Sounds of Africa, Cuba Come Together in Alameda

Courtesy photo  Kelly Takunda Orphan performs with her KTO Project ensemble this Saturday at Rhythmix.

Sounds of Africa, Cuba Come Together in Alameda


Kelly Takunda Orphan comes by her claim to global citizenship in music and in life via her family’s Armenian roots, her African education and years spent performing in the Bay Area world music scene. Alamedans will have the chance to hear her ensemble, the KTO Project, at Rhythmix Cultural Works on Saturday, June 25.

Featuring special guest Erick Barberia, a Cuban percussionist and singer, the concert promises a rousing dance party to welcome the arrival of summer. Titled Celebrate the Sun, the show will combine musical styles from around the globe with lyrics sung in English and the Shona language of the Bantu people of Zimbabwe, in southern Africa.

Kelly, who grew up in San Jose and lived in Alameda for awhile before settling in Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood, was regularly exposed by her father from an early age to all kinds of music from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Her paternal grandfather took the name “Orphan” after losing his extended family to the Armenian genocide just over a century ago and fleeing to Fresno.

She dove into west African music as soon as she first heard it. As a keyboard and percussion player earning a music degree at San Jose State University, she was working in a coffee shop when she met a guitarist also inspired by African sounds. Together they performed with Babatunde Olatunji of Nigeria, who is credited with introducing African music to the United States.

Orphan then spent a year abroad studying at the University of Zimbabwe: “I was the only white person singing and dancing” in a choir performance at a state dinner where the guest of honor was Nelson Mandela, the new president of South Africa who had spent 29 years as a political prisoner, she says. “I got to shake his hand,” she said, beaming. 

Orphan herself was honored by a music teacher with the name Takunda, which means “success in all you do,” at a formal ceremony. And she made lifelong friendships, including with Piwai, a singer and player of the mbira, the Zimbabwean national instrument. With 22 to 28 keys mounted on a round soundboard, it produces remarkable, multitonal music. Piwai, too, will be on stage at Celebrate the Sun.

Orphan’s work has long brought together the varieties of music that she learned from her father; the rock, blues and funk of her Bay Area youth; and the music she drank in while in Africa. Over the past 10 years, she has increasingly incorporated Latin influences to the mix as well. The combination is not as peculiar as it may sound. 

“There are 12 notes, and we all have heartbeats” she says. “There are similarities in all of it. It’s just a small world.”

KTO Project featuring Erick Barberia, Celebrate the Sun: Tickets $20 in advance, $25 day of the show. All seating general admission. Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave., 510-865-5060,



Daniel Nevers is the associate director of Rhythmix Cultural Works.