A man with a fedora and tie, on the bongos with a mike coming toward him.
John Santos. Photo by Tom Ehrlich.

San Francisco didn’t invent the idea of the free outdoor concert series, but the city has taken this cultural amenity to its bosom, embracing opportunities to combine the region’s natural splendor with musical stimulation. 

The fanfare greeting the announcement of the Stern Grove Festival is a veritable spring ritual in the Bay Area, and last week’s posting of the 86th annual season detailed a roster of crowd-pleasing acts appearing in the sylvan summer setting on Sundays from June 18 to August 20 (reservations required). Less heralded but far more democratic in terms of accessibility and creative range, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival has come out of pandemic’s depths with a greater sense of mission. 

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Running through September 30, with performances several days a week, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival kicks off Saturday, May 6, with a Latin music double bill featuring the John Santos Sextet and the Afro-Peruvian Coalition. Santos will be joined by several special guests, including Fania All-Stars timbales legend Orestes Vilató and vocalist Marina Lavalle, who was a longtime member of the great folkloric ensemble Peru Negro and is also a part of the Afro-Peruvian Coalition. 

Led by percussionist/vocalist Pedro Rosales, the Afro-Peruvian Coalition is a music and dance ensemble that brings together the West Coast’s leading Afro-Peruvian performers, including Los Angeles dancer Nadia Calmet, an internationally recognized choreographer and soloist who’s collaborated with the great Afro-Peruvian singer Eva Ayllon. 

Saturday’s program is an apt opening for a festival that comprehensively showcases the Bay Area’s leading Latin music artists, while also encompassing jazz, R&B, opera, ethnic culture festivals, dance, and circus arts. But with this year’s season the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival is just as interested in engaging with people off stage. Looking to turn the Gardens into a space for all kinds of al fresco activities, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival features regular yoga classes, salsa workouts, and public art tours. 

Linda Lucero,  Yerba Buena Gardens Festival's executive and artistic director.
Linda Lucero, Yerba Buena Gardens Festival’s executive and artistic director.

The new sense of mission is a direct response to the pandemic, when “welcoming public spaces became more essential than ever,” said Linda Lucero, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival’s executive and artistic director for the past two decades.

“We’re really determined to have the festival continue to be accessible for all kinds of things that are possible in this space. It’s a space to be joyous, dance, and let loose. A place for people to come out of their houses and just be with other people. A place for people of all walks of life to have all kinds of experiences.” 

Lucero, who was born in the Fillmore and raised from the age of six in the Mission, said her vision for the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival is shaped by her formative experiences as an early volunteer at La Raza Silk Screen Center at 3147 16th St. (a spinoff of La Raza Information Center). She went on to become director of the organization when it was known as La Raza Graphic Center, which was at the crux of the Mission’s roiling arts and activism scene in the 1970s and ’80s. 

“We did our own designs, but mainly a lot of posters,” Lucero said. “At that time, with no social media or smartphones, people promoted activism or dances with posters. We were founded to serve the Latino community, but quickly started working with all types of people.”

She went on to serve as curator of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which flowed naturally into directing the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (a kindred, but independent, nonprofit arts presenter). These days, she the guiding spirit at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, which is largely programmed by Marcelo Aviles and Cristina Ibarra. She sees their ascendance as part of her work. 

“I want to encourage other people, and not just in my organization, to take more leadership.” she said. “People of color, especially. Curating performances is an art form in itself. I fell into it, and I love it. Preston Justice has also been part of the team doing curating for years.” 

With dozens of free performances, just about every week offers an event of interest, but here are five highly recommended gigs.

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Howard Wiley 

12:30-1:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1 

The Oakland tenor saxophonist is recognized by his musical peers around the country as one of jazz’s most prodigious improvisers. Keeping the toughest company, he delivers jazz that’s palpably connected to its social music roots. 

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La Mezcla 

1-3 p.m. Saturday, June 17 

Founded by Vanessa Sanchez, the all-woman, Mission-based company combines African-American tap with the percussive footwork of Afro-Mexican son jarocho and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. This performance offers a preview of “Ghostly Labor,” a piece exploring labor struggles along the US/Mexico border, and excerpts from the award-winning production Pachuquísmo inspired by the Zoot Suit Riots in World War II-era Los Angeles. Laura Rebolloso, singer, dancer, poet, leona master and co-founder of the great Veracruz son jarocho band Son de Madera, opens the afternoon with a solo set before accompanying La Mezcla.

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Circus Bella’s Bananas

Noon Friday, June 23, and noon and 2:15 p.m. Saturday, June 24 

A longtime festival favorite, Circus Bella returns with a new show designed for audiences of all ages. A one-ring attraction founded and directed by aerialist Abigail Munn, Circus Bella features an eclectic cast of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers and clowns, accompanied by accordionist Rob Reich and his superlative six-piece Circus Bella All-Star Band with violinist Clare Armenante, trumpeter Ian Carey, saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, percussionist Michael Pinkham, and tuba expert Jonathan Seiberlich playing Reich’s original music (he returns to the Gardens July 6 with his relentlessly syncopated band Swings Left). 

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Yosvany Terry & Gema Corredera and Arun Ramamurthy Trio

1-3 p.m. Saturday, July 1

An astonishing improviser, Cuban saxophonist, composer and chekere maestro Yosvany Terry has been a regular presence on Bay Area stages for the past two decades. He returns with his jazz quintet, featuring powerhouse Cuban vocalist Gema Corredera, a relatively new face on the U.S. scene. The double bill opens with a set by Carnatic violinist Arun Ramamurthy and his New York trio with electric bassist Damon Banks and drummer/percussionist Sameer Gupta, who first gained renown living in the Bay Area.

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Joe Baatan & La Doña 

1-3 p.m. Saturday July 15

Fania salsa star Joe Baatan has spent long stretches away from the music since he first gained fame in the mid-1960s, but the pioneer of the R&B-infused soulsa sound is still going strong at 80. The afternoon starts with a jolt of energy from femmetón star La Doña (aka Cecilia Peña-Govea), who’s been a festival mainstay since she was a tyke performing with her parents’ La Familia Peña band. Blending reggaetón and hip hop beats with dance-inducing Latin American roots music, La Doña casts a spell on whatever stages she inhabits.  

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