Around Town

The Call of the Drums

Where Rhythm, Movement and Culture Meet

    Taiko. Doing it is a lot more than getting together with a bunch of people to pound on drums. “It helps you to be present in mind and body. It releases stress. You become grounded through the earth and centered in the breath. It evokes a strong sense of inner joy and confidence.” That is the start of a multitude of benefits Janet Koike, artistic director and founder of Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works, can list when you get her talking about the art form that’s been her passion for nearly 20 years.
    Koike was doing jazz tap-dancing when, way back then, she saw a performance by members of the San Francisco Taiko dojo and immediately signed on. What drew her was the combination of rhythm and movement. Plus, the cultural aspects of the art form resonated with her Japanese-American roots. Traditionally in Japan, Koike explains, the drum has been used to speak to the spirits, to scare an enemy, to celebrate the harvest, in formal court proceedings, in kabuki theater; in countless facets of life. Only in the mid-20th century did taiko become a performance art. It’s been taught and performed in the United States since the 1970s; in the past 10 years, interest has soared.
    For several years now, Koike, a one-time arts coordinator for the Oakland Museum of California and for many years a regular performer with San Jose Taiko, has been effecting a quiet revolution in the art form. She was one of three people involved, in 1998, in forming Rhythmix, a world percussion ensemble. “We combined taiko with various drums and drumming forms from Africa, Cuba, the Middle East, Brazil and elsewhere. We got a contract with the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music program and took the performance into elementary schools.”
    The impact on the children—experiencing other cultures in this way—was profound, she says. She realized the potential value of a space for classes and performances with a focus on cultural diversity. This was realized when Koike opened Rhythmix Cultural Works in mid-2007.
    These days, in place of the schools program, she has Maze Daiko, a six-person performance troupe that takes rhythms from different cultures and plays them on taiko. They do shows throughout the Bay Area and also in Rhythmix’s roomy performance space. Part of the audience appeal is the performers’ and performances’ multi-sensual form. You see the fluid, athletic and often artistic movements of the players; the swirls of color in the flowing costumes; the flying drumsticks. You hear the energy, rhythms and tempo of the music, ranging from gentle throbbing to full-bodied pounding. And you feel the experience in your body—from a whisper to the roar of thunder.
    Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave., (510) 865-5060. See for taiko classes and details on the March 11 workshop and the March 13 performance by the Japanese song, dance and taiko ensemble Hanayui.
—By Wanda Hennig
—Photography by Craig Merrill

Leader of the Pack

    It’s hard to believe Alameda’s Michele Copen hasn’t been a pooch pusher her whole life.
    The photographer behind A French Bulldog for Every Season (Design Boutique, 2007, 256 pp., $50), Copen has been making up for lost time since going to the dogs after adopting her first Frenchie, Chowder, in 2004 and creating a classy coffee-table book celebrating these mischievous, soulful clowns of the dog world.
    Full of hundreds of photos of pups at play in natural settings through the seasons with occasional poetry-like text by Tandeeka Torrence-Kennedy, the tome pays tribute to a breed with new pop status fueled by celeb owners such as Martha Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carmen Electra. (Careful, Copen cautions: These fun-loving furry footballs have some health issues, so they aren’t for everyone, which Jan Grebe, president of the French Bull Dog Club of America, discusses in the opening pages.)
    “I wanted this to be a book for everyone, not about pedigrees and breeders. It portrays the breed the way I think it should be portrayed so you can see them for who they are,” says Copen, who, with husband Ken Copen’s blessing, has added a second Frenchie, Athena, and third, Leo, to their three-cat household.
    Copen, a freelance graphic designer and art director who exudes good karma, spent three years on her self-published labor of love, traveling the United States and Canada to network with Frenchiephiles, top breeders and trainers. Turns out this home-based freelancer is a savvy marketer whose charm and breed-cheerleadering have gotten her book into the paws of fellow Frenchie owner Mike Jeffries, the Abercrombie & Fitch chief executive officer who sells the book in Ruehl outlets. Locally, find it at Dog Bone Alley or Three Wishes or preview and order it online at
    Now smitten with publishing, Copen is considering another book. “Everything I read said do not get into book publishing to make money. Do it for the joy of publishing. I do it for the love of the project, and for me that is gratifying enough.”
—By Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Michele Copen


