Music

Out of the Classroom and Onto the Stage

Lilan Kane, who will perform with the Jazz Mafia’s Chorale Syndicate at Art + Soul Oakland, learns to put her own goals first.

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Kane is performing at several venues around the Bay Area this summer. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LILAN KANE
  • Photo courtesy of Lilan Kane
  • Kane is performing at several venues around the Bay Area this summer.

Lilan Kane's first steps out of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston were into the classroom. For someone who first started teaching at the age of 16, it was a natural place to begin her career in music.

Teaching was a practical and gratifying job until Kane concluded that it didn't leave her enough room to pursue her dream of becoming a performing singer-songwriter. That's why she started her own event band, providing her income and the opportunity to spend more time singing, songwriting, and performing.

So Kane shifted her direction toward the studio and the stage. It is beginning to pay off. Next Sunday, on July 28, she will perform at the Art & Soul Oakland festival on the Clay Street Stage with the Jazz Mafia's own Chorale Syndicate.

The Oakland soul singer had an early entrance into the world of music. Her kindergarten classroom had a piano in it, and one of the teachers at the school would often come into the classroom to play for all the children. "I gravitated toward the music," she said. "That was when I knew I had an affinity for it."

Her teacher recognized this affinity for music and told her parents. So at the age of 5, Kane was signed up for piano lessons. Her piano teacher also taught vocals, which almost immediately caught Kane's interest. "I would always ask my teacher to play the piano and let me sing during the last few minutes of my lesson."

Kane's talent and hard work enabled her to attend the Berklee College of Music, where she pursued a degree in Vocals and Music Business. Upon returning to the West Coast, she promptly got back into teaching. She spent years teaching middle-school chorus and advanced chorus at San Domenico School in Marin County. She also took her talents to the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley.

"I had been teaching off and on since I was 16, when I started a middle-school girls' choir called 'Sweet Harmony,'" she recalled. "I didn't have enough female mentors that were close to my age growing up so I always felt obligated to give the girls a system of support that they felt comfortable in. The transformation was always incredible to see. Shy girls would come in and not even want to talk to anyone. Then singing comes along and gives them the confidence in themselves to be happy with who they are. Middle school is a pivotal time and it was amazing seeing the girls blossom."

But a career in education didn't leave Kane enough time to work on her own craft. So last year in May, she stopped teaching, ending a remarkable 16-year-run for the 32 year-old.

"I had just been doing it for so long," said Kane. "I was a little burnt out. Teaching just didn't leave me enough time and energy to really work on myself as a performer. Plus, I figured I can always teach but it might be harder to perform when I'm older. The creative aspect of songwriting wasn't there in teaching. Songwriting is therapeutic to me and I was missing that outlet when I taught."

Many of Kane's song lyrics, such as those of "Without You" off her album Love, Myself are about strength and persistence in the face of adversity and struggle.

"What am I supposed to do / When my feelings are bruised / Gave you everything I had to give / What did you have to lose / Pulled you through the fire / Gave you shelter from your storm / All you did was burn me babe / When I tried to keep you warm / You're gonna miss me when I'm gone/ I'll still be standing strong / Without you"

"When I write, I just try to be real," said Kane. "There's no pretense. It's a 'what you see is what you get' sort of situation. I'm not afraid to be too emotional in my music or too sassy and light, it's all just how I feel. And my hope is that something in my music resonates with whoever is listening."

About a year and a half before she stopped teaching, Kane founded the group "Hella Fitzgerald" as another way to supplement her career while actively performing at jazz clubs, bars, restaurants and festivals. The band's name is an obvious tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and the Bay Area alike.

"The name just came to me," said Kane "I love Ella Fitzgerald and I love the Bay. I knew going into it that I wanted a vintage look to the band. I was going for that Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald vibe too."

"My goal is for 'Hella Fitzgerald' to continue to be self-running and sustainable," said Kane. "Teaching was a significant part of my income and I wanted to make something that would help support myself as well as other members of the community. It employs over 100 musicians and does a lot to cultivate community."

Her connection to the Jazz Mafia Chorale Syndicate goes back to 2010, when she wrote an article about the group while interning at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Directed by Trance Thompson, the group is comprised of around 12 elite singers plus musicians from the Bay Area and southern California. Kane was invited to be a part of this weekend's festival and perform a solo. The performance will include Thompson's original work as well as covers by artists like Kirk Franklin and Stevie Wonder.

Kane also is scheduled to be a featured artist at Jazz on the Plazz, a summer tribute to Chet Baker in Los Gatos on July 28, and at the San Jose Jazz Festival on August 10.

Kane has recorded three albums and hopes to add another in early 2020. She is also working on two singles: "Shadows" and "Empire." You can buy her music on her bandcamp website or stream it on Spotify.

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