Singer Aireene Espiritu created her musical experience as a way to promote connections between cultures. (Courtesy photo)

Singer Aireene Espiritu created her musical experience as a way to promote connections between cultures. (Courtesy photo)

‘Color Coded Symphony’ promotes openness, unity

Singer Aireene Espiritu’s musical experience counteracts racism

By T. Watts

When genre-bending troubadette Aireene Espiritu conceived the idea of “A Color-Coded Symphony,” she reasoned that the actual production was years away.

In 2016, while performing a concert promoting the release of her album “Back Where I Belong” (a tribute to legendary San Francisco-born R&B singer Sugar Pie DeSanto), the critically-acclaimed, eclectic Bay Area singer mentioned it to the woman in charge of programming at the Asian Art Museum.

“I just thought it would be fun to do a concert in the dark, introducing the concept of folks just listening without judging — just turning the lights off and listening. The idea was to get people more curious about other cultures. It was just a dream that would require some really amazing musicians,” says Espiritu, who was surprised to learn that the museum wanted to host such a production and had an opening in its schedule in nine months.

“This idea that I thought would happen maybe years in the future suddenly became only months away and I had to pull it together,” says Espiritu, who premiered the show in September 2017. She reprises it this week at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage with a lineup including Bollywood bluesman Aki Kumar, guitarists Kid Andersen and Edward Tree, keyboardist Jim Pugh, drummer D’Mar Martin, Manesh Judge on tabla, bassist Vance Ehlers, vocalist Lisa Lund Anderson and percussionists Clark Seal and Jesus Martinez.

“A Color-Coded Symphony” is an interactive experience in which audience participation is taken to unique levels. True to the spirit of improvisation, each performance is different. Espiritu’s end design is to foster intercultural openness.

Describing the work as part of her calling and her way of dealing with racism, Espiritu says, “Every experience I’ve had in my life that’s not even related to music, I’m able to use in this project. It’s a lot of work but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

It begins with a concert in the dark in which the musicians play “familiar and unfamiliar sounds,” she says. In the second part, an artist from a different country is featured.

In the third part, after every person in the audience has filled out an ethnic origin card, the musicians randomly pull cards from a jar and then play 30 seconds of audio rhythm or music from the country. Then, after every 30 seconds, the band performs an improvised piece inspired by those rhythms.

“It’s kind of like connecting to rhythms of the world while creating something beautiful and new,” says Espiritu.

Espiritu’s creativity is fueled by personal experience. Her family migrated to America when she was 10. She says, “We moved to this little town in New Jersey where nobody knew what Filipino was. It was a pretty traumatic identity crisis,” mentioning that she’d have to tell people she wasn’t Chinese or Puerto Rican.

Enraptured by the music of her guitar-playing uncles at family singalongs, Espiritu didn’t start singing in public until she got to college. A chance encounter with a book on the field recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax propelled her forward to the “timeless Americana” niche she occupies today. It’s seemingly a precarious perch.

“I’m not really a blues singer,” she says. “What intrigued me about the Lomax book was his work in just capturing people in their backyards or front porches, from all over the world. People just bein’ who they are, playin’ their music.”

IF YOU GO

A Color-Coded Symphony

Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12 (pre-show talk at 7:15 p.m.)

Tickets: $10 to $20

Contact: (510) 644-2020, www.thefreight.org

Pop Music

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Audiences listen in the dark in “A Color Coded Symphony.” (Courtesy photo)

Audiences listen in the dark in “A Color Coded Symphony.” (Courtesy photo)

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