Home Blues Oakland Documentary ‘Evolutionary Blues’ Returns to Grand Lake Theater

Oakland Documentary ‘Evolutionary Blues’ Returns to Grand Lake Theater


A lot has changed in the five short years since Cheryl Fabio premiered her documentary, Evolutionary Blues…West ​​Oakland’s Musical Legacy. As its title suggests, the film traces the history of the city’s blues scene, while paying homage to the musical pioneers who made West Oakland flourish in the mid-20th century as a blues music hub. and black culture.

Some of the icons Fabio interviewed in the film have since passed away. But audiences unfamiliar with their heritage will have the chance to learn more about them at a special screening of the 2017 documentary next time around. Thursday February 24, at the Grand Lake Theatre. The event is organized by the Rotary Club of Oakland on the occasion of Black History Month. A Q&A with Cheryl Fabio will follow the screening.

The documentary is based on archival footage and photographs, including the 1970 short film by Agnès Varda, black panthers, and Marlon Riggs and Pete Webster’s 1981 30-minute West Oakland blues documentary, long train run— as well as interviews with living artists conducted by Fabio, to tell the story of Oakland’s blues.

In a section of the film, author Isabel Wilkerson (The heat of other suns) explains how the Great Migration paved the way for West Oakland to become a vibrant black community. Some who migrated here from the South included blues and jazz musicians, who became beloved on the Oakland music circuit but never achieved national or international fame.

More than just a musical film, however, Fabio is about how the once thriving community of West Oakland was demolished in the 1960s to make way for “urban renewal” redevelopment projects. In a 1960 case documented in the film, demolition company Abdo S. Allen used a surplus World War II Sherman tank to flatten 500 homes within a 12-block radius to clear the way for new developments, including a new main post office and mail distribution center, displacing hundreds of neighborhood residents and business owners.

A World War II Sherman tank was used to level homes in West Oakland in 1960. Credit: Oakland Tribune, August 16, 1960

Neighborhood economies can go up and down over time, Fabio said, but West Oakland’s mid-century era documented in his film will never be replicated.

“You can create a new economic engine on Seventh Street. It could be San Pablo Avenue, MacArthur or East 14th. But what we lost when they bulldozed those homes and kind of exterminated people in West Oakland was a community that disappeared,” Fabio said.

Fabio will not find some of the familiar faces he interviewed and stayed in contact with since the film’s debut, who have since passed away.

One of them is Sonny Rhodes, who passed away in December 2021. A gifted blues singer and lap steel guitarist, Rhodes graced the stages of Oakland venues like Esther’s Orbit Room and Eli’s Mile High Club. Marvin Holmes, who fronted the bands The Uptights and Justice and The Funk Company, died soon after in January. His Oakland funk sound resonated throughout the 60s and 70s.

“How do I get on stage and not see or name these people?” said Fabio. “The death of all these men is the end of an era.”

What made that time special in West Oakland, Fabio said, wasn’t just the music, it was the community that was built around it. “The foundation of what’s exciting about what this film represents [is that] it happened in places where blacks dominated. It doesn’t happen at white establishments that allow you to come in, do the gig and leave,” she said. “It’s something so much deeper than that. And no, it will never be rebuilt. It’s gone for good.”

American blues singer and lap steel guitarist Sonny Rhodes died in December 2021. Credit: Still from “Evolutionary Blues”

In addition to preserving the legacy of those who paved the way, Evolutionary Blues feature interviews with contemporary Oakland musicians who are now leaving their mark on Oakland’s rich musical history.

Artists lending their voices and experiences in the film include D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Tony! Your! notoriety; The dynamic Miss Faye Carol, who currently performs every Sunday at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle; Ronnie Stewart, executive director of the West Coast Blues Society and creator of The music they played on the 7th Street Oakland Walk of Fame; DeSanto Sugar Pie; and blues singer Mike from Alabama.

Fabio also interviewed Fantastic Negrito and captured the artist playing a set at Oakland First Fridays. At the time, Fantastic Negrito was known for performing on the streets all around Oakland, and his impromptu shows on First Fridays were a fan favorite. Since the film’s debut, Fantastic Negrito has amassed three Grammys (including in 2017 for his album, Oakland’s Last Days), and opened Storefront Records, an independent record label and community space on San Pablo Avenue at 34th Street.

For Fabio, next week’s screening with the Rotary Club of Oakland is an opportunity for the film to reach new audiences and increase understanding of the stories and experiences of different people in Oakland.

“I hope the screening will be a success,” she said, “because it’s an indication that there may be a rapprochement.”

Next week’s show is not restricted to club members and is open to the public. For those who are not yet comfortable going to the cinema, the film can be streamed through the Oakland Public Library using your library card.

Thursday, February 24, 6 p.m. $14Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Ave.