By Marcus Henderson
The San Quentin Music Program put on a Juneteenth Celebration on the Lower Yard this year.
Juneteenth is the celebration of the final slaves being freed from Texas in 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“This was a wonderful stress reliever,” said spectator Charles Ross. “It’s a lot of talent locked up. Today shows we might have been knocked down, but we weren’t knocked out.”
The band New Syndicate of Funk (NSF) primed the crowd with soul classics by the Dazz Band and the Isley Brothers.
Lead singer and keyboardist Rico Rogers’ voice soothed with each note and Lee “Jazz” Jaspar’s guitar dazzled. Daryl Farris played bass as drummer Dwight Krizman’s and Latin percussionist Jimmy Rojas’ rhythmic skills rounded out the symphony of funk.
“Today was about honoring everyone who had fought for our freedom,” said Rogers. “It’s about not mixing the negative with the positive.
Jaspar had the crowd singing along to “What You Won’t Do” by Bobby Caldwell and also performed a blues number.
Rogers performed two original songs, “I Can’t Stand It” and “Slow Dancing.” The band ended its set with “Joy and Pain” by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.
“Our group has a lot of diversity,” said Rojas. “Being able to take people back with our music to places they once enjoyed is a healing.”
The band Contagious brought a mixture of Hip-Hop, Rock and African-Caribbean soul. The group consisted of singer/rapper David Jassy, keyboardist Kevin D. Sawyer, drummer James Benson, vocalists Jesse Reed and Paul Comauex, percussionist John “Doc” Holiday, guitarist Jaspar, and bassist Farris.
They performed eight original songs. “Gambia” was a song about a musician singing to feed his family.
Jassy sang the verses in the West African dialect of Jola, Wolof and Mandinka as the band provided the cultural sounds.
They performed “Not the Mistakes I Made” that had a rock twist and “These Walls,” a song about prison life that had a reggae rock vibe.
Jassy’s lyrical versatility painted vivid storylines to each song.
The most personal song was “Don’t Worry ‘Bout It,” a letter to Jassy’s son.
“My son is in Sweden,” he said. “It’s hard to be supportive when you are so far away and incarcerated; that was my way to express my love for him.
“I think it captures how all fathers here feel.”
He dedicated “Homing Coming” to his former cellmate Samuel Woige, who returned to Kenya.
“It’s a song about faith and to walk with hope,” said Jassy. “It gives you the feeling that you are really going home.”
The group ended with “Freedom,” a song that perfectly fit the day; it spoke to everyone.
Rapper Jesse “Jessie James Slim” Smith energized the young crowd with his song “Nintendo.”
“It’s about growing up with nothing and how the streets changed me,” said Smith.
He performed “You Can Be Anything,” a song to inspire kids to follow their dreams.
“Today gave you the sense that we haven’t made it, but we are still on the road to get there,” said spectator Obadiah Flowers. “The goal is to strive for peace.”
The smooth grooves of jazz group Con-Sensus had the crowd cruising to the sounds of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, “Lydian” and “For the Love of You,” two renditions by Norman Brown.
The musical ensemble consisted of guitar man Charlie Spencer, saxophonist Joe Demerson, bassist Terry Slaughter, vocalist D. “Champ” Hill and keyboardist sponsor/volunteer Denali Gillaspie.
“It’s always good to see everyone enjoying the day,” said Denali. “We worked hard every day of the week for this.
“I’m lucky to be involved with a great group of musicians—shout out to Raphaele Casale.”
Denali sang “Giving You the Best that I Got” by Anita Baker to the delight of the crowd.
The group closed with Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Hotter Than July)” that made the audience stand up and whistle.
The June 18 event wrapped up with Harun Taylor, accompanied by the band, holding a moment of silence for everyone who has lost someone this year, including Muhammad Ali and Prince.
As the soft sounds of the band eased in, Taylor performed a masterful spoken word piece chronicling the life of Ali. He depicted Ali’s childhood, his fights, not going to war, his Parkinson’s disease, and his carrying the Olympic torch.
Taylor underscored why Ali was the people’s champ, and the crowd join in unison yelling “Ali Bum-bi-ye.”