San Francisco’s ‘First Family of Song’ auditions for celebrity judges on America’s Got Talent
by Phoebe Tamlyn with Publicist Christopher D. Cook
Listen to any song by San Francisco’s Curtis Family C-notes, and you’re bound to feel better. Really, any song: The musical range of this seven-member, all-family band – two parents and five precociously talented kids – is remarkable, spanning R&B, funk, gospel, jazz, Christmas carols and more.
If you live in the Bay Area and you dig music, chances are you’ve heard their music somewhere – the prolific family has performed at mayoral inaugurations, festivals, churches, city streets, pandemic testing and vaccine sites, gobs of online musical venues during COVID-19 restrictions and even a Warriors halftime show in 2020, before the pandemic.
The Curtis Family C-notes have been spotted on AGT’s television and online promos on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. San Francisco’s “First Family of Song” has landed a spot on one of television’s biggest stages, delivering their uniquely nourishing tonic of soulful spirited sound and deep human connection to a national audience.
Watch on Tuesday nights beginning June 1 to see what happens and whether the Curtis Family won over the celebrity judges. Check your local listing for NBC’s showtimes of America’s Got Talent.
This very cool big news was going to stay hush-hush, but the Bay View caught a glimpse of the Curtis Family on an “America’s Got Talent” season preview – just a couple split-second snapshots, including the family performing on that shiny glossy stage and 16-year-old Zahara flashing her big-wide smile.
That was enough for word to get out. But as Maestro explains: “Because we are under a contractual restriction, until we know for sure we are not allowed to reveal much about the show. So just stay tuned. I will say that AGT is a class act all the way and I can really see why they are so successful, a tribute to Simon Cowell. He runs a class act production. Everyone involved was professional, courteous and kind.”
Meet the City’s ‘First Family of Song’
Who are the Curtis Family C-notes, and how did they get to one of TV’s biggest stages? Performing at California Lt. Gov. 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, Kounalakis’s father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, a real estate mogul, dubbed the C-notes “San Francisco’s First Family of Song,” after which politicians and world leaders in attendance followed suit with their stamp of approval, giving the Curtis Family a standing ovation, with many leaders expressing that this was the best version of the national anthem they had ever heard. Quite an accolade and praise.
Even before that, 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.
Unique in the music world, the Curtis Family C-notes are an all-family band featuring Maestro Curtis aka “Papa C,” Nola Curtis aka “Mama C,” and their five children, whose names are a tour of Egyptian history: Zahara, Nile, Xahir, Isis and Phoenix.
The youngest at age 11, Phoenix is already skilled at piano, violin, guitar, bass and vocals. At 13, Xahir aka “Kiki,” a lefty, rocks the electric guitar, sings and can play a right-handed guitar upside down like Jimi Hendrix as well as the standard left-hand guitar. Isis, all of 14, performs on drums, keyboard, and vocals. Nile, 15, plays bass and vocals and will tell you in a heartbeat “I’m the bassman.” The eldest, 16-year-old Zahara, plays guitar, violin, drums and vocals.
All the kids sport bountiful, full blossoming “naturals.” All five children want to become physicists and scientists as well as pursuing other interests outside of music.
As Nola, also known as “Mama C,” explains, The Curtis Family C-notes are not any kind of remake of the Jackson Five. “We love the Jacksons, but this is not the Jackson Five hour. That’s already been done, and they are the best that ever did it. We are unapologetically a family group with both mother and father, and that’s that, and quite unique in this day and age. There is no separating or departmentalizing our family. You take one of us, you got us all.” Papa C affirmed that sentiment with a strong and fierce, “You got that right, baby.”
A recent “day in the life” video on their YouTube channel offers an inspiring and entertaining glimpse into this remarkable music family. Every day, the family rises early in the morning, everyone dons workout clothes, and they head to a nearby city park for jogging, calisthenics, and martial arts training by Papa C.
After a healthy vegan brunch – the whole family is vegan – they hit the books, home-schooled even before the pandemic, since 2010, with a brief two-year public school tryout, where people called them crazy for homeschooling. Then there’s daily music practice, both separately and together.
“Our brand is solidarity in the family. I’ve seen how families have allowed the music industry to separate and divide family members. Our whole basis is to be a teachable moment for families.”
Fans also keep up on the family’s prolific musical performances via Instagram and Facebook. One thing that jumps out in any encounter with the C-notes, online or in person: The family’s rigorous discipline, dedicated focus and sheer joy and passion for music are inescapable – and infectious. Every song bursts with spirit, smiles and some mean dance grooves.
Just listen to what the kids have to say about their music. As Phoenix puts it: “I want to make people happy, want to make people feel part of something.” Performing the music, she adds, “makes me feel happy, especially when we dance on stage. It’s spending time with my family.”
When asked what music means to him, Nile says: “What music means to me is spreading love and joy to the people that we are sharing our music with.” To which Kiki adds: “It’s fun to play and fun to learn. We are all performing; we are all having a good time watching people enjoy our music and having a good time.”
