BERKELEY -- Imagine being served a sumptuous Peruvian feast by a chef from Chez Panisse and then being entertained by some of the Bay Area's best Afro-Peruvian and Chilean musicians and dancers, all for a donation of as little as $25. It's not a fantasy. It's a "South American Evening," this Saturday night at the Crowden Music Center in Berkeley.
The event -- a fundraiser for The Crowden School's seventh- and eighth-grade cultural tour of Washington, D.C., next year -- begins at 5:30 p.m. with dinner prepared by chef Kelsie Kerr, who just finished co-authoring a sequel to legendary Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters' book, "The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution."
Kerr's daughter, Ella Heckert, is a seventh-grader at the school; she plays violin and piano. The concert starts at 7 p.m., featuring folk violinist Daniel Zamalloa with De Rompe y Raja, Afro-Peruvian musicians and dancers, and Chilean dance group Araucaria.
Kerr, Zamalloa, and his wife Miriam Chion came up with the idea for the indigenous feast and concert three years ago. Kerr's daughter, Ella Heckert, is a seventh-grader at the school; she plays violin and piano. Zamalloa's son, Diego Zamalloa-Chion, also is a seventh grader at Crowden. Like his father, Diego plays violin.
Students and their families spend all year raising money for their cultural tours, which involve attending performances, visiting art museums and historical landmarks, and playing music with young local musicians. All of the expenses, including airfare, accommodations, food, cultural events, and transporting and renting musical instruments, must be paid from money raised throughout the year. It's a task that parents are happy to pursue.
"It's a wonderful school and well worth supporting," said Zamalloa, who was born in Cuzco, Peru, and began playing violin with an orchestra at age 7. "We're really happy with our son in that school."
Crowden is both a day school for grades four through eight and a community music center which hosts affordable classical music performances, provides rehearsal space, and offers classes, private lessons, workshops, and summer camps.
The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, Pacific Mozart Ensemble, and San Francisco Girls Chorus are among the many groups that use the facility to rehearse and record.
Students at Crowden spend two hours every morning in music classes and then go on to their core academic classes. Kerr believes that approach is key to the children's success as students and as people.
"They have a relationship not only with their academic teachers, who are fantastic, but with professional musicians, who also teach them," Kerr said. "It's wonderful for kids to have that kind of relationship with adults as mentors."
Starting the day with music, where they play together cooperatively, influences how they work with their academic teachers as well, Kerr noted.
"It's like team sports. They really have to work together, to get along with each other, and at the same time they have to allow each person to have his space," Kerr said. "The academic teachers can work with them in the same way, because of those relationships that are established. They're still kids, but the relationships they have with their teachers are unique, especially in the upper grades. They are challenged and respected at the same time, which I think middle schoolers really need."
The South American night promises to benefit from the same cooperative, yet independent spirit. Chion helped Kerr devise the indigenous menu, and Kerr will use her expertise as a chef to assemble the fresh ingredients and create the dishes in the school kitchen. Appetizers include cancha, a freshly prepared version of what we would call corn nuts, and papa a la huancaina, a spicy and creamy cold potato dish.
"Potatoes originated in Peru, so we have to have some potatoes," Kerr said.
The main dish is estofado de pollo, a sweet and savory chicken stew with bacon, olives, tomatoes, and wine. Lentils and roasted vegetables round out the dinner menu, with flan for dessert.
Then comes de rompe y rajah, about a dozen Afro-Peruvian musicians and dancers, led by choreographer Gabriela Shiroma, whose ancestry is Japanese-Peruvian. The final number, which combines that group and the Chilean dancers, will be the zamacueca, an indigenous Andean-African-Spanish dance that originated in colonial Lima in 1800, made its way to Argentina (eventually becoming the zamba), and went around the horn with sailors to Chile, Mexico, and all the way up to San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
"Sometimes people come up and dance with us," Zamalloa said. "It's contagious music."
Tickets for the South American evening are $25 to $50 (choose your own donation level) and may be purchased by phone at 510-559-6910 or at the school's front desk. Advance purchase is recommended. The Crowden School is at 1475 Rose St., Berkeley.