowed me to listen to a lot of music and I think I improved a lot,” she says. “All the yoga and mind/body stuff helped with my singing and allowed me to focus on my voice a lot.”

Her music has continued to evolve, too, through both addition and subtraction. While incorporating new sonic elements, particularly from traditional Vietnamese music, she’s also forgoing the complex rhythmic cycles in favor of dance floor-friendly groove.

“I love the J Dilla slump,” Mai says, referring to a distinctive rhythmic lilt Dilla created by combining elements of West Coast and Detroit hip hop (aka Calitroit). “If Vietnamese music has microtonal notes, Dilla’s feel is microrhythmic. I used to write with a lot of odd time rhythms, but after seeing Soltron a lot I feel like I want people to dance.”

Rebirth Canal brings the boogie to the Back Room on Sunday.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....