For music lovers, one of the pandemic’s cruelest twists is the way that Covid-19 turned intimacy into a liability. Almost overnight, the cozy venues providing the closest encounters with musicians seemed to offer the risk of contagion rather than the possibility of transcendence. Nowhere was this dismaying pivot more pronounced than my favorite storefront venue, the Red Poppy Art House, a little space that has long played an outsized role in incubating cross-cultural collaborations.
After being shuttered for 22 months and coming to the brink of extinction, the beloved Mission District room reopens Saturday, Dec. 4, offering a one-day reminder of its essential niche in the Bay Area arts ecosystem with a pan-American triple bill. For Red Poppy Artistic Director Dina Zarif, who spent most of the pandemic sequestered due to her immunocompromised status, “it was very important to have one event before the end of the year.”
In many ways, Saturday’s showcase exemplifies the way that the Red Poppy Art House has served as a proving ground for new collaborations. The afternoon program kicks off at 3 p.m. with the debut of the new Rawcoustic Trio, featuring Brazilian music specialist Rebecca Kleinmann on flutes and vocals; percussionist Marlon Aldana, who’s best known for his work in flamenco settings; and Venezuelan-American guitarist Carlos Caminos.
“I’ve done all types of projects there, and this new trio is really exciting to me,” said Kleinmann, who also headlines at Yoshi’s Dec. 12 with an all-star band featuring vocalist Tiffany Austin, another Red Poppy Art House regular. “We’re playing pieces from Venezuela and Brazil, some Astor Piazzolla compositions and American swing tunes, and possibly a flamenco piece.”
Latin Grammy-nominated Argentine tango pianist and composer Pablo Estigarribia, a Red Poppy veteran based in both Buenos Aires and New York City, plays the afternoon’s second set. And the singular Balkan/Latin roots combo Istanbul Connection, which has used the Red Poppy Art House as a home base since coming together in 2015, closes out the program.
There’s no cover charge for Saturday’s event, though donations are welcome. The program is supported by a California Arts Council Impact Project Grant, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Relief Fund, and SF Art Reopening Fund. Seating will limited and reservations are strongly encouraged.
In the BC (before covid) era, an audience of 40 would fill the Red Poppy Art House, though standing-room-only crowds twice that size often packed the space. For Saturday’s show, Zarif said the maximum capacity for each set would be 20 to 30. Doors and windows will be left open “and we’ll have chairs and benches outside for people to listen. They can also bring their own chairs. The intention is to give the community hope that Red Poppy is alive and we’ll be back in 2022.”
With employees laid off and the ranks of loyal volunteers dispersed the Red Poppy requires a lot of care and tending to get back its bloom. With the caveat that all plans are provisional given the vicissitudes of the pandemic, Zarif said the plan is to present a concert every week or so starting in mid-February. There are ongoing talks with larger venues in the neighborhood about collaborations with the Poppy as a guest presenter.
For Zarif, guarded optimism is a relief after many months of covid despair (she lost two aunts in Iran to the virus last year). In the fall of 2020, with bills mounting and no income, the Red Poppy management team was considering the necessity of giving up the lease. Zarif rallied and applied to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Relief Fund, which ended up providing a lifeline to 20 venues around the region.
“We paid all the back rent and overdue bills,” Zarif said. “It saved us at the time, thanks to Meklit Hadero, who turned me onto the fund. I was feeling pretty hopeless but she pushed me. It wasn’t just the money. They have been so supportive. They’ve been sending me so many contacts for help and connecting me with other organizations.”
It’s hard to overstate the Red Poppy Art House’s importance since painter Todd Brown and flamenco enthusiast Alexander Allende started presenting music in their corner studio in 2003. A short list of musicians who got their start or spent formative years as artists in residence at the venue includes singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero, now chief of program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, vocalist/composer Tiffany Austin, pianist/flutist Erika Oba, and flamenco jazz pianist Alex Conde.
“It’s such a supportive atmosphere,” Kleinmann said. “You go in and you can feel the community is on your side. You can branch out, try something new, and it feels like people are excited for you to do that. I can try a completely new combination of musicians and everybody’s there waiting for what’s going to happen. Including us.”
Radiating out from the storefront, the Red Poppy Art House staff spearheaded the Mission Arts Performance Project, the multidisciplinary, intercultural happening that activated the Mission the first Saturday of every month, transforming street corners, studios, driveways, and small businesses into pop-up performance and exhibition sites. This month it will only be happening at Red Poppy, but will be streamed on Facebook.
If there’s a silver lining to the venue’s hiatus, it’s that the pause has allowed Zarif and her team to get the Red Poppy Art House planted in firmer soil. While the organization attracted respected arts professionals like Renee Baldocchi, Puja Kapur and Chelis Lopez, the venue was a rapidly moving vehicle that never really shed its ad-hoc origins.
“Nobody had the time to stop and fix those entity issues,” Zarif said. “Covid forced us to stop and address what’s not working. I was able to finish the incorporation process and apply for nonprofit status. It’s a huge step forward, and we’re becoming a solid entity. But we’ve lost a lot of volunteers. It’s been 22 months. So we’re sending out the word out. We’re back, and please get in touch if you’re interested in helping out.”