Musician Daniel Berkman Brings a Taste of West Africa to Potrero Hill

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Potrero Hill resident and musician, Daniel Berkman, composes rhythmic, resonant songs for a multitude of instruments, which he regularly performs at Farley’s. His primary instrument is the kora, a 21-stringed West African harp-lute the size of a cello. Berkman also plays guitar, keyboards and synthesizers, string instruments – cello, viola da gamba, and ukulele – vintage contraptions, like the marxophone and tremoloa, and electronic and virtual instruments, including the handsonic, a digital hand drum that can replicate the sound of other instruments. He recently took up the ondes martenot, an electronic keyboard invented in the late 1920s. 

Berkman, originally from Los Angeles, moved to the Hill in 2002. Prior to that, he’d couch-surfed during the first dot-com boom and lived in San Rafael for two years. 

“When I graduated from high school, I went east to the Hartt School of Music, the performing arts conservatory of the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Before I could finish my degree, I dropped out and headed west. At first, I came back to Los Angeles, but then I moved north. I wanted to be in the City where everything was happening. In the late 1990s, I started out as a gigging drummer for rock, blues, jazz and folk bands,” said Berkman.

Connecting with dance companies helped Berkman gain a footing in the City.  “One of the principle dancers with Oberlin Dance Collective helped me find the apartment in the City I have today. I also began writing ballets around this time. I have written many scores over the past 20 years. I have worked with many dance companies, including ODC, Post:Ballet, San Francisco Dance Center and San Francisco Ballet’s Dance in Schools and Communities program. With DISC, I taught music concepts in elementary schools, some in Hunters Point,” said Berkman.

In addition, Berkman teaches looping with SF Jazz, a performance and education nonprofit organization. “Looping involves repeating and embellishing sections of sound. I also make music using iOs devices, iPhones and iPads,” said Berkman.

Berkman also composes scores for films. He did soundtracks for Unspoken, a 2016 picture by the Dance Theatre of San Francisco; and Earth Portal, a planetarium show that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair. In addition, he records music for his own albums and as part of collaborations with other artists. 

Berkman first became entranced with the kora while watching a performance at Wesleyan University. “I studied marimba (a large percussion instrument) in high school and college. Around 1988, I started collecting CDs of world music, mostly from India, Indonesia, Japan and West Africa. It hit me how incredible the kora was. Then I went to see a kora player live. It really moved me, to hear an actual kora being played by a true master,” said Berkman.

A little while after that, Berkman traveled to Berklee College of Music, where his then-girlfriend had a flute audition.  “I was down in the lobby and I saw a flyer about a kora for sale and kora lessons. But I didn’t buy a kora until I moved to San Francisco a couple of years later. In the City, I started taking lessons from Alan Perlman, a kora player and renowned luthier in the Outer Sunset,” said Berkman.

In 2002, Berkman traveled to Senegal, Gambia, and Mali with the Kouyate Twins.  Assane and Ousseynou Kouyate are Senagalese singers and dancers who are descended from griots, African storytellers. While on tour, Berkman purchased three koras and a djembe drum. Today, he owns ten koras and is proficient in a variety of traditional styles. 

Berkman comes from a musical family. “My grandfather, Samuel Berkman, was one of the three founders of the Hartt School. My grandmother, Irene Kahn-Berkman, was one of my grandfather’s students. My father, John Berkman, was a pianist, violinist, and composer who graduated from the Hartt School. He moved to New York, pawned his violin and began working as an assistant conductor and pianist on Broadway. One of the shows in which he was involved was Cabaret. My mother, Lynn Chaplin-Noe, was a dancer and actress who was part of the original cast of Cabaret. I’m a Cabaret baby,” said Berkman.

In 2017, Berkman returned to the Hartt School to celebrate his grandparents’ induction into the school’s hall of fame.  “I met with the former dean and talked with him about all the music I’ve recorded and the instruments I’ve learned to play. He invited me to take 10 more units of classes. The faculty will also review my albums to see if I can make up 40 credits through portfolio work. I am now taking classes online with the hope of graduating in 2020, when I turn 50,” said Berkman.

According to Robert Dekkers, artistic director of Post:Ballet, Berkman’s music has a natural energy and rhythm that propels movement.  “No piece sounds the same. He and I start working together by exploring the concept behind the piece. We’ll videotape the movement first, and then he’ll score the choreography. I’ll take that music and play with it. It’s sort of this back and forth until we lock in the structure and instrumentation,” said Dekkers. 

Richard Trapani, an electronic musician and member of LoveTech, a Bay Area electronic music collective in which Berkman participates, said, “Daniel is one of the most jaw-dropping amazing performers we’ve ever featured. He truly engages the audience. Daniel’s musical improvisation uncovers great beauty in every moment. The way it pulls you in has a subtlety and depth of expression that has taken a lifetime of musical dedication to achieve.”

Chris Hillyard, owner of Farley’s, said Berkman has been regularly playing at the coffee house since before he took over the business.  “He’s part of the neighborhood, the community. People know him there. He creates a unique experience. No one else is playing the kora, certainly not in a casual setting. I also know the employees like that he’s a genuine, personable person,” said Hillyard. 

Berkman, who occasionally teaches kora lessons in his home studio, encourages beginning musicians to regularly compose and practice.  “Sometimes, when my spirits are low, I play just to cheer myself up. I get fired up with the electronics. I’ll arrange two speakers on either side of me to immerse myself and others in a psychedelic sound world,” said Berkman.

Berkman said experimentation leads to success, as a performer, a teacher, or both.   “It’s good to just jump in and fall flat on your face. Over time, I’ve become more able to teach what I know, what I learned through experience,” said Berkman.