October 28th, 2007

L.A.'s Day of the Dead

Last night's Day of the Dead festival at Hollywood Forever Cemetery was, once again, an unforgettable night of both manic fun and somber beauty.

It had sprinkled in the day (which fact made just about everyone in SoCal feel better, I think), but the night was blissfully dry and warm; considering the festival sports a hundred gorgeous outdoor ofrendas, or traditional altars to celebrate a deceased loved one, rain would have put a pretty serious damper on things.

We arrived at about 7 p.m., and ran into magicjoe and his out-of-town guest, who were unfortunately on their way out; but found our friend Kevin (dressed and made up as a dead Russian sailor!), and the celebrating proper began.

We started with the display of large calaveras, or skeletons, held inside one of the cemetery's mausoleums; the entrance to the mausoleum was guarded by two towering calaveras that perfectly conveyed the wonderful morbid whimsy of the holiday. We paused to watch traditional dancers perform on a platform in a lake (surrounded by skeletons in boats!), we watched a troupe of Aztec ceremonial dancers perform on the main stage, accompanied by beautiful, wild flutes and howls, we consumed possibly the best chicken tamales I've ever had, Ricky went loco with the video camera, and we shopped. This year's artist-in-residence was Artemio Rodriguez, who produces stunning woodblock prints. I know I'm going to kick myself for not buying one of his signed/numbered Day of the Dead prints last night; as it was, I walked out with only a t-shirt (which I love, because it's the golden color of the zempaschuitl, or marigold that's the traditional flower used to decorate graves and ofrendas). I also picked up a few pieces of fun skull-themed jewelry.

Then we toured the ofrendas, which included everything from the traditional stepped displays of photos, skulls, food and drink, to a giant glowing green crucifix made of skulls. For some reason Frida Kahlo was big this year, and featured in both a number of the altars and the vendors. I saw copal (the incense used during Dias de Los Muertos) for the first time, and was startled to realize it's just a rough potpourri that's burned in a little brazier - hardly the cones or sticks we expect incense to come in.

At one point we had to step aside to allow a particularly demented procession through, and I really must find out the history of this: It consisted of dozens of people in costumes portraying kings and pigs (!), followed by a band of drums and brass.

We closed out the night with a viewing of a different group of Aztec ceremonial dancers (I think I'd seen this company perform at Olvera Street a few years ago). We stood about eight feet from the drummers; the drums are huge, and beaten with these inch-thick rods, and I swear I could feel the vibrations colliding with my heart! The dancers were magnificent, in their outfits of long feathers and gold and leather; even if their routine is not strictly traditional (which may be the case), they're still amazing to watch.

We left when our middle-aged feet could bear no more. And I still swear I will stay even longer next year.