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The Labor of Love Behind Watts’ Longest Running Drum and Jazz Festivals

Enjoy the experience of the Watts Towers Festivals on "Southland Sessions." Watch now.

For four decades, it’s been an annual tradition for two back-to-back music festivals — quite possibly the only ones of their kind in the United States — to take place in South L.A. during the last weekend in September. The Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Simon Rodia Jazz Festivals have been uplifting events not just for the Watts community but also for folks throughout L.A. County. However, for the first time in their long run, these festivals were canceled this year due to the pandemic. 

“I had withdrawal pains,” said Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. Hooks, who produces the musical events, added that she even cried a little bit in bed when she woke up the morning the Day of the Drum would’ve usually taken place.

The free multicultural festivals, which are co-produced by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs(DCA) and the Friends of the Watts Towers Arts Center, celebrate the power of live music. Watts Towers — a magnificent collection of 17 sculptures constructed from steel, concrete, tiles and glass by Italian American artist Simon Rodia — normally serve as the centerpiece of this two-day event. At the festivals, white pop-up tents surround the towers; there are food and crafts vendors, art exhibitions, drum circles and children’s activities. According to Hooks, up to 3,000 people composed of multi-generational families and music lovers show up per day on a busy weekend.

Several drummers perform at the Day of the Drum Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Courtesy of Watts Towers Art Center
Several drummers perform at the Day of the Drum Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Courtesy of Watts Towers Art Center

“Just the color, the sound, the smell of the food, and the craftsmen and artists displaying their work, [it makes for] a very uplifting and joyous environment,” said Kamau Daáood, a spoken-word poet and community arts activist with a long history of being involved in these festivals. “The bottom line is that people live very, very intense and stressful lives, and in these environments, they get a chance to relax; they get a chance to smile.”

The Simon Rodia Jazz Festival first began in 1976, and the Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival launched a few years later in 1981. The weekend typically starts with the Day of the Drum, a celebration of the drumming styles from different cultures worldwide. The festive performances, often complemented by ornate costumes and dancers, change every year. The stages have been graced with everyone from Japanese taiko to Indian tabla and Afro-Cuban conga drum players.

A stilt-walker walks around at a past Watts Towers festival. | Courtesy of Watts Towers Art Center
A stilt-walker walks around at a past Watts Towers festival. | Courtesy of Watts Towers Art Center
A group of performers dance and drum at the Day of the Drum Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Still from "Southland Sessions" " Watts Towers Festivals"
A group of performers dance and drum at the Day of the Drum Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Still from "Southland Sessions" Watts Towers Festivals

“We structured the Day of the Drum Festival to acknowledge how powerful drums are in all cultures,” Hooks said.

Percussionist and multi-Grammy award winner Munyungo Jackson is one of the festivals’ artistic directors — along with Hooks and jazz pianist and R&B singer Patrice Rushen. They handpick the performing musicians, and Rushen and Jackson often also perform onstage.  

For Jackson, experiencing live drumming can do more than just entertain. “Hand-drumming [has] saved a lot of people’s lives,” he said. “And to present this [at these festivals], I mean, it’s been like icing on the cake. Especially with the Senegalese people from West Africa, [when] they came over [to the United States], people started getting into the djembe drum. A lot of people didn’t have anything else to join in their life, and they got into it, and it kind of saved their lives.”

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The Simon Rodia Jazz Festival, which takes place the next day in the weekend, features jazz, blues and gospel music with local and world-renowned musicians. Over the years, jazz greats like drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Horace Tapscott and keyboardist Billy Preston have delighted crowds at the events.

Rushen, who’s a Grammy Award-nominated artist and educator, explained that music is meant to be experienced. “Jazz is a part of American cultural history,” she said. “Exposure to it and to the musicians who celebrate and perpetuate this art form is critical to our pride, expression and humanity.”

Rushen and Hooks are among the founding members of the long-running Jazz Mentorship Program (JMP), which has been giving youths opportunities to watch live performances and interact with professional musicians since the 1990s. Current members of the collective also perform at the festivals as the JMP All Stars. 

