Jesús Díaz left
Jesús Díaz left Photo courtesy of Jesús Díaz and Diana Gameros Photo by Joan Cerqueiro

In the best of times, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival has served as San Francisco’s most democratic cultural institution, presenting a vast array of free cultural events in an eminently accessible location. In uncertain times, like the pandemic-shadowed present, the YBGF offers something even more precious, bringing some of the world’s most exciting performing artists to an outdoor setting where social distancing is as easy as throwing a blanket down on the lawn. 

With some four dozen events encompassing an international array of music, dance, circus arts, poetry, and other cultural gatherings, the YBGF runs May 7 through Oct. 8 (see below for highlights). The festival kicks off Saturday afternoon with a powerhouse Cuban dance party featuring Jesús Díaz y Su Habana Afro-Cuban Ensemble. An Oakland resident since the mid-1980s, the Havana-born percussionist is best known for leading Jesús Díaz y su QBA, but with the support of the festival he’s assembled an all-star ensemble that features both local luminaries and out-of-town masters. 

Longtime Santana timbalero Karl Perazzo, trombonist Jeff Cressman (who also spent years on the road with Carlos Santana), Cuban-born bassist Julio De La Cruz, and saxophonist/flutist Melecio Magdaluyo are drawn from the Bay Area’s deep pool of talent. From Los Angeles, he’s featuring fellow Cubans Raúl Pineda on drum kit and Leider Chapotín on trumpet, “and he’s an amazing vocalist,” Díaz said. “I’m hoping to get him to sing and improvise, too.”

“I met Raúl in 1999 when I was performing with Andy Narell at Stern Grove,” Díaz continued. “He was playing with the Chucho Valdés Quintet, which won a couple of Grammys. We became friends, though he was still living in Cuba at the time. When he moved to LA, I’d go down there to do work with him on sessions, recordings and clinics. We’ve been playing together in a lot of different settings.”

Díaz left Cuba at 18 as part of the chaotic 1980 Mariel exodus, seizing the chance to make a better life for himself. Since settling in the Bay Area, he’s become a catalyzing force as a virtuoso percussionist, songwriter, vocalist and educator. Over the years, he’s collaborated with touring legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. He’s also been a key member of some of the region’s leading Latin bands, including Pete Escovedo’s orchestra and the folkloric Conjunto Céspedes. By the late ‘90s, he stepped to the fore as a bandleader in his own right, founding the hard-charging 11-piece dance band QBA, which helped launch the career of piano star Omar Sosa.

Saturday’s show marks a milestone for Díaz, and not just because he’s celebrating his 50th birthday. The concert focuses on the original songs he’s written for QBA, but with some major twists. While the tunes were originally built around his own percussion mastery, he’s ceding the central drum chair to Miami-based Roberto Vizcaino Jr., a recent mainstay with Cuban piano legend Chucho Valdés. Díaz met Vizcaino a few years ago at a percussion camp in Chicago and was duly impressed. 

“Roberto is an amazing percussionist, and I wanted to bring him here and showcase his talent,” he said. “I’m going to step aside and sing and feature him on percussion, and let the new generation step up.” 

Leaving nothing to chance, Díaz is bringing in a secret weapon with Cuban pianist and vocalist Ariacne Trujillo. A child prodigy who grew up in Havana, she played an essential role in turning percussionist Pedrito Martinez’s rumba band into a New York phenomenon during a long-running residency at the Midtown nightspot Guantanamera. 

Díaz first heard her with Martinez at the club, “and I fell in love with her sound,” he said. That initial encounter soon blossomed into a friendship and creative communion. Even with Martinez’s astonishing percussion work, she would often steal the show. Díaz is looking to make sure that her brilliance is recognized outside of Martinez’s band. 

“She’s a virtuoso, and not just on the piano,” he said. “She’s a fantastic singer, and then she’ll get and dance in front of the band. We’ve had a bunch of opportunities to play gigs in a quartet and quintet, sometimes with Raúl Pineda. I’ve always wanted to have an opportunity to bring her here and play some of my music. I’m hoping that his ensemble is the beginning of something.” 

Díaz’s musical vision is based on the friendship between the players and their shared love of Afro-Cuban roots rhythms derived from sacred chants and rituals. No matter how prodigious a particular player might be, the ensemble takes precedence. More than the sum of its parts, the band offers a rare opportunity “to create a bridge between LA and New York and the Bay Area,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Here are some other YBGF highlights:

1) 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 14

One of the world’s great clarinetists, Yugoslavian-born Ismail Lumanovski joins forces with Bay Area Balkan brass band Inspector Gadje and Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London for a celebratory afternoon of pyrotechnic Eastern European party music. 

2) 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19

The Bay Area’s acclaimed all-women vocal ensemble Kitka reunites with the brilliant Ukrainian vocalist, composer and actress Mariana Sadovska, who is traveling across the U.S. to raise funds supporting resistance to the Russian invasion. 

3) 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, May 28

The most celebrated gamelan ensemble outside of Indonesia, Berkeley-based Gamelan Sekar Jaya presents the world premiere of “Sudamala,” a work commissioned by internationally acclaimed Balinese-American composer I Dewa Putu Berata

4) 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4

Since getting her start with a long-running gig at the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, Mexican singer/songwriter Diana Gameros has become one of the Bay Area’s signature artists by giving passionate voice to immigrants, exiles and people caught between worlds.  

5) 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 11  

Alice Coltrane Tribute: Brooklyn Raga Massive featuring Reggie Workman  

Bass legend and NEA Jazz Master Reggie Workman, still going strong at 84, was a close associate of both John and Alice Coltrane, which makes him the perfect artist to anchor this visionary collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive collective highlighting Alice’s life-changing commitment to Vedic worship.

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