by Christopher D. Cook
Standing outside San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point homes each weekday with sacks of groceries and an electric keyboard and bass, the Curtis Family Cnotes are an unusual, soul-filling sight and sound.
When residents come to their doors, they get a hearty hello along with some “food for the body” – a bag of fresh nutritious groceries, courtesy of Mother Brown’s Dining Room. Then, they get a healthy dose of “food for the soul:” a song from the acclaimed seven-member Curtis family band, whose soaring, deep-rooted tunes are delivering smiles, tears and nourishment.
This unique mix of food and song is hitting all the right notes, and right on time for this simultaneous pandemic and recession. In these anxious days of isolation, the Curtis Family Cnotes and Mother Brown’s Dining Room are serving up this blend of nutrition, R&B, rock and gospel, classical and jazz songs, in an uplifting partnership called “Food for the Body, Food for the Soul.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads economic hardship and social isolation, this potent partnership is providing nourishment, entertainment and connection to residents in need. Mother Brown’s Dining Room – part of the United Council of Human Services – delivers 400 boxes of food each week to Bayview residents, including hot meals to seniors stuck in their homes during the pandemic. CEO Gwendolyn Westbrook says: “The needs here are very high in this community. We have youth homeless, adult homeless and people living in the streets.”
For years, Mother Brown’s has been providing shelter and home-cooked meals for homeless people in the community. Even before COVID-19 set in, hunger in San Francisco communities was increasingly worse. As Westbrook explained in 2018: “With the tents, the food, the drug addiction … it takes a whole village to change the situation we’re in now.”
“We are handing out food and singing songs to brighten and lighten their load,” said Maestro Curtis, aka “Papa C” in the family band that has been dubbed the City’s “First Family of Song” by California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis. “This is music for the people, food for the people. Music is so very, very important to our existence. Even the birds sing. Music is just as important as it is to breathe, as it is to have food for nourishment. We need to have our spirits nourished.”
Bringing songs and sustenance to the people is a family tradition for the Cnotes. For years, long before the COVID-19 pandemic intensified people’s need for food and connection, the Curtis family helped nourish communities in need. This soulful service has included helping the IT Bookman Community Center bring meals and music to seniors and numerous community music programs with the Jones Methodist Church, as well as other organizations. The Cnotes previously performed live at Mother Brown’s in 2019, and the group regularly contributes music at San Francisco community efforts to feed homeless and low-income people.
Meet the Cnotes – the City’s ‘First Family of Song’
At one Bayview resident’s door on a recent afternoon, the Cnotes belt out a punchy, vibrant yet deeply grounded version of “Stand,” by Sly and the Family Stone. The song and its lyrics offer a profound rebuttal to these times of isolation and fracturing:
“Stand! In the end, you’ll still be you/One that’s done all the things you set out to do/Stand! There’s a cross for you to bear/Things to go through if you’re goin’ anywhere/Stand for the things you know are right …”
In their songs and actions, the Cnotes are standing for many things: the unifying power of music, justice, equality, community, human connection and, above all, a spirited rejuvenation of the family. As Papa Cnote puts it, “Strong families make strong communities, making stronger nations, which create a better world.”
The Cnotes are unique in the music world – an all-family R&B group featuring Maestro Curtis, Nola Curtis aka “Mama Cnote” and their five children, whose names are a tour of Egyptian history: Zahara, Nile, Kiki, Isis and Phoenix.
Music runs deep – DNA-level deep – in the Curtis family. Maestro Curtis was born into music: his mother, Lucille Wong Curtis Robinson, was an accomplished jazz and gospel singer who performed in the Louisiana bayou country and in the Bay Area. Her twin brother Emile Cy Wong was a singer and songwriter who worked on Nat King Cole‘s KC record label.
Maestro has lived up to his name in an illustrious career spanning five decades and many genres. Also known as Maestro Brian, he has performed or recorded with the likes of his mentor Maurice White, Al Green, Dizzy Gillespie, Sara Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Maurice White was executive producer for the Gold-selling debut album of Maestro’s group, Xpression on Kalimba Records.
