Little Village just keeps getting bigger. But what’s most impressive about the nonprofit record label isn’t the steady output of albums. It’s that each new batch of CDs expands Little Village’s creative reach into unexpected territory.
Launched by veteran blues keyboardist Jim Pugh in 2015 as a part of a foundation designed to champion roots musicians in blues, gospel, soul, and regional Mexican styles, Little Village has become a precious cultural repository documenting artists largely locked out of the mainstream music business. Encompassing more than three dozen albums the roster is far too diverse to sum up under any one umbrella, but if there’s a quintessential Little Village project it might be Mumbai-born, San José harmonica player and vocalist Aki Kumar’s delirious mashup of blues and Hindi pop music on Aki Goes to Bollywood.
Even by the Aki standard, the latest batch of five Little Village recordings covers an extraordinary range of music. Returning to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage, which regularly hosts showcases of Little Village artists, the label presents brief sets by all the artists playing music from their new projects on Thursday, June 2. If there’s a tenuous thread running through the program it’s the intertwined sacred and secular sounds of Black American music, but the link really runs through Pugh’s idiosyncratic history as a player.
“A lot of this is really a reflection of my music career, which started as a teenager playing in Mexican dance halls in East Oakland,” he said. “I did a lot of different styles of music to make a living. All of this in one way or another is familiar to me.”
The program includes powerhouse Houston blues vocalist Diunna Greenleaf, whose first album in more than a decade I Ain’t Playin’ makes it clear why she’s earned three Blues Music Awards, but raises the mystery of why she hadn’t been on the prepandemic festival circuit. Produced by Kid Andersen, the guitarist and producer whose Greaseland Studios has turned the South Bay into the creative hub for blues recording, the album should go a long way in raising the visibility of a blues master weaned in gospel music.
Sacred music is the template that guides Greensboro, North Carolina, pedal-steel maestro DaShawn Hickman’s collaboration with seven-string guitar great Charlie Hunter on Drums, Roots & Steel. Hickman’s debut album, the Sacred Steel project draws on the blues-gospel sound that accompanied worship in Depression era Pentecostal-Holiness churches. Produced by Hunter, who holds down the low end on rumbling bass guitar, and powered by West African percussionists Atiba Rorie and Brevan Hampden, the album should also make a star out of vocalist Wendy Hickman (the group also performs June 3 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center, June 4 at Novato’s Hopmonk Tavern, and June 5 at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center).
Pugh has known the Berkeley-reared Hunter since the guitarist was a teenager, so when Hunter started telling him about the sacred-steel tradition his ears perked up.
It was a little eavesdropping that clued Pugh into El Cerrito vocalist Marina Crouse’s project focusing on classic Latin American boleros recorded by Eydie Gormé, Canto de mi corazón. A fourth-generation Chicana, Crouse made an enduring first impression with her 2018 Little Village debut Never Too Soon, a highly personal project steeped in the blues but redolent of her disparate musical upbringing with renditions of “The Cisco Kid,” the standard “Sabor a Mí” and the 1960s soul anthem “In the Same Old Way.”
Grateful for the career-launching boost, she figured her relationship with Little Village had concluded. But at a backyard party that Pugh was also attending in 2019 he overheard her talking about a side project with guitarist Danny Caron. They were developing arrangements of the Spanish-language ballads recorded by Eydie Gormé “on these two records I grew hearing my grandmother play,” she said. “All of the sudden Jim pipes up, ‘What? Why didn’t you tell me about it?’ It didn’t even occur to me. He said, ‘I might have a way to do this.’ He was over the moon about it.”
With Caron already involved it made perfect sense to bring in veteran blues bassist Ruth Davies, as they’d played together for years with legendary R&B crooner Charles Brown. At the Freight they’ll be joined by Berkeley percussionist/vocalist Vicki Randle, who spent nearly a quarter century in the Tonight Show band and touring with Mavis Staples. For Pugh, who has persistently sought out Mexican and Mexican-American artists for Little Village, Crouse’s journey to connect with her musical roots hits a sweet spot.
