The Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz, with its blossoming flowers nestled next to century-old gravestones, is as much a celebration of life and rebirth as it is a memorial to those who have passed away.
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) shared this idea when it kicked off its first event out of three successive weekends, “Beyond the Grave.” This first series of performances is all about appreciating the music of local artists as well as the souls of those buried at Evergreen.
“Beyond the Grave” hosted roughly 30 audience members to view and admire the work of local musicians that were inspired by the green terrain and stories of those buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
Established in the 1850s, the Evergreen Cemetery is one of California’s oldest public cemeteries. It is located next to Santa Cruz’s Harvey West Park and is the last resting place for thousands of historical Santa Cruz residents like Judge William Blackburn, one of the city’s first alcaldes or chief judges, from before California gained statehood.
“We were really inspired by trying to use outdoor spaces and certainly this is a beautiful historic property that has a lot of stories to it,” said executive director of the MAH Robb Woulfe. “We thought it was a great way for us to be able to support local artists and site-specific performances in this location.”
What do an opera singer, a bilingual folk band, and an avant-garde harpist have in common? For this event, these performers presented modern pieces inspired by the graveyard, uniting the living and the dead with music.
Born in Berlin, Germany, Akindele Bankole is a Nigerian American Opera singer who formally studied music at Sacramento State. He was exposed to music theory in the early 1970s by his uncle, Ayo Bankole, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Opening the show, Bankole earned the audience members’ full attention, singing classic songs like the 1959 bolero “Sabor a Mi.” Wearing a green aso oke hat and pants, Bankole shared an opera piece.
Bolero comes from two separate styles of smooth Latino music and the dances that accompany them.
“[As a] musician, being able to watch someone connect with their instrument and kind of feel that energy is something you don’t get online,” said audience member Stephanie Melchor. “It was something I didn’t realize I missed until I was right here watching this performance.”
Recently, Bankole has written many songs, including piano, choral, and orchestral pieces, and is currently working on an opera, “Lola’s Wedding.” Currently, he is putting together a collection of popular Yoruba songs that he hopes to premiere at The Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz in the near future. He also owns Veg on the Edge, a West African vegan restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz’s Abbott Square Market.
The Yoruba are an ethnic group from western Africa, generally from Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
UC Santa Cruz students Kayla Ybarra and Angel Cardenas Montalvo are members of Los Brownies, a bilingual folk band. The pair came together in the midst of the pandemic to share authenticity from underrepresented backgrounds through songs, combining ukulele, vocals, and bass.
Los Brownies played original songs inspired by the atmosphere of Evergreen Cemetery, like “Heridas,” which is about saying goodbye to loved ones. They switched from Spanish to English as the audience tapped their feet and cheered throughout the performance.
Ybarra, the lead vocalist, grew up in a progressive household with parents who supported their artistic endeavors, even letting them join the Los Angeles Children’s Choir. The student artist has a passion for social issues and politics, majoring in feminism studies with a concentration in law, politics, and racism.
After getting their first guitar at 13, Ybarra, now 21, has striven to make a positive difference in the world by joining the UCSC Cultural Arts and Diversity Research Center (CADrc), participating in bringing cultural shows and multicultural theater, like the African American Theatre Arts Troupe (AATAT) and Rainbow Theater at UCSC.
“The MAH was definitely celebrating both the art in general and giving a voice to people who were really interested in celebrating the community,” said Ybarra. “It was just a really great opportunity getting to connect with other human beings.”
Sabine Silver is a psychedelic and old-world classical harpist and vocalist who performs original compositions.
As the last performer of the day, the sound of her harp created a majestic and magical element at the graveyard. In an all-black outfit and fiery red lipstick, Silver’s spirited tunes and small gasps between the notes enticed audiences.
“The combination of the music and this beautiful place was so ethereal and sacred and beautiful,” said audience member Emily Harwich. “It almost felt like [Sabine Silver] created a portal, and we were all transported from the entire cemetery.”
Recently, Silver has released four albums that have circulated alternative music scenes for five years. With the aim of healing hearts and minds, she presents her project Public Harp Therapy on the streets every weekend to groups in the Bay Area and Southwest, which she live streams here.
Poets and spoken word performers Jamey Williams (Jamey the Poet), Bene’t Benton, and Jasmine Schlaftke (Queen Jasmeen) will showcase newly commissioned work influenced by the Evergreen Cemetery on Apr. 24 and 25. Each artist will present two new works and discuss the motivation behind their creations.
For more information about the MAH’s Beyond the Grave Spoken Word Performances on Apr. 24 and 25, or the Ancestral Healing Ceremony on May 15 and 16, click the links.