It’s a Thursday night at the end of summer. The patio at 4th Street Market in Downtown Santa Ana is flooded in shades of blue and pink lights. Locals line long, wooden tables all the way to the back, eating food from inside and trying to catch a glimpse of the next performer from the sign-up list.
Children rush to the front to watch as the band’s drummer sets a beat. Teens sway to the bassist’s deep plucks. Groups of college-aged friends bob their heads in unison, entranced by a passionate female emcee.
Frosty, a Santa Ana-based singer and rapper, holds the mic in one hand. With both eyes closed, she raises her left arm and sings: “Fist up in the air ‘cause I’m proud of being brown.”
Frosty is one of the dozen-plus artists who showed up early enough to secure one of the coveted 5-minute sets at The Coollab Project, the city’s only weekly open mic night and an important place for young Orange County artists to express themselves.
Unlike the competitive atmosphere of other open mics, the 3-year-old Coollab fosters an uplifting environment that’s created a community rooted in supporting everything from poetry to hip hop to jazz, no matter where the creators are on their artistic journey.
Frosty spent the last two years singing on this patio, working out the songs that would eventually become her first EP, a self-titled project released on Aug. 31. “It was a catalyst for my career,” she says.
In order to get one of the prized open mic slots, you have to be dedicated. Performers need to arrive at least an hour before the music begins and put their name into a notebook placed on a table at the front. Those who don’t make it in time still have an opportunity to showcase their abilities.
Every Coollab starts with an open jam session, where house band Apollo Bebop invites musicians from the crowd to improvise alongside them. Singers freestyle to jazzy riffs, guitarists mold their notes around whatever beat speaks to them, and the sounds of various instruments somehow combine effortlessly, everything from violins to keyboards to horns.
“It’s like a playground really,” says Apollo Bebop bassist Chris Trimmer.
At 7:30 p.m., host Rocky Angelini starts the open mic portion of the evening with a couple of house rules. The most important one: Everybody gets love, regardless of their race, creed or color.
“It feels very genuine, it’s not like other open mics,” says Zaid Tabani, an Anaheim native and Berklee Boston College of Music alumni, who estimates he has attended more than 40 open mics around the country. “This is easily the best one,” he said.
Tabani now drives two hours from where he lives to perform at The Coollab. During a recent set, he confessed that it was the warmth of these evenings that got him through difficult times in his life.
“This is like a major community,” he says.
In the three years since the Coollab was founded by a group of local musicians and artists, the event has given Santa Ana youth a much-needed creative outlet in the heart of their city. Santa Ana is not only the city with the youngest population in Orange County but also has some of the highest poverty rates in the region.
“Santa Ana itself is thriving in culture because of the people that live here. That’s their escape. It’s through art,” says Frosty after her performance. “ Locals are fighting to have rights to their own land and 4th Street is seen as the face of gentrification. That’s why it’s cool to have an open mic and everyone who wants to come has a voice here and will be supported.”