Karl Evangelista and Grex: Pioneering Change Through Music with “Auntie + Tebs”

By Stephanie Gancayco. Posted May 29, 2024.

One could argue about the fundamental role that art plays in a revolution; but with wars, genocides and massive injustices raging in every corner of the globe, speaking out no longer feels like just an option. For Filipino American guitarist and composer Karl Evangelista, creating politically-fueled music that connects people has long been a deep part of his life’s work. The nephew of Miriam Defensor Santiago – a revered and highly honored longtime public servant who devoted her life to toppling corruption and oppression in the Philippines – Evangelista has definitely inherited a powerful legacy to uphold. With influences ranging from Nirvana to John Coltrane, he seamlessly weaves together modern jazz, 20th-century experimentalism, indie rock and blues into a rich and diverse sonic landscape, his innovative approach and artistic vision establishing him a standout voice in the exploration of post-cultural, genre-fluid sounds.

Experimental duo Grex, comprised of Evangelista and longtime partner Rei Scampavia, is set to debut their latest performance, “Auntie + Tebs” on Friday, May 31st at the Drescher Ensemble Studio in Oakland, California. This new work is a celebration of change and the power of making noise, fusing jazz, rap, and electronic music with visuals and spoken word. “Auntie + Tebs” draws inspiration from the activism of the Bay Area and the courageous struggles in countries like the Philippines and South Africa, paying tribute to Santiago, Evangelista’s Aunt and Louis Moholo-Moholo, a pioneering South African drummer and Anti-Apartheid activist. “Auntie + Tebs” delves into the consequences of speaking out against injustice and the transformative impact it can have, offering a thought-provoking and powerful musical journey. Grex will be joined by drummer Robert Lopez, cornetist Bobby Bradford, Francis Wong, and saxophonist Zoh Amba for this compelling performance.

From left: Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez.

East Wind: Can you tell me a bit about your early relationship with music and how that continues to evolve? Are you self-taught, did you study music etc.?

Karl Evangelista: I began formal study on guitar at age 12. Though I received some classical instruction, I focused on jazz and blues music throughout my teens. I’m an autodidact to the extent that I have always sought out music that operates outside of the mainstream – hence my interest in “outsider” styles like free jazz, electroacoustic improvisation, experimental hip-hop, and so on.

EW: The show title “Auntie + Tebs” references two people who are clearly super important figures in your life. Are you tying them together through this new work in some way, like a dialogue or narrative of some kind?

K: I’m thankful that my duo Grex, which features my longtime collaborator and partner Rei Scampavia, is flexible enough to mount work like “Auntie + Tebs.” Grex allows me to tackle personal issues in [a] creatively resonant way.

My original intention with this project was to find a way to reconcile my family history with my life as a musician-activist. My Aunt was Miriam Defensor Santiago, a multi-term Filipino senator who is often regarded as the rightful winner of the 1992 Filipino Presidential Election. I often feel responsible for continuing her legacy – if not as an actual political actor, than as someone  who upholds many of the ideals that she fought for.

I recognized early into my career as a musician that many of the artists that I admire, including South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo (known to friends as “Tebs”), use music as a platform for catalyzing political and social change. Louis combated the Apartheid regime with the power of music. My Aunt used rhetoric and her surpassing intellect to battle graft and corruption in her country.

Ultimately, this project is designed to draw a parallel between my Aunt and Louis. In a way,  connecting these two figures has helped me to resolve some cognitive dissonance in my own life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3kzzCAa89A&list=PLZiG1rMROWAlCdjGGeUcmaxnzF4L-QOS6&t=5s

EW: To what degree will the work include improvisation?

K: Improvisation is the most important part of my musical practice. Musicians who emanate out of the jazz tradition often equate improvisation with personal and political freedom. I might argue that improvisation is a musical equalizer – it allows artists who don’t know one another to convene in a neutral context. Improvisers create music in a truly collaborative way.

All of my projects, from my more jazz-based ensembles like Apura (with Louis and renowned drummer Andrew Cyrille) to Grex, utilize improvisation as a way to connect musicians from across different cultures and generations. For “Auntie + Tebs,” I’m thankful to be joined by Bobby Bradford (an LA great, perhaps best known for working with Ornette Coleman), Zoh  Amba (a young firebrand from NY), and Asian Improv aRts cofounder Francis Wong.

EW: Is this a piece that will live solely within these two performances or is it leading up to a release or recording of some kind?

K: Grex is sort of an ongoing work, and so “Auntie + Tebs” is just the next stage in our journey. A lot of the music that we generated for this project was written during the pandemic, so there is a distinct sense that it is ready to be shared with the world. The shows will be recorded and hopefully incorporated into an album that we’re planning to complete by next year.

EW: How did this project come about?

K: Grex experienced a sort of renaissance around the tail end of the pre-pandemic era. I had begun to engage more with spoken word and hip-hop as a way of communicating more politically conscious messaging. Our song “Criminal” was written as an indictment of then Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who ran against my Aunt in 2016. The enthusiastic  response to that piece of music led us to rethink a lot of our musical and personal priorities.

