By Karen Mack, Executive Director, LA Commons
September 11, 2013

Editor’s Note:  How do we create thriving public spaces to reflect the people who live there?  According to the LA Commons, who through a Living Cultures Grant produced the third Day of the Ancestors procession and youth mask-making workshops: “Leimert Park Village is the Center of African American culture in Los Angeles.  Walk its streets and you’ll experience the soul of this community through wonderful food, music and people.”  Reclaiming and transforming open urban spaces with the vitality of traditional arts is an example of communities working on many levels to celebrate and collectively focus to make a statement of common purpose and connection.  With over 200 participants involved in the parade, we asked LA Commons Executive Director Karen Mack to file this report.  

On June 18, 2013, an Emirates plane traveling from Lagos, Nigeria, via Dubai arrived in Los Angeles.  The passenger roster included the seven women of the singing group, Adunni and Nefretiti, who arrived to participate in the third annual Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks in Leimert Park Village.  The women were coming to collaborate with Najite Agindotan, a master drummer and disciple of Fela Kuti, who envisioned performing the Yoruba rite from the villages of West Africa in the cultural center of the African-American community in Los Angeles.  Through a procession and performances, Day of the Ancestors brings to life the masks seen on the streets and in the shops throughout the neighborhood and pays homage to those that have gone before in order to learn the lessons of the past and move successfully into the future.  

Najite saw, in bringing Adunni and Nefretiti to participate in the Festival, the opportunity to amplify the spirit of the event and share more broadly and deeply the Yoruba practices that are at its foundation.  He also knew the LA community would be drawn to participate by these ladies, whose outsized talent and generosity in sharing it are captivating.  They sing songs that bridge the ancient and the modern, and effortlessly engage everyone around them.   Knowing the extent of Najite’s artistic gifts through our work to host the first two festivals, we at LA Commons signed on to producing the third installment and to bringing Adunni to Los Angeles, with the help of a Cultural Exchange International Grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs.  And how amazing it was to realize this dream!

The Festival also brought together the best local traditional African performers from around Los Angeles including Oblinyanko African Dance Ensemble led by Peter Abilogu who was one of the founders of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble and Malik Sow, a master drummer who for ten years was the musical director for the Ballet National du Senegal.   In addition to these natives of Africa, several other master artists were involved in the preparations for the event — renowned sculptor Charles Dickson who led a found object mask workshop using painter’s masks, and Caribbean Carnival specialist Marie Kellier, who worked with participants to create costumes inspired by the goddess Mami Wata.  LA Commons staff member Beth Peterson and her collaborator Dennis Smith supported the creation of large ancestor masks and costumes.

A Living Cultures Grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts enabled us to connect these accomplished artists with twelve youth artists ages 15-25 in an intensive weekly workshop series that lasted almost three months.   The young people served as the backbone of the production process as they worked to gather stories and information; design masks, costumes and visual elements for the procession; assist with set up and clean up of their workshops and sessions for the public; perform in the procession; and evaluate the project at the end.  The youth arts workshops took place on the street outside of the storefronts belonging to KAOS Network, a key production partner.  As the youth worked, passersby commented on their great focus and the wonderful art work they were creating.  

In their weekly two hour sessions, the youth would spend the first half hour learning traditional Yoruba songs and chants with Najite and then would work with their visual arts mentors.  One student, Lewa, who had recently lost her father created a mask to honor him in the procession.  Another youth, Hailee, who was initially worried about participating in the procession, later noted that the procession was one of the highlights of his experience.  The mother of youth artist Carolina Rivas commented that she was proud because her daughter treated the experience like a “real job” and invested many extra hours at home completing her Mami Wata attendant costume.  

On June 30 of this year, Imodaye Shabazz , a leader in the local Yoruba community, initiated Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks with a ceremonial blessing to manifest the ancestral spirits.  Surrounded by the 200 community members and visitors from all over Los Angeles participating in the procession, as well as onlookers, his words, punctuated by the drum corps assembled by Najite, increased everyone’s excitement.  So did the costumes which animated the scene, recalling ancestors, personal and communal, ancient and from more modern times.  Some people waved fans with likenesses of Emmett Till, the symbolic ancestor for the 2013 event, representing a boy who died before his time in a situation beyond his control, echoing Trayvon Martin and so many other African American boys.

The sections of the procession, each named for a different aspect of nature, were designed to transform the energy into a powerful healing force for performers and audience members.   As people began to walk on the streets of Leimert Park, the water section cleared the way for the ancestors and included a traditional Yoruba alligator masquerade backed by Najite and fellow drummers   and a Gelede women’s masquerade performed by Adunni and Nefretiti.  Other water section participants wore very detailed, handmade Caribbean inspired costumes in beautiful shades of blue calling the spirit of Mami Wata.  

All sections were led by a giant puppet crafted by Beth Peterson.  In the earth section it was a giant tree figure that symbolized the strength gathered from the ancestors.  Performers in this section included traditional grass dancers and stilt walkers.   The moon section honored the legacy of Emmett Till and those who passed before their time.  In addition to photos of friends and relatives, people carried the aforementioned fans.  The last section moved the community toward a positive future with the healing energy of the sun symbolized by marchers wearing sun hats and masks made in the workshops.

Following the procession, the festivities moved to a stage for performances in the park and in addition to those mentioned earlier, highlights included: Long Beach’s Dembebra West Africa Drum and Dance Ensemble, Grass, Tall Mask and Jewel Dancers, and Olokun Imal Masquerade.  Adunni and Nefretiti closed out the Festival for 2013 with a rousing show that got the hundreds of people in the audience on their feet, singing, dancing and filled with the spirit of the ancestors.