Dancing the Revolution

Berkeley's Ashkenaz remembers its founder by doing what he loved best: dancing to world music.

Five years ago this week, David Nadel was murdered by a gun-wielding drunk he refused to let into Ashkenaz. Friday’s “David Fest” gives the community a chance to gather and remember his life by doing what he loved most: dancing to musics of the world. For those in the Ashkenaz loop, no explanation is needed for “David Fest,” not even a last name. Word is out that three of Nadel’s favorite musicians will provide an array of dance music to honor the club founder and the often-magical place he created at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Street. Berkeley’s Aux Cajunals play and sing French-Cajun Louisiana music, while the Nigerian Brothers offer roots songs of their West African homeland, and Santa Cruz’s Tropical Vibrations perform a Caribbean mix of calypso, reggae, and soca.

“I’m trying to look at it as a celebration of David, and not feel bad,” says Suzy Thompson, the concert’s organizer and fiddler/singer in Aux Cajunals. “I think I speak for everybody when I say I miss David, always.”

Fleet-footed activist Nadel not only showed up on the front lines of Berkeley’s political battlegrounds — he opened Ashkenaz 28 years ago as a grassroots, all-ages hall for dancing the revolution. From his continuous confrontation with UC Berkeley over People’s Park, and for such antics as hanging a banner across the front of Ashkenaz proclaiming, “Tax the rich until there ain’t no more rich!,” Nadel was one of Berkeley’s most controversial, outspoken, and beloved characters. Ironically, there was nothing at all political about his death. It was a pointedly violent act in a place dedicated to nonviolence, a folksy utopia built on the belief that no matter what one’s culture or politics, everyone can put them aside and dance together as equals.

Following Nadel’s death, a rabid coalition of supporters — friends, coworkers, musicians — rallied to turn his club into a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping those goals alive. Today Ashkenaz thrives, with daytime classes in music and dance, nightly shows (in addition to local world music groups, the club has recently hosted the Super Rail Band, Don Carlos, Mighty Sparrow, and Ras Michael), and regular benefits for groups ranging from Musicians for Medical Marijuana to the Revolutionary Association of Afghani Women.

Aside from some upgrading, the Ashkenaz ambience has changed little. A new sound system was paid for by a series of Deadhead dances, and a new dance floor will be installed while the club is closed in January. Nadel would have loved the new floor — it’s all recycled wood, tongue-in-groove maple from the Hudson Pencil Factory in San Leandro. The one musical style missing from “David Fest” is his favorite, Balkan music, but that’s because the final show on the old floor, on New Year’s Eve, is an all-Balkan night led by the band Edessa.

“David was curmudgeonly, but he was the fairest club owner I’ve met. All musicians will tell you that,” Thompson says. “David created this wonderful little world, and it really is the world here. Just look at the musicians and the dancers on any night.”


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