By performing and recording as a family, parents and children together: “We are doing something that’s definitely unique and not the norm,” says Maestro, who holds multiple degrees in music – bachelor’s and master’s in orchestration and arranging and Ph.D. in education – to go with his many decades as a professional musician and teacher.
“Mother and father playing with their children, not just the kids or parents separately. This is an anomaly in most music except for classical and country. Even our heroes The Staple Singers had only Pop Staples and not both parents and, speaking only of artists who are famous, I’m sure there are others out there who do what we do.”
“Our brand is solidarity in the family,” Maestro adds. During his long musical career, Maestro says: “I’ve seen how families have allowed the music industry to separate and divide family members. Our whole basis is to be a teachable moment for families.”
The entire family are also martial arts practitioners in the art of Shotokan and mixed martial self- defense. Maestro is a student of martial arts hall of famer Shihan Henry “Jim” Larkin, a community activist who started the cultural centers in the SF Bay Area and across the country.
Maestro recounts: “I received my blackbelt rankings from Pop Larkin, who was like another father to many of us, whether we had fathers or not. The martial arts have been a blessing in teaching the children self-discipline, and I now run my own Dojo with my children and wife, who are students.”
Music runs deep – DNA-level deep – in the Curtis family.
As Maestro explains: “Took me a minute to learn some humility because I’m the eldest child and had to always be the aggressor. Growing up in Jim Crow Louisiana and on the tough streets of San Francisco, it’s been a long and short ride and I’m finally enjoying life with my family, including my older children by previous marriages – four older Curtises, to be exact, all of whom are grown up and beautiful, spiritually conscious and great in their own right. I have a good relationship with them.
“What’s for sure is that my wife is my rock and I am hers and she and all nine of my children are the best thing that ever happened to me.” Maestro also served seven years in the US Army with high marks and an honorable discharge. “Those were interesting times, and it always feels good to be involved in something bigger than yourself and at the time I believed I was doing something noble.”
Music runs deep – DNA-level deep – in the Curtis family. Maestro Curtis was born into music: his mother, Lucille Wong Curtis Robinson, third generation Chinese and Nigerian, was an accomplished jazz and gospel singer who performed in the Louisiana bayou country and in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Her twin brother, Emile Cy Wong, was a singer and songwriter who co-wrote with and 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, James Cleveland, The Hawkins Singers, Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McCrae, Joe Williams, Lenny Williams, Phyllis Hyman, Hubert Eaves (D Train), Dizzy Gillespie, The Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, Sara Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, among others.
Maurice White was executive producer for Maestro’s group Xpression, on Kalimba Records. Maestro wrote and produced the entire album with the exception of two songs that he co-wrote with Grammy-winning producer and writer for Freddy Jackson, Paul Lawrence.
Despite the talent running through this family, the C-notes stress they couldn’t have gotten where they are today without the supportive community around them, particularly folks in the Bayview.
Mama C 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 17 CD recordings, including with Grammy gospel singer Dorothy Combs Morrison – original voice of “Oh Happy Day” – Papa Pete and Juan Escovedo, Michael Franti, The Spirit of Love Funkestra and The Jazz Hieroglyphics, to name a few.
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 children bring a remarkable array of musical wizardry.
Despite the talent running through this family, the C-notes stress they couldn’t have gotten where they are today without the supportive community around them, particularly folks in the Bayview and people like Pop Larkin, a best friend Jaye’ Richardson – who has transitioned, May he Rest in Peace – Tyrone Davis, Larry Douglas, Aaron Darsky, Winfred Williams, Gwen Westbrook, Felisia Thibedeau, Ricardo Scales, Joanna Jones, Johnny Staton, Dwayne Charles, Barbara Washington, Bonnie Carlson, all of our children’s godparents and grandma, The Community Music Center, some of our McKinley Elementary School supporters and now our Jones United Methodist family.
“Although many thought we made it look easy as a family, we’ve been through a lot, and we’ve gotten by with a little help from our friends who have been our true family support system,” Maestro explains, stressing their support from “our friends in the Bayview and throughout San Francisco, who have championed us from the beginning.”
Feeding souls and stomachs in a pandemic
At one Bayview resident’s door during the depths of the pandemic, the C-notes 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 …”
Residents applaud and sometimes sing along with San Francisco’s “First Family of Song.” The songs help lift the spirits of people who’ve been isolated, some all alone, for months.
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 C-notes 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.”
Beyond all their music, Maestro, Nola and the entire Curtis family are the kind of community activists who have been on the frontline as part of the first responders from Day One of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown – delivering free food to people in need and offering comfort through song for thousands of SF residents in Bayview Hunters Point, Lakeview, Ingleside and the Fillmore. They continue to do so now even as the pandemic wanes.
