In the Mix

Spirited Conversations


The Art of Cowry Shell Divination

    On a warm midweek afternoon, Mbali Creazzo is a picture of serenity sitting on the floor in the living room of her sunny Oakland apartment. In the middle of a hand-painted square of cloth spread out before her is a small mound of shells, stones and metal objects.
    Also prominent on the cloth are two larger shells, a couple of what look like dried chicken feet, a bowl of water and entwined strands of weathered beads. Next to Mbali—the name she prefers to use—is a liter bottle prominently labeled Vodka of the Gods. “The spirits like spirits,” she chuckles when, from my spot across the cloth from her, I ask why it’s there.
    It was 11 years ago that South African–born Mbali, who is 56, followed a love interest to Oakland and found her true calling—healing and helping people through the ancient West African art of cowry shell divining. The affable medicine woman’s plummy London accent is a consequence of having moved to that city, with her parents, when she was 3. Her background includes a post-graduate diploma in therapeutic bodywork from the University of Westminster in London, where she worked as a holistic healer. In the Bay Area she has been an HIV-AIDS counselor and a health educator.
    But her life’s work, she will tell anyone who cares to ask, is “to reconnect people to their ancestors so their good energy can enter our lives, heal us and free us from any inherited legacies that are keeping us stuck.” Honoring and connecting with the ancestors is a powerful part of being African, which I can attest to, being South African–born myself. And Mbali points  to President Obama’s regular reminder that we “not forget where we came from because it’s where we get our strength and resilience.”
    People turn to Mbali for the same reason they go to life coaches, alternative healers and others who can shed light in the search for answers, direction, meaning and support during transitions. Says Oakland resident Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, 56, executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: “Mbali’s divination revealed a pattern of relationship inherited from my parents that caused disharmony in the workplace. The very next day I was able to use that information to bring peace and understanding with co-workers.”
    On this sunny afternoon in preparation for the divination I’m here to experience, Mbali has done a backyard ritual with ash, sesame seeds, chicken livers—“the equivalent of a blood offering, but I cook them up and make them tasty”—and “spirit for the spirits,” the vodka. My question is, “Am I on the right track? Will I be successful in the new Web-based writing and coaching ventures I’m generating?”
    The four tiny cowry shells she works with, thrown like dice once she’s done her incantations, tell us that my late Polish grandfather, my late Scots grandmother, as well as a mysterious black panther that walks with me, are all poised to protect and support me. And, yes, I have an inherited entrepreneurial spirit, and risk-taking and adventure are in my bones. I can forge ahead with confidence.
    Before Mbali starts summoning her ancestors, and mine, she dons an African belt and hat made by an elder in the African healing tradition she was introduced to by her mentor, Malidoma Patrice Somé. The author of The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Somé, from Burkina Faso in West Africa and a former Oakland resident now living in Oregon, holds doctorate degrees from Brandeis University and La Sorbonne in Paris.
    He introduced her to the true African concept of ancestors as spiritual guides and taught her the art of cowry shell divining, which uses the traditional and mystical language of symbolism and icons to connect people with their ancestors for guidance and healing. She holds regular salons at her apartment and on invitation and doesn’t have to look for clients who find her through word-of-mouth referrals. She charges $80 for an in-person divination (and she also does them by telephone).
    And your experience doesn’t end when you walk out of Mbali’s front door. Usually she suggests a ritual, which she likens to leaving the doctor’s office with a prescription. So, if you come across a mound of soil somewhere near Lake Merritt that has four quail eggs on it, a cowry shell, some nuts, ash, a boiled potato and a piece of Scottish shortbread, know that I put the items there. It’s what my ancestors requested through Mbali’s four cowry shells. Different from the Catholic and Buddhist rituals I’m more familiar with. Perhaps just a little more spirited?

Mbali Creazzo's Web sites are and Call her at (415) 710-5348.

