July/August 2010 Thursday night concerts feature Parno Graszt (7/22), Natacha Atlas (7/29), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (8/5), La Excelencia (8/12), the Jews on Vinyl Revue (8/19), and Kenge Kenge (8/26).
The open expanse of the Skirball Cultural Center’s courtyard looks peaceful nestled under the Santa Monica Mountains, but in summer, it bursts with the raucous and joyful noise of the best of the world’s musicians: Hungarian gypsies bang milk cans and Kenyan bards wield handmade fiddles, while nonagenarian Yiddish-singing piano bar veterans and soulful Cajuns, hip salsa activists, and trans-cultural divas rub shoulders with dancing neighbors of all generations, backgrounds, and lifestyles.
This fun-loving, open-hearted haven is the Skirball Cultural Center’s Sunset Concerts Series, one of Los Angeles’ rare opportunities to embrace local, community, and global possibilities in a welcoming outdoor setting designed for dancing, celebration, and engagement. In its fourteenth year, this free Thursday evening series (July 22–August 26) aims to connect people to one another by embracing a panoply of sound that spans the planet, with emphasis on L.A. and California debut performances.
“We’re always looking for the perfect outdoor concert,” says Sunset Concerts curator Yatrika Shah-Rais, the Skirball’s music director. “People like to be outdoors and move. So we offer something that people can get involved in and really dance to. It’s festive and boisterous.”
The vibrant community spirit of Sunset Concerts, which includes a lively dance floor and, for many, a family picnic, is habit-forming, with concertgoers marking their calendars months in advance and stopping Shah-Rais on the street and asking for the line-up. It is yet another harmonious facet of the Skirball’s welcoming, community-minded mission.
“Though many think of the Skirball as a primarily Jewish organization, our mission is about inclusion,” explains Skirball Director of Programs Jordan Peimer. “World music celebrates people’s cultural heritage, the history and ideas they bring with them when they encounter new communities, the universal values that transcend time and place. We want people of all backgrounds to invest in their ethnic and cultural identities and to celebrate them within a society where all of us can feel at home.”
The series kicks off with Hungary’s Parno Graszt (July 22; L.A. premiere), known not just for finding the source of the traditions they relish; they are the source. With the distinct Roma scat-singing rhythms of their native land and their magical ability to turn everyday objects into the source for irrepressible percussive beats, the group can fill a dance floor in a heart beat—and will often come out to join their dancing fans even after their concert is supposedly over.
The Skirball’s mission runs through all the Sunset Concerts, but shines through with performers like Natacha Atlas (July 29). Her work moves from edgy Arabic-flavored electronica to poignant acoustic ballads that capture the full breadth of the singer’s multicultural heritage: Belgian-born to an English mother and a father with diverse Arabic and Sephardic roots. “In her music and in her role as UN Goodwill Ambassador against racism, she embraces the fact that diversity gives us strength and that our differences should be celebrated rather than feared,” Shah-Rais explains.
With a similar ear for reimagining their roots, the rowdy mastery of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (August 5) rethinks the Cajun and Creole sounds of Southern Louisiana, creating rollicking music that dares listeners to keep from trying the two-step. “Even at their most traditional,” Shah-Rais notes, “they have such a diversity of harmony and rhythms, with a rock feel.”
New York-based salsa crew La Excelencia (August 12; L.A. premiere) also gets crowds moving with their hard-hitting dance-or-bust vibe—and gets them thinking at the same time. Committed to social justice in the barrio as well as intense beats, the 13 young members of this rising salsa dura band stay true to their roots while engaging both salsa tradition and their audiences with their unflagging energy and stellar musicianship.
Unexpected musical connections will be showcased at the Jews on Vinyl Revue (August 19; L.A. premiere), a unique chance to catch some of Jewish music’s most revered veterans playing alongside up-and-coming musicians. Tying into an exhibition at the Skirball curated by music researchers and writers Josh Kun and Roger Bennett, audiences will have a rare chance to catch performers like maverick nonagenarian Yiddish songwriter Irving Fields, known for his Bagels and Bongos records; Fred Katz, who introduced solo cello into jazz and was so committed to the music that he taught jazz to nuns at a Benedictine convent; and Yemenite-Israeli diva Hedva Amrani, whose velvet voice has scored major hits from Cairo to Tokyo.
“There will also be multi-media presentations and two outdoor listening parties connected to this exhibition,” Shah-Rais relates. “It’s about bringing Jewish American pop history to life in sound and images.”
Kenya’s Kenge Kenge, the group behind the YouTube video phenomenon “Obama for Change,” (August 26; California premiere) bring an entirely different viewpoint to vibrant, exuberant life. The group transforms the traditional instruments of the Luo people, even building some instruments like orotu fiddles themselves. Fans of the Congolese musical group Konono No. 1 will instantly fall for the raw, hypnotic, and exhilarating sounds of Kenge Kenge as they combine the immediacy of an old-school field recording with the hardcore funk of the best dance tracks.
The liveliness of the music and dancing characteristic of the series is beautifully augmented by the Skirball’s spectacular setting. Concertgoers can come early and enjoy a picnic supper or make reservations for the delicious buffet dinner at Zeidler’s Café. Fans have been known to bring their own instruments for an impromptu jam session as dancers move and groove and kids play. It’s a space designed to welcome and embrace people from all walks of life, while making room for artists to push the musical envelope.
“When I’m considering who to invite to perform, there is no limit,” Shah-Rais reflects. “The more diverse we are, and the more exposure we have to other cultures, the richer we become. I’d like to share that with other people and to encourage people from totally different backgrounds and places to start enjoying each other’s culture.”
All shows begin at 8:00 p.m. General info: (310) 440-4500 or www.skirball.org. Parking is $5 for cars containing three or more people, $10 per car otherwise.