Thursday, September 8, 2011

Open-mic Profiles: Cast of Characters & Introduction

(Mural painted on the patio wall)

I've been meaning to blog seriously about the open-mic I run, host, and promote as a weekly volunteer activity and place of peace for creative juicing.

However, to protect the anonymity of the participants, as well as to avoid unnecessary stalking (trust that it's happened to me before) I'll be changing the names of people, places, and other identifying features of the narrative. But unless noted, everything else is 100% grade A++ SuperTruth.

Let me start with the open-mic itself. Called The International, it sits in a neighborhood of SF characterized by a modest bar scene, generous selection of food joints, lots of foot-traffic, and the joint sits along a major thoroughfare to downtown or into The City 'burbs.

That said, there are a few projects close by. Yet my readers from other major cities might be surprised at how, well... nice the projects in The City are. My girlfriend showed me the Chicago projects, and I saw some New York projects a long time ago in the 90's as a small child. But trust me, San Franciscan projects are worlds away from those. They look almost nicer than the surrounding houses, and this is done to blend low-income residents into the neighborhood -- partially out of concern for keeping housing prices high, partially to make them invisible so nobody notices, and partially because San Francisco has a badass Housing Authority.

The residents treat me with respect, and are generally quite friendly when they see me. I get nods, wassups, dap, and other forms of acknowledgment, and more importantly I return them too. They know I'm a musician, schooled in Jazz, and cool with many of the locals -- particularly one of the main managers at the International who is a mainstay of the neighborhood community.

But there's a motley collection of hippies, hipsters, hyphy, bar-crawlers, beer-aficionados, French/German/Italian/Spanish-speaking tourists, low-income welfare & food-stamp recipients, as well as general working peeps. And I know many/most of them, giving me a level of access to all levels of the area, but particularly with the lower-class members.

(I suspect my having a Black girlfriend has something to do with this, but I like to think it's more complicated than it sounds. Likely they feel comfortable knowing I'm less likely to be, do, or act in some fucked-up, possibly racist way, and less likely to dismiss or ignore them. My girlfriend tells it like this, "you know how to speak," meaning I talk to people, make conversation, and generally act at ease in social situations despite how awkward I might feel. But I digress...)

The International itself is a long, rectangular cafe with a back patio. Solid oak wood floors, and walls covered in local art while a sound system blares Reggae, Indian, and Arabic music. They serve beer, snacks, sandwiches, and specialty items from Turkish coffee to a Nicoise salad. The staff consists of an Eritrean-American girl named Dee-dee, a Canadian-Californian dude named Mickey -- both of whom deal with the register, coffee-making, beer-pouring -- and a Mexican named Javier who works as the primary cook and food preparer.

The crowd at the International is as varied as the neighborhood with a mix of musicians, singer-songwriters, instrumentalists, guitaristos, comedians, poets, slam poets, performance artists, writers, and many other amalgamations of these besides.

I myself play saxophone, primarily, backed by self-mixed tracks (ripped then blended from many of my favorite DJs and Hip-Hop artists) however I generally stick with the hosting, as well as sound duties.

Overall my open-mic receives an average of 15 performers and nearly 50 in the audience. Not bad for a small corner spot like the International. However, my open-mic is a weekend open-mic, meaning I also receive a substantial amount of foot-traffic, looky-loos, people coming & going. On a good night I'll have over 20 performers with slots of two songs/8 minutes and nearly 100 people in the audience.

On rare nights, I've had Interscope recording artists drop-by for a "secret show" and suddenly see my numbers jump to hundreds of peeps trying to get in the doors -- only to have them immediately exit after the band finishes their set and reconnoiter at the many bars.

It is essentially a space created by and for artists of all stripes, but frequently becomes something else entirely -- a stage, a prop to propel others to greater heights with their pursuits, whether they be music, laughs, or wordsmithing.

I am proud to be the host, and have been doing so for nearly two years now, and before that three years of steady attendance at the open-mic as a regular & featured performer.

This series is to be a profile on the characters I've met, both as host and as audience-member through the course of my time at the International since Fall 2007.

I hope ya'll enjoy it!


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