—Photography by Lori Eanes

It’s in the Cards

    Have you ever pondered the poop output of a squirrel monkey compared to that of a vulture?
    Probably not, but it’s one of the fun facts kids love to learn—from among dozens of quirky details—about 30 favorite Oakland Zoo animals. The critters and their habits are highlighted in a card game produced exclusively for the zoo by a United Kingdom–based company.
    Oakland Zoo marketing director Nancy Filippi was no more than a couple of days into her job three years ago when she got a call from Top Trumps, the U.K. company responsible for fun-fact cards on subjects as diverse as Indiana Jones movies, boats, automobiles, dogs, dragons and more. The company suggested she stock a new line, featuring predator animals, in the zoo gift store. Filippi had loved the card game War as a kid, and she learned that the proposed pack of cards was created for a game that worked the same way.
    “Each player puts down a card, and the person with the highest value card wins until someone has them all,”  she explains. With the cards, Filippi says she saw the potential for kids to painlessly learn facts about different species while they developed environmental and conservation awareness.
    The exclusive Oakland Zoo pack grew from subsequent collaborations. Besides the teaching value the cards offer, “It’s a great way for children, adults—and donors—to take a piece of the zoo home in their pockets,” Filippi says.
    An unexpected offshoot is that British card collectors have been bombarding her with orders, which means the world is learning that Oakland Zoo’s squirrel monkey out-poops the Griffon vulture by a ratio of 6 to 4. On the other hand, the vulture has a 40 year life expectancy compared to the squirrel monkey’s 15. So in the big picture and all things being equal—well, you do the math.
    A pack of cards costs $6.95 in the Oakland Zoo store. Learn more about them online at

—By Wanda Henning

Media Shelf

New Releases From East Bay Authors and Musicians

Mixing It Up, Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections by Ishmael Reed (Da Capo Press, 2008, 306 pp. $15.95)
Oakland essayist, poet and author Ishmael Reed lets his fury fly over mainstream media portrayal of blacks. In his latest collection of essays that first appeared in publications as varied as Playboy, CounterPunch, Green Magazine, Matador, Time, The New York Times, the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun, Reed mixes it up with the “media bullies” over their prejudicial coverage of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and weighs in on crime, eugenics, Harlem, Katrina and other contemporary topics. His introduction attempts to set the record straight while providing cultural context and issuing a rallying cry of protest for the underclass.

 —Judith M.Gallman

Leo Ornstein: Fantasy and Metaphor
(Sarah Cahill, piano) (New Albion Records,
Known to many as the host of the modern classical radio show Then and Now on KALW-FM 91.7, and to others as the producer of the annual Garden of Memory concert in Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, Sarah Cahill fashions 15 radiant solo piano gems from middle-period compositions by the Ukraine-born composer Leo Ornstein (1893-2002). Written from 1959 to 1978, these pieces were considered “retro” in their romantic tone and use of lyrical melody and harmony. But through her deft and dynamic touch, Cahill, a Berkeley resident whose recorded repertoire includes Ravel, Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell and Kyle Gann, reveals the complex intelligence at work within Ornstein’s beautiful, emotionally rich “Tales,” “Fantasy Pieces” and “Metaphors.”       

 —Derk Richardson

About A Rock Star

Stone Sculptures Richard Botto Turns River Flats Into Art

    Richard Botto of Oakland is a rock star, but he doesn’t play an electric guitar or strut like Mick Jagger.
    Botto, 55, makes art with river rocks. He fashions whimsical mushrooms, flowers, little ducks and penguins, and he builds curvaceous and boxy steel figures reaching skyward with rocks floating aloft in sculptures with names like Stacked Cantaloupes, Rock on Chain or Swirls n’ Whirls.
    He has many of these sculptures on display outside his office on Grand Avenue across the street from the Grand Lake Ace Garden Center.
    It’s OK to gawk—everybody does, especially on sunny Saturdays and Sundays. But if a tall athletic-looking guy with a tennis racquet, skis or a case of wine enters the building, leave him alone; he doesn’t really want to talk. But he does want you to enjoy his art.
    Botto is a self-taught artist with an impressive list of admirers (Veronica and Rene di Rosa, the artist and art collector, respectively, among them) who grew up in Montclair, learning about welding and machinery at his family’s meatpacking business.
    “I saw the process of creation as a kid growing up,” says the retired court reporter, who has a sociology degree from UC Santa Barbara.
While at his second home in Napa, Botto, whose voice booms with enthusiasm, watched field workers remove rocks for vineyards and says he became intrigued by the shapes he saw, and so he put them together to create playful animals, flowers and his signature shape—mushrooms. He says his love for the British outdoor sculptor Andy Goldsworthy’s work has led him to do large-scale installations. In addition, a fondness for local sculptural furniture maker Garry Knox Bennett has inspired him to incorporate other material into the paintings he does today.
    “I like to take rocks and show how they can be viewed in all kinds of different ways,” Botto says. “They’re the oldest things on earth. And it’s neat to take something you don’t know how long it’s been here, but it’s been here for who knows how long, and do something artistic with it.”
    An admirer convinced Botto to enter two large sculptures in the 1999 San Francisco Garden Show, and they sold for $4,900 apiece. “Then the idea hit, like boy, I can start selling this stuff,” he says. “I just kept building them and building them and building them.”
    Botto’s mushrooms sprout in many places. Domaine Chandon, the Napa Valley champagne maker, has 650 of them, and after seeing them there, Margrit Mondavi commissioned 90 for her late husband Robert’s 90th birthday.
    “It’s probably the most photographed piece in the Napa Valley. I’ll guarantee you there’s somebody photographing it right now,” Botto boasts of the Chandon mushroom field.
    “It’s a total attraction,” agrees Lara Abbott, public relations manager for Chandon. “Lots of people pose with them and post their pictures on Picasa.”
     That’s happening more in Oakland, too.
    “It’s unbelievable,” Botto says, adding the attention can be taxing. “I just put the key in and go in. … I don’t mean to be unfriendly, but I’ll talk if they ask; sure, I’m the artist. I’ll BS with them. I don’t like to solicit it myself.”

