Nola and Maestro Curtis never pushed their five kids toward music, despite being skilled professional musical performers and instructors themselves.
So you can imagine their surprise when, from another room, they heard their then-3-year-old on the bass line while another of their kids, Isis, sang and drummed a rendition of Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, sounding “just like the record.”
Once they saw their kids’ natural interest in music piqued, the couple transitioned away from playing with other performers and turned their passion for notes into a family affair.
The Curtis family, known professionally as The Curtis Family C-Notes, plays melodies of “'60s and '70s-inspired San Francisco funk” out of their Bayview District home and in venues across the city, according to their son Nile.
The eldest, 17-year-old Zahara, plays guitar, violin and percussion. Nile, 16, plays bass. At 14, Isis rocks drums and the piano alongside her sister Kiki, 13, who plays the electric guitar and keyboard. Phoenix, the youngest Curtis at 11, performs on the piano, guitar, violin and drums. All five siblings sing.
“Music is not what we do, music is who we are. It’s how we operate as a family,” said Maestro Curtis, a.k.a. “Papa C,” who, alongside his wife, is a faculty member at the Mission District Community Music Center.
When the C-Notes played the halftime show at a March 2020 Warriors game, they thought it might be their big break. But shortly thereafter the pandemic hit, and it was their weekly living room livestreams that brought them their biggest opportunity yet—a stint on the popular show America’s Got Talent.
That achievement is noteworthy no matter who you are, but it was especially poignant for the Curtis family, who experienced homelessness and lived out of a van in 2011.
“Going through that experience with our children has only made our bond even stronger,” said Nola Curtis, a.k.a. “Mama C.” As for the Curtis kids, they say the knowledge that they were once homeless helps keep them humble regardless of their newfound recognition. The family recently did a winter ad campaign with JCPenney for the holidays.
“We kept our focus. Some people call it faith. I simply call it focus,” said Papa C.
Just ask the five children to recite the “Curtis Family Principles” and you’ll see what he means. The kids, in unison, will tell you: Never give up, pay attention, be prepared, show up and produce.
In harmony, the children describe their desire to “bring family back” to the American consciousness. With that intention, there’s a keen focus on the choice messaging of the songs they perform, both with their original compositions and covers of other musicians’ work.
Today, the Curtis family practices, laughs, learns and performs together, all underneath a “never give up” sign hanging in their cozy San Francisco home.