Rhonda Benin’s ‘Just Like a Woman’ concert ready to rock Berkeley
By Lou Fancher
Bold moves and blues-infused jazz laced with lyricism reflect the signature style of Oakland-based singer Rhonda Benin.
Bringing an A-list lineup to the fifth annual “Just Like a Woman” show Saturday at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, Benin champions contributions made by Bay Area women in the music industry. The all-female lineup includes country singer Miko Marks, jazz vocalists Jackie Ryan, Lucille Hurd (aka Ladee Diva Chico), LindaKay, Carmen Getit and teen talent Moriah Brooks. Joining the headliners will be the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band led by pianist Tammy Hall Hawkins, with bassist Aneesa Strings, drummer Ruth Price, saxophonist Kristen Strom and guest trombonist Angela Wellman.
“My goal for this year and all the years I’ve been producing this show has been to present a variety,” Benin says. “I’ve been concerned about people getting a bang for their buck.
Given all the talent on hand, Benin, 62, need not worry. And as for musical variety, it’s in her DNA. Her legacy reaches back to the African origins of jazz, Caribbean music, and African-American folk music and spirituals.
Benin grew up in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district and says, “My mother would tell you that as a toddler, if she fed me and put me next to the radio, I’d stay in one place. I’d hold onto my crib and sing and rock. I’ve always been like this.”
Singing anything and everything led Benin in 1995 to the groundbreaking outfit Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir. Benin has also performed or recorded with Taj Mahal, Al Green, Jackson Browne, Hugh Masekela, Sweet Honey in the Rock and others. After 25 years of touring, she “pulled back to strategize, play the rooms I wanted to” and earned her teaching credentials. Benin works with special education students at elementary schools in the Oakland Unified School District.
“I’m teaching them like I got taught,” she says, “making them work on critical thought. I don’t think that’s being taught in the inner-city schools. It’s part of the breakdown in public schools. The kids are written off, teachers overworked, underpaid and faced with kids who have many problems. There are psychologists on the campus. Maybe schools have been asked to do too much.”
Benin’s no-nonsense approach doesn’t include time to teach music, but she adopts lessons learned onstage for the classroom, including the understanding that you have to connect with your audience.
“I have relationship with children. I like them, number one. I’m stern in a real nice way. I have an imagination of an artist. A lesson that could bore you to tears, I can turn it into something else.”
And there is nothing boring in the not-so-hidden messages in the all-female show delivered by Benin with good-hurting, powerful punch. The loving, bridge-like concept that “people who play or hear music together are going to eat and laugh together,” is primary. But close on love’s heels, Benin rails against financial inequity for women in the music industry. As for blues music, she wonders if African-Americans have lost or have ceded control of it or if it has been taken from them.
“When I walk into a venue with an all-white audience and all-white band, the reaction is, ‘huh, here they come.’ It’s double worse for a black man. It’s easy to replace the black artist. How is that, when the music comes from our culture?”
Still, in selecting her “Just Like a Woman” lineup, Benin follows a perspective colored by inclusion, empathy and love — and produces a show that sells out every year because it’s “knock out” and full of female talent.
“Miko Marks is a rarity,” she says. “A black woman in country music who’s making strides. Country means a white guy with a guitar, but I saw her take down a room. There were tears in everyone’s eyes. Jackie Ryan, she embodies jazz. Lucille, I need that sister girl; she’ll rock and bring the audience to dancing.”
Benin says that a commitment to community involvement and mentoring also influence the artists she invites.
Beyond thoughts of touring the show and considering retirement from teaching, Benin says recording a new R&B and soul CD is on her to-do list. Until then, she’ll perform when and where it’s fun — and continue to sing and rock like there’s no tomorrow.