Listening to Oakland, California, musician Zena Carlota play the kora, a 21-string West African harp, is a hauntingly beautiful experience. The melodic sound of the instrument—which is handcrafted from wood, a large calabash gourd, and cowhide—is hard to describe, but it’s kind of like hearing a medieval European harp and an acoustic guitar perform a duet.
”Although there’s only one person playing, it actually sounds like several instruments being played at the same time,” Carlota says. “It’s delicate, and intimate—it’s an angelic sound.”
A music concert is an apt analogy for the style and decoration of Carlota’s apartment, where three women (all of them creatives) came together under a year ago to make their home. Each roommate has her own discipline. Carlota is a musician and visual artist, Grace Kibreab is a designer, and her sister Esther Kibreab is a vocalist. When they signed the lease for the three-bedroom cottage near Mills College in Oakland, they each brought furniture, art, and the trappings of artistic lives (everything from a sewing machine to kora harps).
"Honestly, we were really surprised when we moved in, because our stuff matches," Carlota says. "Grace went to design school, and she has impeccable taste. We talked about it, and then we went through every space and very intentionally placed everything."
With so many artists literally in residence, it’s natural that a creative salon would be planned for the living room. "I think one of the most important things for us was to create a great gathering space for friends and family. We wanted a living space that was cozy," Carlota says. "We've had a lovely dinner with traditional homemade Eritrean food, and because we have such a large music community that we are connected to, we are planning small house concerts."
In fact, with three koras, three ukuleles (one electric), a guitar, and a pair of bongo drums, it looks like a performance could start at any moment. And while that might be the case, it’s also a decorating strategy. "I think the koras are beautiful, and I like to have them out where I can see them and they are accessible," she says. "I want my home to reflect to me what’s beautiful and inspiring in the world."
The kora has been inspiring the artist since she heard a snippet of its music while working in Los Angeles’s Amoeba Records. The sound of the instrument sent her on a journey that led to Gambia, where she studied the kora and its environment. "My first teacher taught me that the culture feeds into the music, that it’s not just the notes that are played—it’s the food that’s eaten, the stories told, and the customs and traditions that surround it."
The kora and its music aren't the only things that came back from West Africa with her; she’s filled her home with art from her journeys around the world. "My mother is an anthropologist, and she always brought back things from her travels that she had fallen in love with," Carlota says. "I also collect things from where I’ve been, like paintings from Haiti, baskets from Ethiopia, and embroidery from Panama."
She also gathers and displays items from the natural world closer to home, most of them uncovered on long hikes in the California wilderness. Her love of nature is one of the things that drew her to Oakland after living in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "It seemed like a refuge from the noise and busy-ness," she says. "I need quiet, and here I can hear the crickets and birds, because they aren’t drowned out by city noise."
Carlota’s father and grandparents are from Oakland, and she grew up spending summers and holidays in the community. As an adult, the diversity and the culture drew her back. But, as the headlines have blared, the forces of gentrification have crossed the Bay Bridge, along with people seeking housing that (when compared to neighboring San Francisco) is more affordable.
"I’ve been lucky with my housing, but I’ve seen other artists and people who are trying to contribute lose their homes. We had a lot of people come from San Francisco because they couldn’t afford it. Now some of those people are wondering if they can afford Oakland," says Carlota. "With people being rapidly pushed out, it brings up the question of what’s next."
What Carlota would like to see is a balance that protects the diversity and artistic community that she cherishes. "Change and development don't have to be bad things—but now it comes at the expense of long time residents and the lives they've built here," she says. "I would encourage new people coming to the area to be mindful of the beautiful history that exists here, and to do their part to understand the people of Oakland, so they can fully appreciate and participate in the culture."
While societal tensions may roil outside her front door, the artist has created a peaceful haven inside her home. "We set out to make this a place for us, and for the people we love.