“Auntie + Tebs” is inspired in part by the visceral, outspoken free jazz artists who helped bring me into the music – people like Louis, Andrew Cyrille, and the late, great Milford Graves. This project also takes its cues from artists like Death Grips and Moor Mother who engage with both rap and noise music. It’s important to us that our music is politically lucid, that it is culturally conscious, and that it engages with artistic extremes in a meaningful way.

EW: Who are the other artists on the project and how did you start working together? They all seem pretty legendary.

KE: I feel that intergenerational collaboration is really important. Past struggles give context to modern-day challenges. To that end, my last few projects have featured a series of trailblazing artists: Louis, the aforementioned Andrew Cyrille and Francis Wong, and veterans like drummer Marc Edwards, saxophonist Trevor Watts, and Bay Area saxophonist Lewis Jordan.

The guest artists for “Auntie + Tebs” were selected very intentionally. Bobby Bradford is a renowned cornetist who has also worked as an educator in the Los Angeles area. Bobby’s understanding of how location, tradition, and family can influence the creative process make  him a perfect collaborator for this project. Zoh Amba is one of the most exciting and widely lauded artists in free jazz today; I asked her on to represent the energy of the younger generation of improvisers.

EW: In Eddie Wong’s [2020 East Wind] interview you cited your earliest influences as bands like the Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins – will this project be more of a blend between Grex’s sound and the improvisational jazz of your other works? Or is it all kinda jazz to you in terms of the mindset and ethos behind your music?

KE: I feel like the term “jazz” serves a dual purpose. It’s a genre marker, and it also embodies a tradition. Jazz as an ethos has an explicit connection to Black identity in America, and it has an ability to express shared experiences and feelings in a way that is truly unique. While I don’t have much use for jazz as a genre in my own work, it is really important to me that I engage  with it as a series of cultural practices and ideas. As a Filipino American, playing jazz has the effect of coalition building with other marginalized peoples.

“Auntie + Tebs” (and Grex in a more general sense) isn’t really limited to certain sounds so  much as it is meant to connect with different traditions. My own playing is conscious of bands like the Pixies, for sure – the story of integration in this country involves the mixing of different cultures, eras, and worldviews. On a stylistic level, however, I don’t really try to make music that sounds a certain way – I just don’t like excluding certain ideas as a rule.

From left: Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez.

EW: Can you tell me a bit more about your activism background? It seems like such a driving force behind all of your work.

K: I actually have a minor in public policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy at Cal. I majored in Interdisciplinary Studies, and my coursework in college bridged political science and the arts. At my family’s behest, I had every intention of going into law before I realized that music was my true calling.

Music has given a lot to me, and so I’ve often used my platform as an artist to advocate on behalf of people who share my experiences. Grex mounted a series of “Lockdown Festivals” over the course of COVID that provided opportunities for artists to play in the midst of isolation.  The funds we raised at these festivals helped to support local arts spaces, like Temescal Art Center, Bird & Beckett Books, and Oaktown Jazz Workshops, as well as organizations like  Black Organizing Project, Shuumi Land Tax, Alameda County Food Bank, and Asian Improv aRts. I also helped to mobilize artists to seek a music exemption for AB5 (in 2020), and 100% of the proceeds from Grex’s last record went to support the Milford Graves Memorial Fund.

Finally, I teach in the Department of Race & Resistance at SFSU. It’s genuinely important to me that I connect with institutions that support youth movements and cultural consciousness. The work that I perform elsewhere invariably influences the music that I make.

EW: I have to ask as a fellow kababayan working in the arts, has your family been supportive of your musical career? Especially considering that your music is so experimental and original (and political)…

K: LOL, this is a very real question. I encountered a significant amount of resistance when I decided to go into music. Many, including my Aunt, thought that I should pursue a different career path. So much of Filipino culture has to do with finding a way to be purposeful. At the outset, my family could not see a vision for my career path.

As soon as my family realized that I was a hard worker, that my music had a message, and that I could support myself and others with my efforts, they changed their tune. My Aunt, who was an open minded and intellectually curious person, ultimately admitted that she “understood” why I decided to do what I do.

EW: Is there a particular message or feeling that you’re trying to convey through this work that you hope the audience walks away with?

K: I think that everyone can remember the feeling of isolation that was so widespread in the midst of COVID. The uncanny sense of solitude that that moment engendered made us exceptionally sensitive to violence, suffering, and oppression.

I like to make art that connects people. When we’re connected, it’s easier to act on the feeling of helplessness that can intrude on day-to-day life. “Auntie + Tebs” is meant to unify generations, cultures, stories, and sounds. I would like nothing more than for people to walk  away from this project knowing that they are not alone – that they have comradeship in the  past, present, and future.

Grex: “Auntie + Tebs” feat. Bobby Bradford, Francis Wong (5/31), and Zoh Amba (6/1), 8pm Friday, May 31 & Saturday, June 1 at Dresher Ensemble Studio, 2201 Poplar Street Oakland, CA 94607. Learn more and find tickets here.

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Bio:

Stephanie Gancayco is a creative director, cultural producer and DJ whose work is rooted in bridge-building, healing, and community. They’re the founder & editor-in-chief of Hella Pinay, a print magazine and media platform centering Filipinx women, femmes, queer and TGNC folks that aims to build bridges across creative subcultures within the Filipina/o/x community and beyond.