Arhoolie Foundation benefit party

On Sunday, January 18th the Arhoolie Foundation held a grand Benefit party featuring Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Linda Ronstadt, Los Cenzontles, Laurie Lewis, Tom Rozum, the Savoy Family Band and others.

The weekend started with the arrival of the Savoy Family from Louisiana on Thursday night. The next day we stopped in Hayward where Bobby’s (the sausage man supreme!) friend – also from Louisiana – had a huge garage and all sorts of gumbo-making equipment – from burners to huge pots to having the 40 pounds of skinned and de-boned old hens all cut up – as well as the 25 pounds of sausages already sliced as well as the onions. Even the parsley and green onions were already cut and ready to be added later on Sunday when the gumbo would be warmed up and served at the Cenzontles Center! Marc Savoy directed the proceedings – he never measured anything but he knows just how much water for that big a lot of ingredients. He dissolved 5 quarts of rue in the boiling water, then added the chicken and sausages and cooked them on high heat until the scum on top just suddenly disappeared, all the time stirring the gumbo. Then he turned the heat down, adding the seasoning – lots of it – tasting as it cooked to perfection!

From Hayward we drove to Santa Cruz where the Savoy Family played at Don Quixote to a full house, and an amazingly powerful show/dance it was – Marc and Ann and the boys, Wilson and Joel, were in rare form indeed! Saturday we came back and made it to the rehearsal with Linda and Laurie Lewis at Los Cenzontles Mexican Art Center in San Pablo, and were told that Ry Cooder had just rehearsed with several of the girls. Later that Saturday night the Savoy Family played for another sold-out house at Ashkenaz here in Berkeley!

On Sunday we arrived at the Center around 1 PM and the good times began to roll again! Everything clicked, thanks to all of you who helped put this Benefit together, especially Tom Diamant and Eugene Rodriguez. All I can do is try to thank every one of you and I hope this letter will do. Forgive me please if I left anyone out! Here it goes to the best of my recollections: Linda Ronstadt – you did a magnificent job of getting your varied sets with the various singers together and being the den mother of the whole event – especially your singing with all those wonderful voices like Ann Savoy, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Carol McComb, Suzy & Eric Thompson, Los Cenzontles, etc – your gracious way of being casual about it all, yet well-planned and rehearsed and you obviously enjoyed the special vibes of this event. Laurie Lewis, the diplomat in charge, deserves very special thanks because she organized the various musical portions and made the whole program flow as well as playing and singing superbly.

At Ry Cooder’s instigation, I was persuaded to try and sing but I think the attempt almost ruined one of my favorite songs: “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight!” I only joined in on the chorus since I can’t remember songs except for the first line! I recalled Bongo Joe, who recorded an album for me in San Antonio which included: “I Wish I Could Sing” – at least he had the rap for it! The song I helped mess up I first heard sung by Del McCoury, who happened to be one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys for whom the late Bob Pinson and I promoted some concerts back in 1963 here in the Bay Area. I just loved the way Del sang that song and I asked him if he would let me come back east and record an album with him. Well, he did and it turned into Del McCoury’s first record! Laurie even followed it with the only original song Del recorded for me that day, “Dreams” – a haunting song he had written! I am glad you all – Laurie, Linda and Tom just sang your hearts out despite my interference!

The evening got started with quesadillas and great guacamole from Cocina Poblana in Emeryville, who also after the first musical section catered a Mexican red mole with chicken and a vegetarian mole – both simply fantastic. The Louisiana Gumbo appeared at that time as well as the wonderful papaya salad made by Eugene’s mother-in-law, Frances. During the last portion we served our favorite cake from the Hopkins Street bakery, their mocha-chocolate creation!

The second musical portion began with Los Cenzontles, who for the occasion had learned two great songs seen and heard in our film Chulas Fronteras: “Prenda del alma” and “Mexico Americano”. I get very emotional about these songs – “Prenda…” was always one of my favorites by Los Alegres de Teran, and I asked them especially to sing it at the dance where Les Blank and I filmed them back in the 70s. Of course Rumel Fuentes’ “Mexico Americano” was very special – an amazing song filled with pride and history about la raza de oro! The Cenzontles girls, Lucina Rodriguez and Fabiola Trujillo, sang like magic – with beauty, power and soul in that authentic Mexican women dueto style which sadly disappeared by the mid 70s from the Mexican regional Norteño tradition. Eugene was also great on the 12 string guitar backing them – I didn’t even miss the more usual accordion!

Then came Ry Cooder – with an incredible performance which evoked the spirit of Big Joe Williams in both his playing and singing! It just knocked me out – and people talked about it for weeks after! I never anticipated anything like it from Ry – I felt Big Joe had come back to join us – but in a contemporary style! The way Ry used that electric mandolin, cranked up to sound like an up-to-date version of Big Joe’s powerful 9 string guitar – it was magic for me. Of course I had no idea that that fierce album I recorded in Los Gatos with Big Joe back in 1960 would have such an effect on a very young Ry Cooder. And the standard “Wooly Bully” was a killer too! Another real surprise about Ry’s portion was the fact that he had rehearsed with two of the young girl dancers from the Cenzontles to turn their clogging footwork into a wonderful drummer – who sounded like Big Sid Catlett! On top of that, Ry asked Hugo Arroyo of the Cenzontles to play a big brass tuba! What a sound!

Taj Mahal followed with some wonderful piano blues – sounding like Big Maceo or Otis Spann, who both also had that wonderful raspy voice. Taj then did some guitar blues which to my ears recalled many of the early blues guys – I thought I heard Skip James, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon, John Hurt, and many more in the room – but it came out Taj-style – with dynamics and spacing you don’t get to hear much these days.

Finally the Savoy Family came on with some fine Cajun music and folks started to dance. However there was little room to shake your leg in the Cenzontles Center since it was filled to capacity by patrons and artists. But Marc tore into his accordion and Ann and Wilson got to sing a few songs with Joel’s superb fiddle accompanying. Just as the Savoy Band really got going the clock unfortunately told us that the good times had to come to a halt!

Those who stuck around after the tables and chairs were put aside and the security went home and the restaurant folks cleared out, were in for some more joyful jamming by the Savoy brothers, Ann, Laurie, Taj, Suzy, Tom, Eric, – plus many of the Cenzontles joining on caja, jaw bone, string bass, etc. – and we all did a circle dance around the musicos – sort of Greek style! What a great way to end a fantastic party! Thanks again to all the musicians, organizers, cooks, etc – and most of all the generous paying patrons for making this such a success.

Special thanks also to all the Arhoolie Foundation board members: Tom Diamant, Laurie Lewis, Bill Belmont, Suzy Thompson, Eugene Rodriguez and John Leopold. Also special thanks to Wayne Pope, who sadly was sick that day, but designed our wonderful new AF Brochure which came off the press just in time for the party! Thanks also to Derek Green who spoke about his ailing father, Archie Green, and to our other absent board members, Davia Nelson who was in Washington, DC working on a story about the Inauguration, Manuel Peña who was also under the weather, and Joe Wilson of the NCTA and the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, VA.

We actually cleared about $ 24,000 for the Arhoolie Foundation after all expenses and donating $ 2,500 to the Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center for their part in making this Benefit such a huge success! Like the late, great Ernest Tubb had written on the back of his guitar which he flipped to the audience at the end of a show:

— Chris Strachwitz – President, Arhoolie Foundation