Walking the streets of Albina today, you might never guess that the neighborhood was once the beating heart of Portland’s soul music scene. For most of the 20th century, this area was home to a majority of the city’s Black population, a community anchored by a vibrant live music scene and a fleet of Black-owned venues and nightclubs. While decades of institutionalized discrimination and a series of misguided infrastructure projects irreversibly warped the once close-knit neighborhood, Albina’s musical legacy lives on with the help of a free mobile app and a pair of headphones.
The Albina Soul Walk is a local history and music-themed self-guided walking tour that transports listeners to the Albina of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—the heyday of Albina soul music. Lifelong Portland soulsters and icons of Albina’s golden years Norman Sylvester and Calvin Walker guide listeners through the one-mile tour, making stops at nine locations that were once pillars of the local soul scene. The Albina Music Trust, a local non-profit, went to great lengths to retrieve and digitize original recordings taken from each of the former venues so that upon reaching each location, visitors can hear music recorded in the very building they’re seeing. The music is further animated by oral histories and anecdotes from the musicians themselves.
At its peak, venues like the Texas Playhouse, Cotton Club, and Fred’s Place—all Black-owned venues and nightclubs—pulsed nightly with the rousing bounce of up to six, seven, and eight-piece local disco, R&B, and funk bands whose unique Portland approach was often grander and more exploratory than many contemporaneous acts. While the Albina soul scene never attained a national prowess equaling that of L.A. or Chicago, its die-hard neighborhood fanbase made cult heroes out of local acts.
Of course, Portland was no stranger to the redlining, rezoning, and gentrification that stifled many Black communities across the country throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Portland’s Interstate 5 was laid across the Albina neighborhood, bisecting the already-embattled community before an expansion of Emanuel Hospital further displaced longtime residents and businesses.
Facing racism in the state-wide music circuit and restricted access to loans, this community of world-class musicians never came to receive the mainstream recognition of which they were certainly worthy. Instead, they remained the stuff of local legend. And while you won’t find their music on most streaming platforms, thanks to the Albina Music Trust, their legacy is at least aurally cemented in this one-of-a-kind historic music tour.
Know Before You Go
To experience The Albina Soul Walk, download the free ECHOES interactive sound walks mobile application - available in the App Store for iPhone and Android. Then search for "The Albina Soul Walk" in the app or scan the QR code on the map here. To launch the walk, visit 2125 North Vancouver Ave. and either stream or download the walk.