Porto Franco Records is devoted to chronicling the Mission District's interwoven underground music scene. The label is the brainchild of father-and-son team Sergei and Peter Varshavsky, who hail from far outside that neighborhood — their family arrived here from Russia in 1999 — but who quickly fell in love with the vibrant arts network dominating the dive bars and cafes in that neighborhood.
Sergei, a doctor, moved here to start a medical consulting company; Peter immediately immersed himself in San Francisco's dance community, learning the Charleston at swing nights and meeting performers at tango sessions. He introduced his dad to his new friends, artists who congregated at eclectic live music hubs Amnesia and the Red Poppy Art House. The elder Varshavsky soon realized that the flourishing musician population lacked recorded documentation. Last year, he sold his consulting company and, finding he had a surplus of time and money, set out to support this music scene.
"I liked the music, but it was clear to me that none of these people had any money to produce records," he says.
At first, Sergei sponsored CDs, funding accordionist Rob Reich's The Balancing Act. He eventually settled on a more lasting solution, proposing a partnership with his son in a new record label devoted to the local artists they loved.
There was just one problem: The Varshavskys knew nothing about starting a label. "We went to the San Francisco Public Library and read a couple of books about the record business," Sergei says. They talked to industry insiders about their plan, quickly realizing that starting a label wasn't a revenue-generating idea.
"Everyone advised us not to do it!" Peter laughs. But the two were undeterred, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Even people who advised against starting a label, he says, "were really excited, because they loved the local music scene and they saw how a label like this could help."
After attending Gaucho's "Gypsy Jazz" nights at Amnesia and the Nice Guy Trio's collaborative runs at the Red Poppy Art House, the Varshavskys imagined focusing on artists with similar hybrid influences. And so Porto Franco Records — the name meaning "free port" and symbolizing the label's desired transmission of local culture — was born in December. Its initial releases are a diverse bunch. The Nice Guy Trio bridges tango, jazz, and modern classical strains. Brass Menazeri blasts a full-on Balkan brass orchestra. Marc Matos and Os Beaches offer twangy indie pop, while the bawdy Devine's Jug Band makes you want to knock one back in a 1920s speakeasy.
Porto Franco's varied roster is connected through the individuals in these acts, many of whom play on each other's records. Clarinetist and composer Aaron Novik, whose record will be released early next year, went one step further, designing the cover for the Nice Guy Trio CD.
The Varshavskys hope Porto Franco's records will eventually become iconic San Francisco exports, being sold in tourist gift shops as well as more traditional music outlets.
"If you were just marketing music, you wouldn't do this," Peter explains, looking over a list of future releases that take in Meklit Hadero's Brazilian-inflected lullabies and the Mitch Marcus Quintet's modern jazz maelstrom. "But we're marketing the scene, and that's attractive to people who like eclectic music."
If Porto Franco succeeds, it will be because the Varshavskys have found a way to export not just individual bands, but also the breadth of the Mission's musical creativity.