Review: Sun Hop Fat

This review was first published on the website for Connect the Dots, an arts & culture 'zine made by UC Berkeley students.

When I was in high school, I would attend Jazz Camp West every summer. The camp was situated in the redwoods of La Honda, known to hippies and English majors alike as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' sylvan acid playground. Most of the classes at the camp were taught outdoors, which is fairly unusual, considering pianos generally don't appreciate spending their nights in cold, damp forests. For eight days, the camp's 300 residents formed a temporary community, jamming and learning together. The connection between nature and music cannot be ignored in this environment; with the light breaking through the treetops and birds and wind accompanying the musicians, nothing could seem more natural than playing outdoors.

After I graduated high school, I longed to return to the camp, hoping I could once again experience the joy of playing and listening to fantastic music in such idyllic surroundings. Unfortunately, Jazz Camp West's tuition lies outside of most college students' budgets.

About a week ago, when I was working at Yali's Café, one of my regular came in to get his usual large coffee and ham-and-cheese croissant. After he ordered, he said, "Hey, there's gonna be a free show up at the Botanical Gardens on Thursday night at 5." I asked what kind of music the group would be playing. "Oh, jazz stuff. A nine-piece band playing some Ethiopian rhythms and some original compositions." He tore off a corner from the BAM Art Notes and scribbled down the details.

That Thursday, I made the trek up to the UC Botanical Gardens because I had forgotten to check a bus schedule. I walked through the front gate and looked around. The Gardens were deserted. I pulled out my phone and checked the time. It was approaching 5:15. I walked into the Gardens slowly, expecting to hear the faint sounds of Ethiopian rhythms by which I could guide myself. A woman in the front office noticed my bewildered self and stepped out. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah, is there supposed to be some sort of show?" I asked, thoroughly confused.

"Yes, it's in the Redwood Grove. Are you a UC student?"

"Yes." I replied matter-of-factly.

"Ten dollars."

"Oh. I had no idea there was money involved." I tried to remember the words of my misinformant.

She took my money with pleasure and directed me across the street to the Redwood Grove. I looked over my shoulder. All I could see was a parking lot. "Over there?" I inquired, still puzzled.

"Yes, to the left."

I crossed the street, walked into the parking lot, and looked to the left. Sure enough, there was a gate with redwoods towering behind it. I punched in the code provided by my cheerful cashier and continued down the gravel path. I checked the time again. Approaching 5:30 and still no sounds. After walking some distance, I came upon a very small amphitheater filled with families and older couples sitting on picnic blankets. Wine bottles were being passed around as people waited for the band to begin. I looked towards the stage and saw a variety of electric and acoustic instruments set up with power cords trailing off into nowhere. A nervous man walked onstage and spoke timidly into one of the microphones. After introducing the Botanical Gardens' summer concert series, he discussed the natural setting, "It actually gets lighter as the sun goes down. It's quite magical, really."

Sun Hop Fat sets up before the show.

Sun Hop Fat sets up before the show.

The band, known as Sun Hop Fat, came onstage and began their set. From the first downbeat, I knew my oddly specific wish to see fantastic music in a redwood forest had come true.

One activity I enjoy doing at concerts is taking my eyes off the band and looking around me. I like to see the reactions of my fellow audience members. To me, if there isn't a mutual emotional connection between musicians and their audience, they're doing something wrong. As the concert progressed, more and more people became visibly excited by the music. Delectable grooves emanated from the stage and audience members were simply carried away one by one. Just as the squirrelly, bespectacled MC had explained, it actually got lighter as the sun went down. Rays of light that had previously struggled to pierce the thick canopy of redwood needles began to pour through the trunks and branches. By the end of the show, we were all bathed in angelic light and had completely lost ourselves in the music.

Sun Hop Fat is a nine-piece Ethiopique jazz ensemble, meaning they fuse traditional Ethiopian sounds with those of contemporary jazz. The result is funky, soulful, and accessible to any listener. For the last number, the lead vocalist requested that we all stand. He loved that so many people had already gotten up to shake and jive with them. As the band played their farewell jam, I looked around once again. We were all moving together, connecting with the beat, with each other. I previously described a "temporary community" consisting of the Jazz Campers, but I now realize that it is not temporary, nor is it limited to Jazz Camp West. The community between enjoyers of music is always there, and it takes great bands like Sun Hop Fat to energize that community.