Annual music festivals return to the Watts Towers

Rachel Parsons
Oct 7 · 3 min read
Members of Mandingue Empire perform at the 38th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival. The performers’ collective celebrates the music and dance of the Mandingue ethnic group of West Africa. (Photo by Rachel Parsons)

Music surrounded the Watts Towers the last weekend of September as the Watts drum and jazz festivals returned to the iconic site in the heart of the neighborhood.

Hosted back to back, the 38th annual Day of the Drum Festival and the 43rd annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival brought hundreds out in the rain that Saturday and the shine Sunday to hear music representing the neighborhood’s multicultural population and genres from all over the world.

“There are things that have changed and there are things that have stayed the same,” said artist and master of ceremonies Kamau Daáood of the cultural and political shifts that Watts has experienced through the decades. “But the heart of the community, and the spirit of the community is very strong here.”

And the community is culturally, very rich, said Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, a community organization that holds classes in art, music, Tai Chi and gardening next to the seminal towers.

The earliest constructed section of “Nuestro Pueblo,” known as the Watts Towers, is 98 years old. The main towers of the collection of spires and architectural sculpture are shrouded for restoration. Sabato “Simon” Rodia, an immigrant from Italy, built the towers from scraps and found objects. He worked on them for 33 years until 1954. (Photo by Rachel Parsons)

“[Watts] is more than the 1965 rebellion,” Hooks said, referring to the civil rights uprising that engulfed the neighborhood that summer.

“The people who came out of Watts, it’s phenomenal,” she said. “The whole horn section of Earth, Wind and Fire … Patrice Rushen, I mean we’re very rich here. But you know, we don’t really get the credit for all of our riches. But that’s OK, we know who we are and we will continue to serve the community, serve the people.”

This year the festivals honored rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle and victims of several mass shootings earlier this year. Hussle studied music at the center as a teen.

“A couple of months before he was murdered, and they were doing a documentary on him, he said he wanted to come back to where he first learned music,” Hooks said. “And of course I let him come back and he was just a marvelous — he was a king — he was just so kind, so generous, so respectful.”

Drum festival attendees form a New Orleans-inspired second line-style dance party, complete with parasols, to the music of Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Black Diaspora Music. (Photo by Rachel Parsons)

This is the kind of neighborhood people come back to over and over. Drum festival attendee Adriana Orozco, 44, came out with her father and her son. Orozco grew up in Watts and her father still owns his home there, she said. She returns at least once a week and remembers the towers from her childhood. The neighborhood is more crowded than it was when she was a girl, but the towers, under restoration now, are still as she remembers them.

“They were awesome. I thought they were really amazing how they were made from just scraps or, like, recycled materials and that he did them all on his own,” she said, referring to Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant who spent 33 years building the towers bit by bit, much like the community of Watts was built, one piece at a time.

Intersections South LA

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Rachel Parsons

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Intersections South LA

News and views from South Los Angeles. Subscribe to our newsletter!

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