Real estate prices continue to skyrocket in San Francisco, but there’s one public space in particular that serves as a beacon of resistance to inflationary pressure. Since launching at the turn of the century, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival has transformed the urban oasis across the street from San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art into the region’s premiere venue for international music and dance, offering an extraordinarily diverse array of acts at an unbeatable price.
Running from May 6 through October 28, the festival presents more than 70 free performances encompassing music, dance, poetry, puppetry and circus arts. Supported by an array of foundations, businesses, individual donors and the city of San Francisco, the organization has earned a reputation for introducing international artists who often go on to bigger venues. The Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha, for instance, has become a regular presence on Bay Area stages via repeat engagements at the SFJazz Center and Freight & Salvage (with another Freight engagement Sept. 29-30) since making a sensational Bay Area debut at the 2014 YBGF.
The festival often pairs touring artists with Bay Area groups for canny double bills that resonate in interesting ways. This year, the YBGF kicks off on Sunday afternoon with New York City’s Mariachi Flor de Toloache and Berkeley’s Diana Gameros, a powerful female-centric pairing of artists deeply engaged with traditional Mexican music. A four-woman combo that often sounds like an ensemble twice that size, Flor de Toloache is led by violinist/vocalist Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol on the guitarlike vihuela, with trumpeter/vocalist Julie Acosta and Eunice Aparicio on guitarron.
Opening the concert is Mexican-born singer/songwriter Diana Gameros, who’s become a deservedly ubiquitous presence in the Bay Area as a captivating voice exploring the precarious emotional terrain navigated by immigrants, documented and otherwise. She’s honed a disparate repertoire including finely wrought original songs, but her recent album “Arrullo” is a nostalgia-laden program of Mexican folk songs she associates with childhood trips to visit her grandparents in a rural village about 350 miles south of her hometown, Ciudad Juarez.
Here are five more highly recommended YBGF concerts with an international scope:
Innov Gnawa and Book of J
Another inspired YBGF double bill pairs Moroccan and Ashkenazi blues. Innov Gnawa is a New York ensemble led by Moroccan-born Samir LanGus and mentored by Hassan Ben Jaafer, a master gnawa musician from Fes. A fascinating chapter in the African diaspora, gnawa is incantatory trance music created by Moroccans descended from slaves and soldiers brought north from Mali and Mauritania. Opening the afternoon is Book of J, an evolving collaboration between Charming Hostess vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg and Sway Machinery guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood. Steeped in haunted American roots music, the duo combines Yiddish laments and country blues, labor anthems and Biblical prophecy, creating music that’s soulful and weird in all the best ways. 1 p.m. May 12.