Mama Cnote found her voice and musical commitment after a career as a professional ice skater and coach. Her soaring, searing vocals have graced famed venues such as the Fillmore Jazz Festival and the Great American Music Hall and have been featured on more than 15 CD recordings.
Even with two talented, accomplished parents, what are the chances that all five children would have both startling skill and passion for music? Through a mix of home-schooling, outside musical training at the Community Music Center – where both Maestro and Nola teach – and the constant presence of music in their lives, the Curtis kids bring a remarkable array of musical wizardry.
Phoenix, the youngest at age 9, is already skilled at piano, violin, guitar and vocals. At 12 years old, Kiki rocks the electric guitar and sings. Isis, all of 14 years, performs on drums, keyboard and vocals. Zahara, 15, plays guitar, violin and vocals. The eldest, 16-year-old Nile, plays bass and vocals. All the kids sport bountiful, full blossoming “naturals.”
The five children performed at the July 2018 inauguration for San Francisco’s first African American woman mayor, London Breed – wowing the crowd by launching into the “Black National Anthem” before segueing into the “Star-Spangled Banner,” prompting praise from former Mayor Willie Brown in his San Francisco Chronicle column.
“I want to make people happy, want to make people feel part of something.”
Performing at California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis’ January 2019 inauguration, the family inspired a standing ovation from an audience that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other dignitaries. There and then is where Kounalakis dubbed the Cnotes “San Francisco’s First Family of Song.”
In a recent chat with the Curtis family on Zoom, the kids shared what music means for them, and the role it plays in their lives.
Music, said Nile, is about “spreading love and joy to the people.” Zahara called music “a universal language we all know. Whether you speak a different language, you still connect to the feeling.” Kiki emphasized joy: “It’s fun to play and fun to learn. We are all performing, we are all having a good time,” she said. “It’s exciting when other people see the whole family perform on stage together.” Phoenix added, “I want to make people happy, want to make people feel part of something.”
On a slightly more serious note, Isis chimed in: “Singing with the family is special. It’s not something other people do a lot.” In these times of emboldened violent racism, what’s needed is more love: “A lot of people are making songs about how police are killing Black and Brown people – they should be making songs about love and unity and how to change it.”
‘Power to the People’
Now, the Curtis Family Cnotes are taking that love and pouring it into their first album as a family. Early this August, amid worldwide protests for racial justice and in between the family’s daily food and song deliveries in the community, the Cnotes released a hit single called “Power to the People,” designed as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, to which they’re donating half of the song’s proceeds.
“Power to the People” is a timely and unique response to the growing mass movement for racial justice: a family-powered anthem urging justice, peace and unity. “This movement needs music to bring us together, so we are contributing our song to help build peace and justice for all people,” said Maestro, who calls the Cnotes’ musical style “a cross between the Staples Singers, Earth, Wind and Fire and Sly and the Family Stone.”
“Power to the People” is an upbeat and passionate R&B song with a ‘70s vibe and richly textured, multilayered vocals. The song opens with a staccato, declarative line, “Black lives matter, because we were all meant to be free!” and quickly flows into a melodic rising rhythm, “freeeee … as you want to be.” In under five minutes, the song weaves this mix of punctuated urgency and transcendent aspiration. Other lines in the single include: “Let love guide the way, we can see a better day,” “hold your head up high, stand up tall and speak your mind,” “Black and brown and yellow, red and white and the blue.”
Sung with fierce love and passion, “Power to the People” offers the Black Lives Matter movement a message of hope and unity. “I always want our music and message to be universal,” says Nola, echoing the sentiments of Maestro’s mentor Maurice White.
Despite the song’s clarion call to justice, Maestro stresses: “Our music is not political. Our music speaks to love and truth. We celebrate real values in ourselves and in our music.” Still, Maestro concedes, “Because our music is about love, there is some revolution in it.”
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author and publicist for the Curtis Family Cnotes. He met the family while taking singing lessons with Nola and Maestro at the Community Music Center. Learn more and catch the family’s latest performances at thecurtisfamilycnotes.com. Check out the Curtis Family Cnotes on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.