Music and politics have long gone hand in hand. During the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger helped lead impoverished workers out of the Dust Bowl and into the union hall. In the 1960s, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Country Joe McDonald were among those urging a new generation to let their freak flags fly and resist the war in Vietnam. In the 1980s, politically minded punks such as Joe Strummer showed that it was cool — and important — to stay informed. Taking a cue from those who came before him, musician and activist Sheng Xiang has used the power of song to bolster social and environmental causes in his native Taiwan. In 1999, his music helped prevent construction of the Meinung Dam, which would have taken a huge toll on the southern Taiwanese countryside. As a child, he was influenced by his grandmother’s love of traditional mountain songs, which often depicted the hardships of rural life. He formed his first band in college, combining traditional sensibilities with a rock ‘n’ roll sound.
Sheng Xiang makes his first US appearance this Friday at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall as part of Cal Performances. His five-piece ensemble mixes traditional Chinese instruments with more modern equipment such as acoustic guitar and harmonica. The songs resemble American country or early rock ‘n’ roll sung in the Chinese dialect of Hakka. He will be accompanied by writing partner Zhong Yongfeng as well as Takashi Hirayasu, a master of the three-stringed lute (also called a sanxian), and Zhong Yufeng, a crossover musician with formal training in Chinese classical as well as Taiwanese folk music. The fifth musician is yet to be announced. Their performance is based on the band’s newest album, Getting Dark, which this year won three Golden Melody Awards, the Chinese equivalent of the Grammy. Sheng offers commentary between songs in Mandarin and English.
On Saturday at noon, Cal Performances hosts a related symposium, “Music, Community Politics, and Environmental Justice in Taiwan,” which includes the film East of County Road 184, a documentary about the political movement that stopped the dam project, as well as a panel discussion with the members of the band; Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network, and Asian cultural scholar Guo-Juin Hong from Duke University.
Tickets for the Friday night show are $22. The Saturday symposium is free. For more information, call Cal Performances at 510-642-9988 or visit CalPerfs.berkeley.edu — Keith Bowers
Or become Irish
So an Irishman, an Englishman, and an American are held hostage together in a cell in Lebanon. No joke, that’s actually the outline of Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, a play about what happens when people are forced to confront their own notions of humanity. Facing seemingly inevitable death, the three struggle to remain sane, and ultimately experience a catharsis of sorts. Gemma Whelan directs this Wilde Irish production, opening Friday at the Berkeley City Club (2315 Durant Ave.), and continuing until October 2. WildeIrish.org or 510-644-9940. — Eric K. Arnold
Talk of the Town
Onetime Berkeley resident Thornton Wilder called his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town “a little play with all the big subjects in it.” And though America has changed drastically since 1938, when Our Town was penned, the play has remained relevant. Now, especially, with the national debate over patriotism, core values, and community responsibility still at the forefront of our collective consciousness, there’s no better time to revisit Our Town — which is just what Berkeley Rep does in its season opener. Directed by Jonathan Moscone, with previews from September 9 at the Rep’s Roda Theatre, Wilder’s evergreen runs until October 23. Tickets are $30-$59; visit BerkeleyRep.org for more info. — Eric K. Arnold
Children’s Fairyland , the oldest storybook theme park in America, turns 55 this year. But while its decidedly low-tech approach sharply contrasts the overly bell-and-whistle-laden aesthetic of Six Flags and Great America, it’s still great fun for the kids (and young-at-heart adults), who are easily entranced by the magical atmosphere of puppet shows, storytelling, jugglers, and petting zoos. The birthday festivities Saturday and Sunday will be marked by a reunion of favorite Fairyland characters over the years, as well as performances by students from the Clown Conservatory, champion lariat-tosser Chyrle Bacon (aka Miss Wild West), and a cabaret-style puppet show, Fantasy on Strings. Info: 510-452-2259 or Fairyland.org — Eric K. Arnold