No one knows exactly how many Iranians live in Los Angeles; estimates range from 300,000 to 1 million. Regardless of which end of that range the right number falls, LA’s nickname (among others) of Tehrangeles is well earned. In fact, the intersection of Westwood Boulevard and Wilkins Avenue is now officially recognized by the City of Los Angeles as Persian Square – the unofficial center of the largest Persian population outside of Iran.
This population is now well into its third generation; young children were brought to LA in 1979 by their first generation parents in the wake of the fall of the Shah and the brutalities of the Iranian Revolution. Those second generation children grew up, got married and produced the third generation which is now well-integrated into LA society and is populating the clubs and beaches and restaurants throughout the city. And as with all ethnic communities, they add their own cultural spice to LA’s international stew, and one of those spices is music: melodic, rhythmic, mesmerizing rock, rap, hip hop, jazz and R&B.
Summer is the time to sample that musical spice because its LA’s Summer of Free Music. Every weekend there are a ton of festivals, concert series, residencies, and special events with great bands, all free with RSVP or just walk in or join the outdoor crowd. On weekends, there is free music at the Pershing Square Downtown Stage, or Jazz at the LA County Museum of Art, or at Concerts at the Hammer, or the Friday Night Music Series at The Original Farmers Market, free bands in Grand Central Market, KCRW’s Summer Nights Concerts around the city, Concerts on Canon in Beverly Canon Gardens, and Concerts on the Green at Valley Cultural Center. There is even the aptly-named and really great Off the 405 Series at the Getty Center (getting off the 405 is everyone’s dream in LA).
I go to as many as possible every summer, but the one that I really love is Grand Performances in California Plaza in downtown LA. GP is unique for a number of reasons; it has its own stunning outdoor venue holding three thousand people, built around a sparkling lake in the middle of the city. It is supported in part by an investment fund set up by the office buildings and hotels around the Plaza, up to a $1 million a year – about half of its budget. This has allowed GP for 32 years to provide a summer (and sometimes fall) of free concerts featuring top level, award winning talent from around the world.
GP also has a secret weapon that no one else has; Leigh Ann Hahn, Director of Programming. Her vast network of connections in both the dozens of ethnic communities of LA and its many music worlds enable her to create a summer that fulfills GP’s mission of using music to inspire, celebrate, and unite Los Angeles through free access to global performing arts. Since 1992 Hahn has assembled programs that pack the venue with people from every corner of LA and every community, all singing, dancing, eating, drinking and forgetting their differences.
That unity was on full display last weekend as Tehrangelinos came out in force to see Sogand, the 26-year old Iranian singer-songwriter phenomenon in her debut US performance. Her soaring range of R&B, jazz, funk, blues, hip-hop, and pop lit up the Grand Performances stage and pulled people by the hundreds to their feet dancing and cheering. A resident of Germany and a fixture on the German and European tour and festival circuit, Sogand launched her US tour at Grand Performances, a coup for Hahn and a huge celebration of the city’s Iranian community.
After a warm-up set by LA-based producer and DJ Omid Walizadeh, Sogand and her band took the stage and waited for almost five minutes for the applause to die down before she welcomed the vast crowd in Farsi. That of course led to another 5 minutes of cheering and clapping before she could kick off an hour plus of songs in English and Farsi. She was accompanied by a top-of-the-line three-piece rock band, frenetic male dancers, lighting effects, smoke and fog, and videos on a huge screen on the GP stage. Her music was so infectious it didn’t matter to the crowd whether or not they understood the lyrics or her words in support of women’s’ rights in Iran (most did and many knew the lyrics well enough to sing with her in both English and Farsi). And the people who weren’t singing were dancing – so many had crowded into the dancing stage that extended into the lake that security guards had to warn them not to fall in the water.
The overflow crowd, the dancing mob, the audience singing, the cheers and love of an Iranian star wrapped up Grand Performance’s Summer series with more than a bang. But the Summer is not quite over. This Friday I will be at the free concert at the Levitt Pavilion in DTLA to see the Grammy-winning Flor de Tolache mariachi pop band from New York City. And after that, there are beach concerts, pier concerts and the other pavilions to choose from, plus, of course, Labor Day!. I love LA’s Summer of Free Music and the communities it builds.