Although they have received little attention by the mainstream media or City Hall for their tireless efforts, they understand their importance to the community. When asked why no one from City Hall has called or why there has been no mainstream media coverage of their great work in the community, the Curtis children’s immediate response was: “We do our job to help as many as we humanly can in this city, and some have championed us, and we are so grateful to them. And although we have not been recognized for our work and our commitment, that’s not why we do this!”
“The people we deliver food to, sing and connect with appreciate us and that’s a good thing. Many have expressed to us through tears that they are so grateful that someone cared enough to do for them in this way, and that’s our real reward.”
Maestro elaborates, “We do this for love of humanity and our communities who need us. I suppose most see us as just singers and musicians! Whoever thinks this is sadly mistaken and that’s cool. I’ve been doing this since the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with my parents, mentors, and community activists. This is part of a legacy of doing and not just jaw-boning.”
Besides, Maestro notes, “The people we deliver food to, sing and connect with appreciate us and that’s a good thing. Many have expressed to us through tears that they are so grateful that someone cared enough to do for them in this way, and that’s our real reward.”
From Day One of the pandemic, through an initiative they call “Operation Food for Your Body, Food for Your Soul,” the family has been working tirelessly with many community groups to provide free food deliveries to people in need. They’ve worked directly on this crisis assistance with OMI’s IT Bookman Center and Director Felisia Thibodeaux, the Jones United Methodist Food Pantry (through the San Francisco Marin Food Bank) in the Fillmore with Director Yvonne Swift and with United Council of Human Services’ Mother Brown’s Dining Room under the direction of CEO Gwen Westbrook.
As Maestro puts it: “These incredible giving women asked for our help and we unanimously, without hesitation, did what was asked of us and more.” While giving to the community, the effort has also provided the Curtis children with a powerful learning experience. “Our children are well-grounded, and we have taught them the importance of community responsibility,” says Maestro, echoed by wife Nola Curtis.
In their songs and actions, the C-notes 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 C puts it, “Strong families make strong communities, making stronger nations, which create a better world.”
Songs and Power to the People
In a recent chat with the Curtis family on Zoom, the kids share what music means for them and the role it plays in their lives.
Music, Nile says, is about “spreading love and joy to the people.” Zahara calls music “a universal language we all know. Whether you speak a different language, you still connect to the feeling.” Kiki emphasizes joy: “It’s fun to play and fun to learn. We are all performing, we are all having a good time,” she says. “It’s exciting when other people see the whole family perform on stage together.” Phoenix adds, “I want to make people happy, want to make people feel part of something.”
On a slightly more serious note, Isis chimes in: “Singing with the family is special. It’s not something other people do a lot at the high level that we do.” In these times of emboldened violent racism, what’s needed is more love and families who stand up in solidarity against the deadliest virus on the planet, hate!
“A lot of people are making songs about how police are killing Black and Brown people and we need those – we should also continue making songs about self-love and love for all, unity and how to create change and never let up.
“This is not political; it’s about being righteous without being religious and respecting all of humanity regardless of race, creed, so-called skin color or lifestyle. These issues are worn out without resolve and I believe we are moving in a way that is going to fix this broken world,” says Papa C.
Our music and songs are anthems for life, a way to create a high frequency, high consciousness and a healing connection.
Amid worldwide protests for racial justice and in between the family’s daily food and song deliveries in the community, the C-notes last year 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 C-notes’ musical style “a cross between the Staples Singers, Earth, Wind and Fire and Sly and the Family Stone.”
Papa C speaks of music’s power to lift people up and bring them together. “Our music and songs are anthems for life,” he says, a way to create a “high frequency, high consciousness and a healing connection. Music allows everyone to tap into their higher sense of self and existence, connecting us to our humanity and perhaps our ultimate purpose. Music heightens and quickens our awakening.” This is one of the main reasons why their debut album is entitled “Awaken.”
Music, says Maestro, is “where lies the center of understanding and compassion. Understanding that we are all in this game no matter what our differences appear to be.” While the C-notes’ music “is not political,” Maestro explains: “Our music is activating a high frequency. Our music speaks to love and truth. We celebrate real values in ourselves and in our music. Because our music is about love, there is nothing more revolutionary than love – be it tough love or companionate love – but it starts with self-love.
“By the way, love doesn’t mean that you take crap from unkindness. Never be afraid to speak your mind. Just make sure you’re in the right, and if you are wrong, stand by yourself if necessary and admit it.”
After years of hard work and deep dedication to both the music and the community, the Curtis Family C-notes are producing their debut album and about to hit television’s big stage. As Mama C reflects, “It’s been a long struggle, but our music has and is opening many doors and our hard work and efforts are beginning to bear fruit.”
Learn more and catch the family’s latest performances at thecurtisfamilycnotes.com and maestrocurtis.com. Check out the Curtis Family C-notes on Facebook @thecurtisfammusic, YouTube and Instagram @thecurtisfamilycnotes and @curtismaestro.