Watts Towers festival attracts folk art

Residents of Watts and beyond gathered for a celebration of folk arts beneath the neighborhood’s flagship cement and ceramic spires this past weekend.

The 2011 annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the adjacent Watts Towers Arts Center.


Hundreds congregated on the small, triangular piece of land on Santa Ana Boulevard amid constant live music, craft vendors, arts workshops and local food booths — everyone from Black Panther representatives to homemade soap sellers. The free two-day event, hosted by the Department of Cultural Affairs, evolved from the Jazz Festival, which began in 1976, and the Day of the Drum Festival, started in 1981.

“It has grown from nothing,” said Alma Reaves Woods, a longtime community volunteer who was representing the Watts Towers Community Action Council. “It’s just so gratifying to see the changes and the growth.”


LACMA guides presented tours of the towers, one of only nine folk art sites in the National Register of Historic Places. Between 1921 and 1954, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia recycled rebar, broken tiles, dishware and soda bottles to build this pseudo-shrine of found objects and everyday materials.


Atop one tower, our tour guide pointed out, is a statue of Victory — but she’s missing her head. Below it is Rodia’s cement self-portrait, wearing what appears to be a bishop’s hat. The tour guide explained that Rodia declared himself an ordained minister and performed wedding ceremonies within the 99.5-foot-tall Wedding Tower.

Outside the towers, the Universal Drum Circle pounded away, inviting in children, dancers and any percussion available.

imageUSC animation graduate student Javier Barboza led children’s art workshops, demonstrating crayon rubbings of real plant leaves and plastic insects. He said attendance at the festival has gone down over the last six years he has participated.

“It’s a lot of grassroots-type of stuff, and the community promotes it,” he said. “And the people that usually come are people that have coming for the last 15, 20, 30 years, so they know about it. But the city doesn’t really promote it very much. They promote for like a week instead of for a couple months.”

Nevertheless, an appreciative crowd hunkered down under the main stage tent for Sunday’s headlining act, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a massive jazz ensemble from Los Angeles, established by Horace Tapscott in 1961. With over 20 members on stage, including a small vocal choir, “The Ark” brought the event to a roaring, uplifting conclusion.

If folk art encompasses any art form made for the pure purposes of beauty, community and cultural enrichment, then, in the spirit of Simon Rodia, the Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival embodies it all.

Listen to audio from the Watts Towers drum circle:

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