Berkeley’s Destani Wolf, ‘soul’ of Cirque du Soleil show, will sing at Orinda amphitheater

Wolf, a 1994 Berkeley High graduate who starred in Cirque du Soleil’s “Bazzar,” is opening the first of two shows by the Rebirth Brass Band at Bruns Amphitheater on July 3.

After a two-year run starring in Cirque du Soleil’s “Bazzar,” Destani Wolf’s international career was grounded by the pandemic. She plays her first show since arriving back home July 3, opening for Rebirth Brass Band at Bruns Amphitheater. Credit: Gabriel Noble

As the ringmaster of the Cirque du Soleil show Bazzar, Destani Wolf had just finished a month-long run in the Dominican Republic when the pandemic promptly put the kibosh on her fantastical world.

After two years on the road performing in India, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Berkeley vocalist was days away from making her Bazzar premiere on U.S. soil with a three-city tour opening in New Orleans.

“We had a crew already there who had set up our tent, but within a couple of days they realized it was not going to happen, and life completely changed,” said Wolf during a recent Zoom call from Mexico, where family from both sides of the border were gathering for a reunion.

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Now life is changing again, and in a fitting return to the stage Wolf has found another spectacular setting for her music, opening the first of two shows by the Rebirth Brass Band at Bruns Amphitheater on July 3 (The Funky Gators open for the storied New Orleans combo July 4).

While treasuring the time at home with her husband and two kids, Wolf has been immersed in music throughout the pandemic, performing several live streams and recording and releasing a new original song, “Dandelion Dream Girl.” It’s an uplifting anthem she wrote in response to both the isolation imposed by the pandemic and the explosion of protest and activism around Black Lives Matter.

Joined at Bruns by a potent band featuring keyboardist Kevin Wong, bassist Uriah Duffy, guitarist Sam Wright, saxophonist Tony Peebles and Booker T Jones drummer Darian Gray, she’s presenting “some new songs I’ve never released and covers that will be joyous,” Wolf said. “I’ll be delving into my blues side. I’m so excited to open for Rebirth for my first show back. They bring such fire and so much fun. This is a show for everyone, for all of us to be together outside under the trees together.”

The weekend run at Bruns, which opens Friday night with a sold-out performance by Taj Mahal, concludes a spate of recent shows produced by Paper Moon Presents, which is run by Berkeley couple Matt Lawsky and Luna Oxenberg. They’re better known as the force behind Taylor Street Production, a long-time event presenter deeply involved in managing production at the UC Theater. Oxenberg also produces the afternoon concerts on the Downtown BART Plaza funded by the Downtown Business Association, a series that started up again following the state’s June 15 reopening.

“We’re always looking for more local artists,” Lawsky said.

He and Oxenberg created Paper Moon Productions when Cal Shakes started making Bruns Amphitheater available to other organizations. Theatergoers have long been familiar with the gorgeous Orinda venue tucked away in the Berkeley Hills, “but a lot of music fans don’t know it exists,” Lawsky said. “It’s such a magical space that’s always presented top-notch theater, and we’re bringing a completely different kind of performance.”

Including Wolf on the Rebirth bill “seemed like a great fit,” he said. “Destani has so much energy and spirit. She’s exactly the kind of artist we want to present. She’s deeply local and yet worldwide, which is so Berkeley. I bring my kids to the playground at Willard and you hear six different languages. This was a chance to do both to present this amazing New Orleans band and a great Berkeley artist.”

Bruns Amphitheater has become one of the Bay Area’s most inviting music venues. ALO performed there on June 4, 2021, in an engagement produced by Berkeley’s Paper Moon Presents. Credit: Tom Lyon

Growing up in a musical family with Mexican roots, Wolf didn’t waste much time waiting for the spotlight to find her. She made her debut as a performer at 14 with the ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds. After graduating from Berkeley High in 1994 she moved south to study at Cal State Long Beach and she’s been traveling up and down the coast ever since.

In the Bay Area she became a ubiquitous presence across a range of idioms through her work with Latin hip-hop combo O-Maya (which also  performed as AguaLibre) and a six-year stint in the a capella ensemble SoVoSó. She recorded with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and contributed memorably to John Santos’s 2003 Grammy Award-nominated album S.F. Bay.

Her profile on the Bay Area scene diminished considerable when she relocated to L.A. soon after the project with Santos, but work opportunities abounded in the Southland. While recording several projects of her own she also collaborated with artists such as Shuggie Otis, Alice Russell, Zap Mama, Talib Kweli, and producer Jose Rizo, with whom she was nominated for a Grammy for the 2011 Latin jazz album Mongorama.

Cirque du Soleil offered a very different kind of challenge. Her sumptuous voice, luminous stage presence and regal bearing provided the seeds for a new show. Wolf wasn’t so much the star of Bazzar as its presiding spirit, providing an emotional center to the spectacle more than a narrative thread. Part of every Bazzar song but two, she’s a guiding presence through the eclectic score, which includes “indie pop, folk, electronica, and reggae,” she said. “It was totally made for me. The director would say I was soul of the show. I had my own moment, opening the second set by myself, but a lot of what I do is highlighting these amazing circus skills.”

Will she hit the road again with Cirque? With its international empire suddenly shuttered by the pandemic, the Montreal-based company reorganized its finances last year and announced in April that it’s reopening its two longest-running live shows in Las Vegas this weekend, O and Mystère. There’s talk, she said, that Bazzar will be back next year, but whatever happens, Wolf credits Cirque Du Soleil with honing her resilience.

“One thing working with circuses will teach you is you have to go with the moment, whatever happens,” she said. “My heart is in the show. The composer wrote the songs based on my voice. I loved the cast, and the whole thing was a beautiful experience. In the meantime, let me just create things here and be with my community in the Bay Area. I want to take our Bay Area music and let the world hear that.”

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.