Acaraje traditional Brazilian street-food slung by the vegan-vixens of Homemade Hustle; the geopolitical-radical, 15-musician Brass Liberation Orchestra; and a sequin-clad, mustachioed 20-something getting down on the dance floor with with a 70+ senior hottie: Just a par-for-the-course Saturday evening at Zambaleta world-music school, founded by the Paris-born, Cairo-raised music scholar and producer Mina Girgis.
A lively sonic playground, San Francisco-based Zambaleta offers music and dance classes daily and hosts evening performances that often become foot-stomping, everybody-is-invited celebrations. As Mina tells it, Zambaleta is a place for “hullabaloos, hootenannies, and other musical encounters that lift the human spirit and create community.”
Founded last year, Zambaleta is the culmination of Mina’s ten years in the hospitality industry (starting at Disney World); his University of California ethnomusicology graduate degree (with a thesis entitled Latcho Drom for a Gadjo Dilo: The Problem with the Gypsy’s Indian Origin in World Music); and a thwarted effort to build an artist colony in Oaxaca, Mexico (it tanked when the economic collapse hit the Mexican financial market).
Housed within the Mission Language and Vocation School building on 19th Street, Zambaleta’s shared stomping ground includes a cavernous, mirror-lined dance hall; three 70’s-style classrooms outfitted with pianos, chalkboards, and old-fashioned school-house desks; and a corner café and bar.
In a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational context, Mina is fostering a musical-gathering place that’s oriented around a days-of-yore aesthetic. While the modern, Western music-economy model often puts a student in a private classroom with a private instructor in front of sheet music, highlighted with recitals and performances, Mina instead sponsors music-knowledge transmission from a collective, experiential approach.
Convening novices and professional musicians alike, Mina welcomes to Zambaleta those who are “rock stars, can’t keep a tune, or are both.” One’s level of technical skill matters less than a willingness to shrug off inhibition and enter the community-class fray, where world-class instrumentalists and vocalists lead music experiences that encourage play-based experimentation rather than rote memorization and drills.
Mina says the culture of music should be a human right. “According to the Western musical economy, if you’re not making money and on commercial radio, you’re not worthy of playing,” he says. “There’s this idea that people are more gifted than others.”
“I don’t believe that,” he says. “Anybody can be a great musician. That doesn’t mean being the greatest, it means singing in tune or dancing rhythmically. It’s not something outside of you that you need to cram in, but rather something inside that you need to free.”
The school’s first-ever music-class offering, “Embodied Singing,” taught by Columbian singer/songwriter Alejandra Ortiz, is a case in point. Mina says that after four weeks of classes, he realized that Alejandra never taught or talked about singing.
Instead, people created noises with their vocal chords by participating in silly sound games. “The games brought us to be kids in the room. It was hilarious. There was no instruction. It was super-experiential. There was no mention of pitch or tonality,” Mina says. “It was about singing without being about singing.”
Some of Zambaleta’s current classes include Brazilian Forró, Doun Doun and Djembe Technique, and Flamenca Singing.
Zambaleta derives its name from Mina’s encounter with a street funeral procession in Bali, at which multiple, differently tuned Gamelan ensembles played different songs simultaneously. Gamelan is traditional Indonesian orchestra, comprised of metal gongs, xylophones, drums, bamboo flutes, and bowed and plucked strings. The simultaneity resulted in a raucous, dissonant cacophony.
“They were intentionally creating a messy, disjunctive environment,” Mina says.
Back home visiting his family in Cairo, he could find no word to describe the experience other than zambaleta—a word that Mina says is exclusive to the Egyptian-Arabic dialect. “It’s used nowhere else in other Arab-speaking countries.”
Mina defines the term as a “euphoric, cacophonous, really happy, spontaneous, noisy street party,” adding that its etymology is elusive.
Zambaleta also neatly encapsulates the philosophical essence of Mina’s community music-school venture. “Hospitality in music and dance is about creating a space that encourages messiness and playfulness. It’s getting rid of taboos and musical inhibitions, while finding inspiration through non-intimidation and the joy of experience,” he says.
“It’s learning by playing, not learning to play.”
“Music bridges cultural gaps in deeper ways than, say, an Italian restaurant. Restaurants can be an introduction to another culture, but they are non-participatory in nature. It’s not enough,” Mina says.
“Food can correct gaps, but playing another culture’s music requires you to become engaged with that way of being.”
“You have to learn songs, language, mannerisms. It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s challenging to embody another culture, to learn ‘somebody else’s music.’ You can spend a lifetime trying to figure it out.”
*Photo credits include Shalaco Sching, May-Li Khoe, Azhar Hashem and Habi Girgis.