On the evening of August 21, 2012, I was one of several hundred community members who gathered at Grand Performances in downtown Los Angeles to mark the opening of ACTA’s Southern California office.
After navigating my way through rush hour in downtown LA, I emerged from the underground parking garage, wended my way across the Watercourt Plaza, went up an escalator or two, and was greeted by sights and sounds that would gladden the heart of any folklorist. Traditional musicians and dancers were everywhere in different states of stage readiness. A Chinese lion dance head smiled from under a canopy. A table was riotous with bright quilts. A leather saddle gleamed. A thin ribbon of smoke rose from a corner of the plaza and a light breeze carried the fragrance of pollo asado. ACTA staff members scurried to and fro. A young mariachi musician arrived with a trumpet case in his hand, his traje over his shoulder in a garment bag, and his proud parents by his side. Several Fulani drummers were on stage doing a sound check with their drums. Michael Alexander stood nearby conferring with the Grand Performances stage crew. I took all this in at a glance and instantly felt (1) excited, and (2) at home. This is my Los Angeles.
Traditional artists in SoCal have thrived for many years with support from ACTA’s grants, but this particular evening was an exuberant zocalo that marked an arrival. Opening an office in LA signals—promises!—a new level for ACTA’s involvement in the region, and where better to celebrate the moment than at Grand Performances? Thanks to GP Executive Director Michael Alexander—a great friend to ACTA—we gathered in a space already filled with the spirit of many other performers and artists.
As I stood on the plaza, I hardly knew where to start. It was an hour before show time. I said hello to Chris Low, a restoration expert in Chinese lion dance costume, and his family. I met Ofelia Esparza, an altarista from East Los Angeles, who showed me her papel picado and her photo albums of ofrenda. I chatted with Quetzal Flores, artivista (artist/activist) extraordinaire and the ACTA Program Manager who oversees our new LA office, who couldn’t stop talking about his vision for how ACTA will support and connect traditional artists in the region, from the urban sprawl of LA to the agricultural communities of Coachella Valley. Other ACTA Board members arrived one by one—Charlie Seemann in his boots and cowboy hat, Chike Nwoffiah in a bright Igbo tunic—and then friends and community members started to show up. As the minutes went by and the sun got lower, more and more people arrived, and we eventually moved from the impromptu food court to the amphitheater serving quesadillas by local street vendor, Caridad Vasquez, to the amphitheater.
I can’t begin to tell you which part of the program I enjoyed the most. Each group came from a different dynamic community in the greater Southern California region. Malik Sow’s Fulani drumming ensemble provided the perfect high-energy opening for the evening, followed by Khannia Ok from the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach. Khannia was introduced by her brother, Prumsodun Ok, one of our newest Board members. Her exquisitely nuanced solo dance reminded us all over again how cultural memory is sometimes carried and transmitted through delicate details like how sequins are sewn and the exact angle of a flexed elbow. Stanley Rodriguez and his wife Martha shared Kumeyaay singing, storytelling, and dancing (and got some of us up on stage).
Without question, Board member Dan Sheehy’s presentation of ACTA’s first California Living Heritage Award to mariachi legend Nati Cano was a highlight of the evening. Nati’s big spirit, superb musicianship, and visionary effort to make mariachi a household word in the U.S. is emblematic of ACTA’s values. He was a founding ACTA Board member and of course has international standing as a traditional arts leader. In true ACTA style, we honored Nati’s contributions and then went straight into a thrilling set by Mariachi Tesoro de San Fernando.
The tight house and ball dance set by REACH LA was particularly meaningful for many of us. A youth-driven organization serving African American and Latino gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, REACH LA offers a range of support services and its balls are a major site for cultural legacy work. Their dance set was breathtaking and brilliantly demonstrated how the arts create and sustain community. It seemed like there was nowhere else to go after that, but somehow the Lidereibugu Drumming and Dance Ensemble, representing the Garifuna American Heritage Foundation United of Los Angeles, got us all out of our seats and we ended the night with pretty much everyone (yes, including me) on stage dancing.
For most of the evening, I sat with my fellow Board members and a few other friends, and I turned around at one point to find that Fulani drummer Malik Sow was right behind me. He laughed and said he’d meant to go home after his opening set… but got pulled in and couldn’t make himself leave because the performances were just so good. That summed up the evening for me. The circle will widen but the connections just keep getting deeper and tighter. ACTA isn’t new to SoCal but our LA office will enable a new level of connection and outreach. Our celebration under the night sky kicked the office door open.