—Photography by Jan Stürmann

Nemomatic One Man’s Trash

    Nemo Gould, the Oakland sculptor who creates art from found objects, says his artistic temperament first manifested itself through compulsive behavior. “As a kid, I collected rocks, bones … and at some point that drifted into collecting bits of broken machines,” he says.
    At first, Gould hoarded his treasures in boxes, but at the age of 7 or 8, his parents introduced him to California Funk Art—the art movement of the 1960s and 1970s that uses a mixture of materials and techniques and that was a reaction against the nonobjectivity of abstract expressionism. “That’s when the light came on for me,” Gould says.
    Suddenly, he says he saw the potential of all the things he had been amassing.
    Now, the 33-year-old Gould transforms the objects he once found and treasured into fantastical robot-like creatures in his Berkeley studio. Some of his pieces glow and move, giving them a somewhat sinister quality.
    About every week, Gould, who lives in Oakland, goes out to scrapyards, second-hand stores and the dump to scrounge for objects. When he finds the right item, he feels it instinctively—like a light coming on. “When that happens, I grab it and take it back to my shop, and it’s like a wine cellar thing. They sit until they’re ready.”
    The artistic process of creating a piece of art can take weeks or months, depending on when the right parts come along. “Patience is what makes them work,” Gould says. “As long as I’m working on something, then something is always getting done. It’s not linear or quick.”
    Sometimes one found object inspires an entire sculpture. For example, Gould’s 2008 piece Skittish was “all about the clog,” he says. “I was just holding the shoe in my hand and couldn’t help seeing this anguished kind of head.” The sculpture also incorporates a pair of dentures, a broiling pan lid and table legs. The result is an anguished-looking four-legged creature with a tail, no eyes and a mouth full of teeth.
    Gould’s work ranges in price from $800 for small, inert figures and as much as $25,000 for larger, mechanical pieces. To see photos and videos of Gould’s work, go to  

—Ellen Keohane
—Photos courtesy of Nemo Gould


Hyperkinetic Preservationist
Phil Tagami

    George Bernard Shaw once wrote about the virtues of being “thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap.” Phil Tagami, the developer of the Fox Theater and the Rotunda Building, not only posts these words on his Web site, he lives them. In an animated interview in which we never sat down, Tagami wasted no time revealing what drives him.

What is your favorite piece of the Fox Theater renovation?

    All the things that still aren’t done. Until it’s completed, until the endowment is fully raised—until everything on our checklist is handled and the building is really dialed in and we really have a good understanding of how to best provide an event space that meets  today’s standards, respects the preservation of the historic fabric and is also economically sustainable so the city doesn’t have to have any fear of supporting it, the job’s not done.

I read that Jerry Brown is your mentor.
    Without question, I would say he is one of them. There are a lot of mentors that I have who demonstrate their greatness through the eloquence of their work, be they craftspeople or construction people. But politically, Jerry is definitely a mentor.

How so?
    His Jesuit education and his form of instruction are much different than the typical relationship you’d have with somebody. I would say Jerry is intellectually honest, raises a lot of good questions and is even willing to argue both sides to demonstrate his mental flexibility and his understanding of issues.

