Kids dancing on a stage
At a performance by Chinyakare Ensemble at Ashkenaz’s June 2023 reopening. Courtesy of Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center

Berkeley’s indefatigable folk dance palace Ashkenaz wraps up its golden anniversary celebration Saturday with a foot-stomping gala.

The evening features musicians from some of the core traditions and idioms that have long found a home at the club, which is sticking with ones that brought the venue this far. 

“The gala is the conclusion of a year of celebration, our big blow out for the 50th,” said Sarah Travis, Ashkenaz’s executive director, while taking a break from a Cajun fiddle camp in Louisiana. “It’s our chance to really do it big.”

The program, “Rhythms of Resilience: Honoring 50 Years of Ashkenaz” includes the duo Nakarat with accordionist Jonathan Kipp and Duygu Gun on guitars and vocals interpreting folk songs in Turkish, Ladino, Greek, Griko and Italian, and Jubilee American Dance Theatre, a group that ranges around American roots music, from Appalachian hollers and Swing-era dance halls to Louisiana bayous. Steeped in the incantatory music of Zimbabwe’s Shona people, there’s Chinyakare Ensemble, while the Tri Tip Trio celebrates the Gulf Coast’s musical riches, playing New Orleans blues, zydeco and Cajun music. 

Newly appointed head of the Gilman Business District, Travis has been busy building alliances with local establishments, an effort that bore particularly sweet fruit with nearby Covenant Winery. The award-winning kosher winery has created a limited edition release for the occasion, Ashkenaz Cellars. 

“It’s part of our new series, Wine Around the World, expanding an experiment partnering with local wineries, adding another cultural element into the mix,” Travis said. 

Exterior of Ashkenaz
Ashkenaz has been open for 50 years. Courtesy of Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center

Every Ashkenaz milestone comes freighted with a bittersweet undercurrent, even as the tragedy that has long shadowed the venue recedes into the past. The institution was founded by leftist activist David Nadel, whose passion for folk dancing was rivaled by his disdain for the UC Regents, with whom he fought several epic legal battles. 

On the evening of Dec. 19, 1996, he was shot down by a drunk and unruly patron who had been ejected from the building. No one has ever been charged for the crime and the primary suspect is still listed as “wanted for murder” by the state’s attorney general. 

“We would not do a gala without acknowledging David Nadel,” Travis said. “We’ll have a video tribute and people speaking about him and his vision for Ashkenaz.”

Nadel’s welcoming spirit still suffuses the venue, which continues to focus on the far-flung traditions he loved, encompassing music and dance from the Balkans, West Africa, Brazil, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and American roots traditions of various stripes. Concerns about whether people would return after an extended pandemic hiatus gradually dissipated last year.

“We’ve done really well since reopening,” Travis said. “Our community has welcomed us back, but like many other venues, we’re looking to develop our audience. And we’re going to continue introducing new artists.”

Saturday, Nov. 4. 6-8:30 p.m. $125-$175

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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....