Ashkenaz marks its golden anniversary this year, and the Bay Area’s one-of-a-kind music and dance venue is ready to celebrate.
The beloved Berkeley hall – its complete name is Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center – has been a mecca for artists, musicians, dancers, teachers and students since 1973, when its late founder, David Nadel, first opened its doors.
This year marks the hall’s 50th, with special events celebrating Ashkenaz’s history as a place dedicated to live world and roots music – and honoring Nadel’s contributions to arts in the community.
It begins Jan. 14 with the “Ashkenaz Golden 50th Anniversary Kickoff,” an evening-length event featuring Balkan duo Nakarat, West African kora artist Karamo Susso, Afro-Brazilian group Samba Dá, and dance demos by choreographer Kathy Reyes and Nonstop Bhangra.
That’s just the beginning: still to come this month are events including a “Hendrix and Marley Celebration” with RavensWing (Jan. 20); Country Night with Mitch Polzak and the Royal Deuces (Jan. 21); Soul Sanctuary Dance (Jan. 22); Zydeco/Cajun Allstars (Jan. 24); Grateful Dead Night with Scott Guberman (Jan. 25); Rico Fridays Latin Music (Jan. 27), and a tribute to reggae great Toots Hibbert, featuring Hibberts’ son, Junior Toots (Jan. 28).
For Sarah Travis, executive director of Ashkenaz, the 50th anniversary celebration is significant in many ways.
“The 50th anniversary is huge,” she said in a recent interview. “But celebrating right after coming out of the pandemic is also huge. We were closed for over two years — March of 2020, to June, 2022 — and the last six months were about rehiring folks, getting the venue up and running again.
“We were definitely missed, and we got lots of messages of support. Now we’re back, and because it’s the 50th anniversary, we’re doing even more. We have a new Country Night, Cajun and Zydeco at least two times a month, and Grateful Dead nights weekly.”
Ashkenaz has always been a significant destination for music and dance lovers throughout Berkeley and the greater Bay Area. The West Berkeley dance hall, a former warehouse on San Pablo Avenue, was modeled after an Eastern European wooden synagogue — the kind founder Nadel’s Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors might have frequented.
A dedicated human rights activist, Nadel was also a folk dancer with the Westwind International Folk Ensemble, and he made dance an integral part of the Ashkenaz mission. “His vision was always to lift up international dance, to lift up cultures and bring people here for international culture and support,” said Travis.
Reyes, who has been teaching dance at Ashkenaz since 2016, agrees. A Latin dance specialist, she’s also an Ashkenaz board member, and has developed innovative programs for the venue. Ashkenaz, she says, has always been a hub for dance performances and classes, as well as a welcoming space for free-style dancing to the music of the many stage artists on its calendar.
During her tenure, she’s expanded those programs. She teaches regular Latin dance classes, attracting groups from University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere, and brought in other instructors from out of state to teach additional dance forms.
“We had an all-female weekend, with tango, flamenco, jazz and hip-hop,” she said, adding that during the pandemic, they were able to offer classes via Zoom.
Reyes says she’s especially proud of her work with younger dancers, and those in a wide range of ages and experience. “The Tuesday public classes are for anyone,” she says. “Right now, my youngest is 7 years old, and the oldest is in her 70s. It’s such a treat to see that.”
According to Travis, dance will continue to be central to the Ashkenaz mission. “That’s one of the things that sets us apart from other venues,” she said. “We don’t book shows unless you can dance to it.”
The official post-Covid reopening, in June 2022, was spectacular, she added. “It was an all-day celebration with eight hours of performances — four bands, music and dance, Turkish music, Brazilian samba with dancers, and more. Over 600 people attended.”
The festivities will continue throughout the anniversary year; Travis said they will be announcing new artists, additional events and series, picnics, a year-end gala, and more. “We’ll be bringing back some bands and introducing new ones; another series will focus on history: a museum week focusing on protest, bringing out archival material, with the Arhoolie Foundation of Berkeley, and a curated museum exhibit on the women who built Ashkenaz.”
“Ashkenaz Golden 50th Anniversary Kickoff” is at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 14 at 1317 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Visit ashkenaz.com.