French-Moroccan chanteuse Raquel Bitton began performing in front of audiences when she was still a child in Marrakech, but it was upon arriving in San Francisco on a one-way ticket that she discovered Edith Piaf nestled in the stacks of records her father had owned. Like Bitton, Paris' beloved "Little Sparrow" was a tiny woman with a tremendous voice, but it wasn't Piaf's vocal range that held her nation in her sway, it was her deep, dark passion. The offspring of a petty contortionist and a drug-addicted prostitute, Piaf spent the early part of her life in a brothel and learned to sing for her supper on street corners. Even at the height of her swift, startling stardom -- she was one of the highest-paid performers in the world at the time of early death -- Piaf pursued a repertoire that reflected the melancholic infelicity of her childhood; in her hands, even a lighthearted pop song could be fraught with drama, every syllable wrung for emotion. Bitton was captivated, one might even say captured, by her newly realized muse. She has by now performed in every major hall in America, from Carnegie to Davies, backed by full orchestras, and has been recognized as the world's foremost interpreter of Piaf even by legendary composers like Paul Misraki and Henri Contet, who knew the "Little Sparrow" personally. She has recorded several albums culled from Piaf's songbook; co-produced the Soundprint documentary The Nights of Edith Piaf, which aired on NPR; and is widely credited with resurrecting international interest in the singer 40 years after her death. Bitton's latest contribution to the legacy is Piaf: Her Story ... Her Songs, a feature-length documentary that weaves one of Bitton's powerful performances together with conversations she had with Piaf's living friends, family, biographers, and composers in a small cafe near the vocalist's tomb. A new song written for Bitton by Piaf composers Francis Lai and Michel Rivgauche is part of this remarkable soundtrack. Bitton is interviewed onstage by Gerald Nachman after the screening of Piaf: Her Story ... Her Songs on Thursday, April 22, at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro near Market) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10; call (925) 275-9490 or visit www.cafilm.org.
Since 1996, revolutionary tabla master Zakir Hussain has organized tours with a revolving group of virtuosos called the Masters of Percussion. The highly anticipated shows -- an outgrowth of the duets Hussain once performed with his legendary father, Ustad Alla Rakha -- are a collusion of Hindustani and Carnatic styles that explores every facet of East Indian drumming, from the melodic raga to the rhythmic tala. This year's percussionists include Hussain's brothers, Fazal and Taufiq Qureshi, on tabla; Planet Drum alumnus and Vadya Vidyalaya Percussion School founder T.H. Vinayakram on ghatam; and Bollywood soundtrack maestro Vijay Chauhan on dholki; with Tamil Nadu State Artists Ganesh and Kumaresh on violins; George Harrison and Ravi Shankar collaborator Ustad Sultan Khan on the difficult saragni stringed instrument; and an appearance by Manipuri Jagoi Marup, one of India's premier performance troupes, which combines folk drumming with martial arts and traditional dance. The Masters of Percussion perform on Sunday, April 25, at Zellerbach Hall (Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus) at 7 p.m. Tickets are $22-42; call (510) 642-9988 or visit www.calperfs.berkeley.edu.