On the Downlow and Going Over the Top

    Watching Trackademicks slang his rhymes confidently onstage, weaving rhythmically and flinging his arms with brash aplomb, you’d never suspect that just a few years ago, the Alameda native otherwise known as Jason Valerio was just another shy college kid cloistered in a University of San Francisco dorm room, crafting his business-major papers as diligently as his beats. The only hints of Valerio’s past as a grind are his tie and the striped shirttails poking out beneath an archetypal collegiate sweater vest.
    “Anyone from Alameda here?” Valerio yells out on this hot ’n’ heavy Friday night at San Francisco’s Mighty. “D’ya know what topsidin’ is?” Whoops rise from the audience. “You know, jetsettin’, chillin’, kickin’ it ...” The crowd goes nuts, as hands are thrown up in the air, DJ Tap 10 triggers the backing track and Valerio and Honor Roll collective members 1 O.A.K. and Mike Baker the Bike Maker launch into the unreleased, infectious “Topsidin’.”
    The 26-year-old Valerio, son of a Filipino father and African-American mother, has been one of the hottest young producers around ever since his “unofficial” remix of E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go” emerged on major-market radio stations (including KMEL-FM, 106.1) and at clubs from here to L.A. to Las Vegas in 2006. “It’s definitely not a hyphy beat,” explains Valerio, who got his first taste of music-making in an Alameda High School band before going on to work for Youth Radio, where he met Tap 10. “I wanted to get to all the skeptics who didn’t like Bay music, and brought a regular hip-hop aesthetic to the song.”
    Valerio has since produced six tracks on Mistah FAB’s debut, Son of a Pimp; has put out several well-regarded, genre-splicing remix CDs; and added his touch to forthcoming releases by Lyrics Born and A-Trak.
    A 12-inch on New York’s Fools Gold imprint is in the works, although Valerio is still strategizing on the best way to approach an Honor Roll project amid current music industry upheaval. “Nowadays people’s careers can begin and end without anything official coming out,” he muses. “I think I’ve done relatively well based on the personal relationships I have. Not a lot of people are talking about me, but the right people are.”
—By Kimberly Chun
—Photography by Craig Merrill


Snap Cozy Crib Blankets: A Safe, Sound and Snuggly Night's Sleep

    Rebecca Nelson noticed that her infant daughter, Rayna, was having trouble staying warm in her crib at night. “I just couldn’t rest myself knowing that she was getting chilly in her bed,” Nelson says.
    So, with her mother-in-law’s help, Nelson crafted the prototype for her Snap Cozy Crib Blanket. “It was great!” Nelson says. “She would wake up and she would still be nicely tucked in.”
    Mass-producing the blanket was far from the busy mother’s mind. But after her second daughter was born in 2006, Nelson decided to make another version of her Snap Cozy. After consulting with friends in her mother’s group, as well as her pediatrician, Nelson continually revised her design. About 10 versions later, she had a safe and functional product. After finding a manufacturer in Oakland, the stay-at-home mother officially launched her Alameda-based business out of her home in September 2007.
    The two-layered Snap Cozy Crib Blanket is made out of cotton flannel with a layer of lightweight fleece. The bottom layer fits the whole size of the crib. It ties on, almost like a bumper pad, Nelson says. The top part of the Snap Cozy comes over the baby, up to his or her chest area. A safety seam keeps the baby from sliding completely under the blanket, and a slight scoop in the top portion of the blanket fits snuggly underneath the baby’s arms. The Snap Cozy is adjustable and fits infants up to 1 year old.
    The blanket also meets the American Academy of Pediatrics’ bedding guidelines, Nelson says. Its design encourages babies to stay on their backs, which the AAP recommends to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, she says.
    Available in yellow, pink or blue polka dots or mint green with animal images, the blanket can be purchased online at for $79.99. “You just have peace of mind knowing that your baby is nice and snug,” Nelson says.
“You wake up in the morning and
they’re happy.”
—By Ellen Keohane
—Photography by Rebecca Nelson


With Burny Matthews

Home Domain

    I love to cook. It’s a hobby that I enjoy immensely. When I’m in my kitchen dicing and chopping with my stereo blaring in the background, I couldn’t be happier. I find cooking in my kitchen to be so relaxing, fun and satisfying—it’s pure joy. And seeing friends and family enjoy my food is just icing on the cake.