“I’m always interested, emotionally and musically, [in] Latinas living in California and what that looks like,” he said. “She didn’t really learn to speak Spanish until she went to college, and she makes these songs her own. She’s an amazing singer.”
You could say that Pugh runs Little Village with the antithesis of a business model. Rather than creating revenue streams for the label, he’s created a model where any funds generated flow out to the artist. Musicians retain all the rights to their music, and they get one thousand copies of the CD gratis. It’s a small operation, but the foundation helps with marketing and concert promotion. He’s as surprised as anybody that he’s been able to keep the label going and growing.
“There are people who think I must be a rich guy,” he said. “What it really comes down to is, I’m good at spending other people’s money. I’ve gone around to people looking for support and we’ve gotten some real help from the Logan Foundation and the Hellman’s, who feel we’re on a parallel path to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I think some people are looking for other places to give their money other than the opera, ballet, and symphony. This is a field where a relatively small amount of money makes a huge difference.”
With seven previous solo albums, Austin guitarist Mighty Mike Schermer is already a well-established figure on the blues scene who doesn’t exactly fit the Little Village mold. But his album Just Gettin’ Good presents him in a different light. The former Bay Area resident is best known as a top-shelf sideman who’s served as a guitar-slinging foil for Marcia Ball, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Howard Tate, and Angela Strehli, among many others. While Just Gettin’ Good features some searing guitar work, it builds on his growing renown as a songwriter whose tune “My Big Sister’s Radio” recently got tapped by Bruce Springsteen for a regular spot on his Sirius/XM show From My Home to Yours.
If there’s a wildcard in the Little Village mix it’s The Lenoir Investigation, a romping encounter between veteran guitar renegade Henry Kaiser and rising South Bay blues player Rome Yamilov, who was born in Russia and has acquired an encyclopedic range of blues influences while still in his 20s. A famously well-traveled guitar explorer (both geographically and stylistically), Kaiser has collaborated with a mind-boggling array of artists, from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and guitarist Fred Frith to string wizard David Lindley, with whom he traveled to Madagascar and revealed the island’s musical wonders on the 1992 compilation A World Out of Time.
In other circles he’s best known for his four collaborations with Werner Herzog, including his score for the Academy Award-nominated Encounters at the End of the World, the documentary that introduced the filmmaker to the frozen realm where Kaiser has long served as a scientific diver in the U.S. Antarctic Program. It was Pugh who suggested that Yamilov figure out a project with Kaiser, and the two players settled on a tribute to the great blues guitarist and songwriter J.B. Lenoir, who was born in Mississippi and earned some renown on the Chicago scene in the 1950s. Instead of a straight-ahead blues date, they reimagine Lenoir’s songs, setting them to an array of unexpected grooves.
“It’s just a fun album,” said Kaiser, whose only 2022 date as of now is Freight’s Little Village showcase. “We were having fun with J.B. When you look at the videos of him being interviewed,” like in the 1960s footage Wim Wenders used in his idiosyncratic documentary The Soul of a Man, “he has that sense of playfulness, and we were connecting to that. It’s pretty different than anything else on Little Village, but Jim is being very creative and interesting with American roots music of various kinds. Look at the DaShawn Hickman record. That’s not like any other scared-steel record. It’s its own thing.”
Serving as emcee and presiding spirit at the Freight showcase is singer/songwriter Maurice Tani, who’s worked closely with Pugh on the label from the beginning. He’ll be playing some new songs from his upcoming Little Village album too, a project that features several artists he met through his work with the label. “I think of it as this sandbox that we all go get to play in,” he said. ‘It’s made everyone’s music so much richer. You find these common threads that run through all of this stuff. Everyone gets exposed to each other. Different cultures to other cultures and it creates a feeling of commonality. That’s our little conspiracy.”