Annual drum festival highlights history of “Watts’ best kept secret”
A handful of performers in brightly colored skirts and intricately beaded breastplates danced to the rhythm of Huehuetul drums at the 37th annual Watts Towers Arts Center Day of the Drum Festival on Sept. 29.
Dressed in hot pink costumes resembling bird wings, and balancing headdresses adorned with multicolored feathers, dancers chanted in both English and Spanish. Artists donned in traditional Aztec garb encouraged audience members to join them on stage.
“We’re making tribute to Ndugu Chancler who was a phenomenal drummer…We like to make these kind of different cultural experiences available to our audiences,” said Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus.
The festival featured indigenous, multicultural drumming and dancing performances from groups such as Danza Azteca Xochipilli, Kinnara Taiko, Garifuna Cultural Group, Tambor, Magatte Fall & Generation Percu and Rayford Griffin who performed a tribute to Chancler. The festival also showcased art in the center’s main gallery and tiling projects in the gardening studio.
Deemed “Watts’ best kept secret” by Hooks, the Watts Towers Arts Center was founded in 1961 to protect the Watts Towers — a sculpture by Italian-American artist Sabato “Simon” Rodia that had been in danger of being demolished.
Located on a triangular area of property described as the heart of Watts, the tallest of the towers stands at 99.5 feet, according to the Watts Towers website. International authorities have lauded the towers as “a unique monument to the human spirit and the persistence of a singular vision” according to the website.
The towers go hand-in-hand with the arts center itself, acting as a symbol of the preservation efforts of culture and community within Watts since its founding. Numerous cultural enrichment programs have stemmed from the center including music, painting, sculpting, animation, dance, gardening and multimedia arts for both students and teachers, under the guidance of professional artists, Hooks said.
“We’re in Watts. Everybody is still afraid to come to Watts, but our audience is very, very diverse because they’ve been coming here for years and years,” she said. “They know it’s safe to come to Watts. It’s not 1965, let’s move forward a little bit.”
The center often reaches a wide audience with exhibitions, lectures, tours and events. It also puts on the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival in the fall, Hooks said.
“We must take care of each other, and this is our way of bringing people together so that they just can experience culture and see everybody as human beings,” she said.
The towers exhibition is currently closed to the public for renovation and is set to reopen in two years. Guided tours outside the tower’s fence are offered throughout the week and the gallery with rotational exhibitions is open seven days a week. Hooks said the center hopes to encourage public access to the arts, as well as bring different cultural experiences to L.A. for many years to come.
“We’re just one race, the human race. We have different cultures within that race, but we are one race, and we have to stand up for each other,” she said.