It sounds as though spirituality plays a strong part in your sense of self.
I was raised Episcopalian and have done a lot of reading about Buddhism but am a practicing Christian. It really boils down to your good works and your faith.

It’s been said that Oakland has an identity crisis. How do you see the city you’ve lived in most of your life?

    I’ve had a challenge with that. For years, colleagues and friends and outsiders have made an analogy that Oakland was on its way. I’ve always thought that Oakland was here and that Oakland was what it was. This is the port city of Oakland. It’s a great city because it chooses, through its gritty determination and hard work, to do what other cities can’t—by way of geography, its vision and its message. We’re an incredibly diverse community that some say sits in the shadow of San Francisco. I would rather say we have a great view of San Francisco and they have to look back at us.

How important is the restoration of the Fox Theater and other architectural gems to the rebirth of Oakland’s struggling neighborhoods?
    A room full of healthy, happy people who are peacefully congregating is probably the most enlightening and elevating experience you can have, so the more you can cultivate healthy communities—people who are well fed, people who have good jobs, people who are in healthy relationships, people who have love—that’s more powerful than any brick or building or piece of glass or piece of steel. But there’s no question that things like the Fox Theater, things like the Rotunda Building, can amplify that healthy community.

What about your next project—the historic West Oakland train station?

    That’s going to be a very difficult project. It will take many years and it’ll be more expensive than we think it’s going to be. We know all these things going into it, but it must be done. That building symbolizes an arrival for many people’s families into Oakland. It was Oakland’s Ellis Island. It was the terminus where a lot of people got off to find jobs and employment and a new life and a more tolerant society.

I get the sense you never relax. Tell me I’m wrong.

    I’ll take that as a friendly rebuke. Yes, there are breakfasts at the Egg Shop where the Blackberry is humming and we have to respond to the crisis of the moment. But I do have a lot of quiet time and down time where people will even say “Phil talks a lot. Does he talk at home?” My wife laughs because I might not say a whole heck of a lot at home.

But seriously, how do you juggle work with your family life?
    I value and treasure my time with my family among all things, and it’s always a difficult decision when we embark on these projects—how it’s going to impact our family lives. I don’t want to lose my health or my family in the process of my pursuits, so I think we evaluate that daily.

And your ultimate wind down?
    Scrabble. My wife is a formidable Scrabble player. I’d like to say that I do my best to hold my own. As long as I get the Q and the Z and a U occasionally, I can put some words together and really give her a run for her money. But I probably overuse the word “quay” in the pursuit of that.

—By Ginny Prior
—Mitch Tobias,

Oakland Made

New Brew

    A few years ago chocolatier Rob Polevoi decided to go back to basics.
    “Everything being done in chocolate was being overdone,” he says. “A new thing needed to happen.”
    Turns out that the new thing was the oldest thing. Borrowing from the ancient Mexicans’ tradition of drinking cacao water for its pleasant effects, Polevoi took more than two years to develop a contemporary equivalent.
   The result is Cabaret Brewed Chocolate, a whole-bean beverage available in condensed syrup form. Born and brewed in Oakland, the product marks its first anniversary in May.
    Each 6-ounce jar contains a pound’s worth of raw cacao beans brewed in water—a lengthy process that retains the healthful benefits of chocolate while leaving the fat behind. Sweetened with organic evaporated cane juice, a teaspoon of syrup mixed in hot water creates an instant beverage, akin to chocolate tea, with only 24 calories and plenty of antioxidants.
    Unlike coffee, which Polevoi, 53, calls “unbelievably chemically simple,” chocolate is complex. Cacao beans contain multiple compounds, among them theobromine, described as a gentle stimulant that lasts longer than its cousin caffeine—and minus the jittery effect.
    People react differently to the complexity of Cabaret Brewed Chocolate, reporting elevated spirits or a sense of calm. “A kind of relaxed energy,” says Polevoi, who considers it a replacement for coffee. Yet he harbors no illusions about how difficult it is to get people to rethink that habit. “It’s a cultural shift,” he says.
    No stranger to cultural shifts, Polevoi’s career curved from tax attorney to 3-D graphics expert to chocolatier and now to pioneer. It surprises him that in today’s world with so much innovation, no one attempted to produce brewed chocolate before now.
    “It’s not that novel,” he says. “It’s the way it was done for hundreds of years.”
Find Cabaret Brewed Chocolate at the Wine Mine, Hooper’s Chocolates or online at

—Kathy Hrastar


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