Farida Nelson. Credit: Tim Hill

Farida Nelson contains multitudes, which is part of why her one-woman show, “Farida’s Melodious Journey” traverses such a wide array of musical terrain. 

Presenting the Berkeley debut of her solo act this Saturday at the Back Room, the classically trained pianist is also a versatile keyboardist, commanding electric bassist, guitarist and vocalist who creates rhythmic settings via looper as she performs. “The uniqueness of the show is playing all these instruments and singing,” she said. “Everything is made in real time.”

Her repertoire ranges from Bill Withers’ “Use Me” to Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” a tune she was drawn to “because of that groovy bass line,” she said. She blasts through Jaco Pastorius’s soul anthem “Come On, Come Over,” delivers Azeri jazz with rhythmic aplomb and creates lapidary arrangements of familiar songs like “Scarborough Fair.” 

One reason Nelson has pursued the solo route is that she’s figuring out how to integrate the various influences she’s absorbed on her sojourn from Azerbaijan to Turkey to the Bay Area. She earned renown interpreting the European classical canon as a concert pianist and rocked international stages as a bassist and backup vocalist for the alt-rock band Unformal, which helped represent Azerbaijan at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. She’s played jazz and pop music as a pianist at tourist hotels.

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In many ways her music reflects the complicated skein of history running through her veins. Born and raised in Baku in the waning years of the Cold War, she grew up in a formerly aristocratic family that lost everything after the Soviet Union absorbed Azerbaijan in 1920. Her mother’s family is Ukrainian and Russian (“which is causing some distress right now,” she said), and her father’s family is Azeri and Ossetian — “all completely different nationalities,” she said. 

Music was in the picture from the beginning. One great grandmother was an opera singer, her grandmother played piano, and her mother played piano and sang. “Every Sunday she gave a concert for the family, that’s how I grew up,” said Nelson, whose father turned her onto the Beatles and Queen. “My sister and I went to special music school every day after regular school. No one asked us. We just went.”

At 15 she stumbled upon an acoustic guitar in her grandmother’s closet, which set her on a new path. When a friend’s band needed a bass player, he recruited her for the spot and she played her first gig on the instrument a few days later at a big rock festival. “That’s when I met my future bass teacher,” she recalled. “He told me ‘You did a wonderful job playing for half an hour,’ but I didn’t know how to play correctly. I ended up discovering Jaco Pastorius and Brian Bromberg and these amazing bassists who opened up another world.” 

While maintaining a career as a music teacher, Nelson became the first-call bassist in Azerbaijan, playing studio dates and anchoring the country’s top rock band Milk & Kisses. Married in 2011 and looking for greener pastures, she and her husband took their baby son and moved to Turkey. Reinventing herself, she found work in the southwest resort city of Antalya, playing jazz and popular songs at ritzy tourist hotels. Before long she started singing too. 

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They immigrated to the United States in 2015 when they scored Green Cards via the diversity lottery, at first settling near family in the suburbs of St. Louis. “It took us two months to understand what a mistake that was,” she said. Sending out resumes for music teaching positions she ended up landing several jobs in the Bay Area in the spring of 2016. But the following year her husband passed away, and in her grief she threw herself into her work. One of her students, Elizabeth Connors, ended up performing at Carnegie Hall and taking top honors singing a song in Azeri at the American Protégé International Vocal Competition.

Nelson’s life took another sudden turn when she bought a ticket to see bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten at Great American Music Hall in the early spring of 2019. Berkeley native Tim Hill, who had recently launched the digital publication Bass Magazine, spotted her in line, which wasn’t hard since she was one of the few women in a sea of dudes. He started chatting and they ended up taking in the concert together. “We talked through the whole night,” she said. “Afterwards he asked, ‘Do you want to meet Victor Wooten?’” She and Hill have been keeping company ever since.

In the months before the pandemic Nelson played in the rock trio Thorslund, but out of necessity and musical opportunity she started thinking about performing solo after the advent of COVID-19. The seeds were planted when she brought her guitar to a friend’s birthday party last year. After playing a few Brazilian and Latin American standards, like Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada,” she and Russian-born actress Irina Brodskaya decided to put together a joint presentation “where I’d provide some accompaniment,” Nelson said. “I ended up having half of the show to myself, just playing. I had to gain some repertoire. I need some drums.” Turned onto a loop machine by a friend in Germany, she took her first steps on Farida’s Melodious Journey.

“Right now I’m all about recording my own original music,” she said. “I’ve been composing all this time, back to Milk & Kisses. I recorded all the parts in the studio for that band except for the drums, but they’re mostly written prog rock style, and it’s impossible to loop that. Now I want to do my own songs. I’m open to collaborations too, especially with drummers or DJs, but right now, at this stage, it’s completely solo.” 

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A multi-generational collective of leading Haitian musicians, Lakou Mizik performs Wednesday, July 13, at Freight & Salvage. Devoted to nurturing the nation’s extraordinarily rich roots music heritage, the group has forged ties with artists around the Caribbean, including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In 2019, the two storied ensembles teamed up on the album HaitiNola, a sweeping project recorded partly in the private studio of Win Butler and Haitian-Canadian Régine Chassagne, the husband-and-wife team behind the Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire.

Working with producer Eric Heigle, the drummer for the Grammy-winning Cajun band The Lost Bayou Ramblers, Lakou Mizik joined forces with a diverse cast of New Orleans stars, including Tank & The Bangas’ Tarriona Ball, Trombone Shorty, Cyril Neville, and Leyla McCalla. It was a major new step for the collective, which came together in the wake of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that brought widespread death and destruction to Haiti in 2010. Steeped in traditional kanaval songs, twobadou ballads, and a myriad of Vodou incantational rhythms as well as contemporary styles like konpas and zouk, the septet made a powerful first impression with their 2016 debut album Wa Di Yo (Cumbancha).  

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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....