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Artist-friendly label Little Village showcases real roots music

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Keyboardist and music industry veteran Jim Pugh started the nonprofit label Little Village Foundation to recognize and promote truly unique artists. (Courtesy Little Village Foundation)

Bay Area alt-country songwriter Maurice Tani wryly understates the man who started Little Village Foundation, the truly unusual record label releasing his ninth album “This Is It!” at a showcase concert on Thursday in Berkeley.

“This Jim Pugh guy’s got quite an ear,” says Tani, describing his friend and cohort who started the nonprofit in 2014 with a mission to showcase unique artists whose music otherwise might not be heard.

Aside from the fact that the label doesn’t make any money off its artists, who retain all rights to their material, Tani adds, “What makes Little Village so unique is Jim Pugh’s taste, the way he has curated the thing.”

While its award-winning, multi-cultured acts vary from blues to folk to mariachi, spoken word and more, all Little Village music “seems to be stuff that is heartfelt,” says Tani: “Jim has been around the top end of the music business to know bulls— when he sees it.”

After leaving a 35-year gig as keyboardist with the Robert Cray Band, Pugh, who lives in Santa Ynez, could’ve joined another blues group. But he wanted to do something “more in the line of service,” says Tani.

Among Pugh’s early discoveries were cowboy poet David Ellis from Bakersfield, and Los Tres Amigos de Snuviko, indigenous people from Mexico living in Santa Maria who sing in Mixtec, their native language. (“It sounds vaguely like Vietnamese,” says Tani.)

Their recording “The Three Friends From Where The Clouds Descend” was among Little Village’s initial four releases in 2015. Most every household in the 25,000-person California community of mostly migrant farm workers has a copy, says Tani, “because it’s the only album of its kind that there is.”

Tani isn’t the only act on Thursday’s concert at the Freight & Salvage, which benefits Little Village.

The Sons of the Soul Revivers, a black gospel quartet for whom Tani wrote the song “How Deep Is The Water In Your Well” after meeting the singers at a previous label showcase (“I thought they were going to knock me over”) also appears.

Both have benefited from recording at Greaseland, a San Jose studio where producer Kid Andersen, Pugh and a regular corps of great players “make magic” on Little Village recordings, Tani says, calling the place a “modern West Coast version of Muscle Shoals.”

Young musicians from Mariachi Mestizo, a mariachi school in Delano that has released two Little Village Foundation albums, are appearing Feb. 7 in Berkeley. (Courtesy Robert Solorio)

Thursday’s show also features students of Mariachi Mestizo, a school in the Central Valley town Delano led by mariachi master Juan Morales, whose versatile multi-instrumentalists and singers, many teen girls, have appeared at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. The group has two albums on Little Village.

Another Little Village record, “Raise Your Voice-The Sound of Student Protest” — made in the wake of the 2018 mass shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — is being represented at Thursday’s show with appearances by spoken word artist Saida Dahir and guitarist-vocalist Ben Soto, from Salt Lake City, and solo artist Amalia Fleming, from Morro Bay.

Rounding out the bill are award-winning Iowa bluesman Kevin Burt; fourth-generation Chicana Marina Crouse, a funky Bay Area blues-jazz-soul singer; and eclectic “desert legend” Sean Wheeler, formerly of the punk band Throw Rag, who has gone acoustic.

Describing Little Village’s growing roster of artists — which also includes Bollywood blues artist Aki Kumar; soulful Filipina-California folk singer Aireene Espiritu; Betty Reid Soskin, the 97-year-old National Park Ranger at the Rosie the Riveter Trust; and ragtime acoustic guitarist-vocalist Mary Flower — Tani says, “This is American roots music, not the Wikipedia definition. It’s wide, diverse and honest, and what America really sounds like, not what a media company decided. “

And about his own new CD “This Is It!,” a live album of a Freight & Salvage show mixed at Greaseland, Tani says it has some of the best versions of tunes he’s played over the past 15 years, settled and comfortable, “like the difference between a brand new baseball glove and one used by an All Star great.”

IF YOU GO

Little Village Foundation Benefit Show
Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 7
Tickets: $20 to $24
Contact: www.thefreight.org

Maurice Tani releases his live album “This Is It!” at the Feb. 7 Little Village Foundation concert. (Courtesy Freight & Salvage)

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