    In the summer, somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., when the sun is low in the sky, casting long shadows on the fairway, it’s truly a sight to behold. If I were an artist, I’d love to capture that view on canvas. It is a scene that always takes my breath away and puts me in a great mood. And when I have had a good game, I think it’s all the more beautiful.

    In the basement of the police department is a briefing room where each morning the men and women on the police force meet to talk about the day ahead. In that room, at that time, there is camaraderie like no other. There’s compassion, wicked humor and a coming together of our street warriors that always warmed my heart when I was chief. I enjoyed seeing the officers leave that room with a smile on their face before they faced their day—that made my day.

    Cruising on my motorcycle in Alameda is a blast for me. It’s my favorite way to get around. I always see friendly, familiar faces wherever I go, while I’m having that free feeling you can only get on a bike. And practicing my figure eights is a real high for me. Like the saying goes, “Four wheels move the body. Two wheels move the soul.”

    There are only a few old-fashioned barbershops around anymore, and Razor’s Edge is one of them. It’s such a guy’s place. Taking your son there for his first haircut is practically a rite of passage. There’s something very masculine and old-school about that place that makes it so appealing and comfortable. It’s kind of like a neighborhood bar, without the alcohol.
—By Gina Jaber
—Photography by Craig Merrill

Keeping the Legacy Local

    If, like me, you’re one of the lucky beneficiaries of Alameda’s rising property values, you will be worth considerably more dead than you are alive. Whether you’re going to the chilly North or the steamy South, you can’t take it with you. So it’s a good idea to think about where you’re going to leave your money when you’re gone. While most people leave at least part of their estate to loved ones, writing a will is also an opportunity to be generous to worthy community organizations you can’t afford to support as fully now as you’d like. If you have enjoyed your stay in Alameda, why not leave it here when you go?
    Large and established nonprofits, such as the American Cancer Society and the San Francisco Opera, often have glossy pamphlets explaining the ins and outs of leaving financial bequests through organized efforts called legacy societies, while outreach by Alameda’s many smaller organizations may include merely a whisper in a program or an annual letter. This doesn’t mean their need is less. According to nonprofit consultant and author Janice Gow Pettey, legacy gifts are just as important for local and smaller nonprofits as well as for larger, better-known organizations. “Local arts organizations and historical societies rely on the generosity of donors to support their efforts,” Pettey says. “Planned gifts provide sustainability for the future.”
    Ask a financial planner for various options on how to leave bequests, but do your own research on where to give it. Experts suggest interviewing an organization before you make a significant gift, but for many people the process begins by giving their time. Marion Sherman gets dozens of requests for money each year from charitable organizations around the country that she’s never heard of. Feeling guilty when they send her stickers she didn’t ask for, she tears them up. She’s leaving money in her will to the Altarena Playhouse, where she has volunteered for years and now serves as a board member emeritus. A longtime Alameda resident, she also supports the Alameda League of Women Voters, Alameda Hospital, Alameda Meals on Wheels and several organizations on and off the Island that have been of assistance to friends.
    Another board member emeritus at the Altarena Playhouse, Adair Jorgensen, has been active for years with the Friends of Alameda Library. Jorgensen has seen firsthand how money left to the Ella Mae Waterbury Trust (now simply the Waterbury Trust) has benefited Alamedans. “All of the money in the trust goes to buy children’s books for the library,” she says. “You can contribute to that trust—and you don’t have to have a lot of money.”
    Jorgensen personally knew a man who has become one of Alameda’s most celebrated philanthropists: Frank Bette, whose bequest started the Frank Bette Center for the Arts. “I knew him through our Great Books group,” Jorgensen says. “He was an opinionated kook, always arguing!” Did she know he was an artist or that he was going to leave an arts center to Alameda? Jorgensen laughs. “I had no idea. It’s about time that our Alamedans did something like that. We need to keep the money at home.”
    For a list of Alameda charitable organizations, contact the Alameda Chamber of Commerce, (510) 522-0414,, or the Rotary Club of Alameda, (510) 522-6778,
—By Elisa Williams

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