A student from the Jazz Mentorship Program performs at the Simon Rodia Jazz Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Still from "Southland Sessions" " Watts Towers Festivals"
A student from the JMP All Stars performs at the Simon Rodia Jazz Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Still from "Southland Sessions" Watts Towers Festivals

Hooks’ passion for community-building, honoring cultures and creating a bridge between generations is evident in how the festivals are produced. Each day the events open with a Yoruba ground blessing, which pays homage to the spirits, including indigenous spirits. During the jazz festival day, there’s a tai chi chuan workshop led by Dr. Daniel Hoover of the School of Healing Martial Arts. 

“We added that component so that our audience can get a little physical break themselves if they so choose to,” said Hooks, who once held a first-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do karate. “[It’s important] to become more comfortable seeing it and being around it and understanding the health values that you get from being involved with this kind of activity.”

Professional trumpeter, JMP member and educator, Bobby Rodriguez, has performed at the festivals over the last dozen years. He credited Hooks for bringing on an “unbelievable representation of different kinds of groups.” He said that she “understands that bringing people together is always the best procedure because it allows people to see other people and understand that we’re all the same.”

Every year, Hooks hires about 25 to 30 local homeless people to help out at the events. “And I tell you, they would wear those [festival] badges almost all year,” she said. “That’s how proud they were to be a part of what we were doing. We were nurturing our whole community through that festival and providing a local economy by hiring [the homeless and] vendors so that they could sell their wares, and it would go right back into the community.” 

Rosie Lee Hooks. | Still from "Southland Sessions" " Watts Towers Festivals"
Rosie Lee Hooks. | Still from "Southland Sessions" Watts Towers Festivals

Hooks, who is also an actress, singer and filmmaker, has had a longstanding career with the arts, working at the Smithsonian and DCA before becoming the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 2010. The center, co-founded by Noah Purifoy with Judson Powell and Sue Welsh, has been a hub for art enrichment programs for youths since the 1960s. Notably, the late rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle was a student there when he was a teenager. Hooks said Hussle would take the bus to the center on Saturdays to learn how to create electronic beats from composer Michael Abels, who has created scores for films like “Get Out.” Hussle was honored at last year’s festivals.

“[Hooks is] really doing everything she can to solidify and root the arts in that community,” Daáood said. “And to me, she helps a lot of people through the arts.”

Like Rushen, Jackson, who grew up in South L.A., felt it was important to blend different cultures together at the festivals because it would bring people out to Watts. “A lot of people don’t know about South Central L.A.,” he said. “All they hear about is riots. I don’t know if they know the [amount of] talent that comes out of [here].”

Watts Towers itself makes for a fitting location for the festivals. “The Watts Towers are certainly a great representation … of a dream, a possibility,” Rodriguez said. “And then [Rodia] just going about his business, building these crazy towers, which have become world-famous. It’s a great thing for anybody to see someone else’s dream come true.”

While there was a hole this year without the festivals, they’ve lived on in other ways. Hooks had been documenting the festivals she’s produced over the years. The footage ended up airing on LA CityView 35 on the days the festivals would have normally taken place. KCET will also be airing highlights from the festival. She initially considered doing a virtual concert on Zoom, but the center couldn’t afford that kind of platform nor had the technology or expertise to do so.

Daáood said the festivals once had a lot of financial support, but arts in general have been facing diminishing budgets. “Rosie’s really been a trooper in terms of keeping the integrity and the quality of those festivals,” he said.

It’s uncertain how long this pandemic will continue, but the organizers are hopeful to continue their tradition next year. Rodriguez said, “You know, if everything plays out the way it’s supposed to, we’ll all be back in our seats, listening to great music and great musicians, and we’ll have a great a great time.”

Top Image: A group of performers dance and drum at the Day of the Drum Festival at the Watts Towers Arts Center. | Still from "Southland Sessions" " Watts Towers Festivals"

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