“Instead of them having to come out of their shell and go to a professional recording studio and drop a lot of money if they don’t have a job,” Sinnreich said, “we would bring them the studio.”
The year-long project, dubbed “Out of Our Shells”, culminated in a concert on Sunday and the release of a compilation album the following day. On a blustery afternoon, the strangest queues filled a Takoma backyard with the sounds of bagpipes, harmonica solos and the crackle of Colombian drums.
It wasn’t a sold-out show in a hallowed jazz hall, but for Sinnreich it was authentic DC music, through and through.
“There’s a wealth of musical talent and culture in the DC area that doesn’t normally seep into our media and our official narrative,” Sinnreich said. “We’ve only started to exploit that.”
Punk and ska guitarist Richard Benjumea recalls the “fateful night” in March 2020 when news of a virus broke on TV while he was drinking with bandmates at a bar. They thought it was no big deal. Then the confinement arrived, and without concerts or rehearsals to play, his group separated. Its drummer moved to Florida. A guitarist left for LA
“I was kind of back to square one,” Benjumea said.
Paapa-Berchie Berko was ready for his big break. The Maryland-born R&B singer, then completing his final semester at the University of North Carolina, was scheduled to open for a school gig and meet with Interscope Records executives. Instead, he sat in his childhood bedroom and read the email announcing that the campus would not reopen after spring break.
“I found out the day we closed that I had been chosen to be the opener,” Berko said. “It hurts.”
Around them, the stalwarts of the DC music scene withered. Beloved jazz club Twins closed in August 2020, and legendary nightclub U Street Music Hall followed in October. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s initial attempt to reintroduce in-person shows at a few venues with strict capacity limits raised concerns from organizers.
Benjumea, Berko and the rest of the DC area musicians – cut from a music scene known for its intimacy
— suddenly had to pursue their art alone, confined to their homes.
Alison Caro and her fellow Colombian all-female band La Marvela tried to play together online, but it didn’t seem right. Without quality microphones, their sound suffered. And the slight delays on video calls made it impossible to play complex drum beats in time. Viola player Megan DiGeorgio couldn’t stand her own haphazard collaborations on Zoom, where instrumentalists performed individually listening only to click tracks.
“I got so exhausted,” DiGeorgio said. “It was missing what really made me love the music, the true and real collaboration.”
All, however, wanted to continue playing. When news of Sinnreich’s traveling recording studio came through the grapevine, they jumped at the chance to create something new.
“I had to keep the parking lots in front of my house,” said Amy Vitro, a teammate of Caro who, in 2021, was hosting La Marvela for socially distanced rehearsals at her Silver Spring home. When Sinnreich arrived in his van and outfitted Vitro’s living room with microphones and cables, La Marvela finally had the equipment to professionally record an original song for the first time.
In a vacant underground punk club, an empty church and several sessions inside the van, Sinnreich and Best recorded 14 artists in total. They chose from over a hundred demos to also feature pipers from the Maryland Youth Pipe Band, a saxophone-led cover band dedicated to ’70s funk band War, and Rocknoceros, a folk duo who covered songs for children.
On Sunday, nearly all of the project’s artists gathered for a small concert at Rhizome DC, a community art house in Takoma, to celebrate the album’s upcoming release.
About 50 fans took to Rhizome’s leafy courtyard to watch. Most of them, as Sinnreich had hoped, ended up hearing something completely new.
“You got hip-hop fans from the southeast [D.C.] and you have Afropop fans from Silver Spring and folk musicians from Mount Pleasant,” Sinnreich said before the show of the varied scenes in the area he hoped to bring together.
The artists were – finally – next to each other in person, Berko hanging on to La Marvela’s performance while DiGeorgio chatted with the pipers. For some, it was a quiet pit stop amid a schedule of shows that came back strong after coronavirus restrictions eased and venues reopened. For others like Benjumea, it was a milestone – his band’s new lineup’s first live performance after hastily assembling a team during the pandemic.
La Marvela is busier than ever, Caro said, with National Hispanic Heritage Month approaching in September. But performing on the “Out of Our Shells” album meant a lot to her; it was an opportunity to connect La Marvela to a wider audience as she felt that Colombian bands — and an all-female band, no less — weren’t the most well-known in the district’s music scene.
“Because of the music we have and the band profile we have, I felt a bit like a tourist,” Caro said.
She was in her element when La Marvela took to the stage, beaming as she took the mic as Vitro started drumming. Their music, the shaking of maracas punctuated by high-pitched drumbeats on the lamador and call-and-response songs, is made for dancing, she told the crowd.
“Me nicethis is Colombia for you,” Caro said.
Hope Davison contributed to this report.