An Aztec dancer performs to music by Xavier Quijas Yxayot (all photos by Afroxander)
It's not easy to get 40,000 people out to a cemetery on a Saturday night. But LA's annual Dia De Los Muertos celebration—known to gringos as LA Day of the Dead—at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is not your typical event, nor is its location your typical cemetery. Only in LA could a festival of art, music, and culture surrounding Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican, pre-Columbian holiday, be hosted in a cemetery built next to Paramount Studios and home to the remains of celebrities like Johnny Ramone and Cecil B. DeMille.
For the event's 16th edition, the city’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural population gathered at Hollywood’s first cemetery for a 12-hour celebration commemorating those who have passed on through art, altars, food, and plenty of music. Dia de los Muertos has grown in popularity in recent years, and many so-called Day of the Dead celebrations (without naming any names) are nothing but money-grabbing appropriation fests. Hollywood Forever's celebration has long prided itself on respecting the holiday by being as authentic and respectful as possible. It’s one reason why the event has grown to become the largest of its kind in the country and anywhere outside of Mexico.
This year’s theme, “Shamanic Visions of the Huichol,” centered on the Huichol group of native people in Mexico living in today's states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango. Huichol artists recently came into the pop culture spotlight thanks to collaborations with brands like Vans and New Balance on some sweet kicks.
The majority of this year’s musical guests where small, regional groups performing traditional dances backed by folked music. Groups such as Grupo de Danza Nayare, Ballet Internacional de Lucia Parra, and Ballet Xanaht de Fiacro Castro featured performers of all ages interpreting ancestral dances from the Motherland on three stages.
On the flip side where musicians from the US and Mexico who performed a mix of old-school and modern music. Colima/Jalisco native—it’s complicated—Edna Vazquez warmed up the crowd on the main stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and an impressively booming voice.
El Mariachi Manchester checked the “Chicanos who worship Morrissey” festival requirement off the list. The East LA group managed to get people off their feet to sing and dance despite the heat thanks to their Mariachi-fied covers of classics by The Smiths and Morrissey. Songs such as “Girlfriend In A Coma,” “The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get,” “Hang The DJ” and others received the violin, trumpet, and guitarron treatment to great effect.
La Misa Negra (The Black Mass) kicked things up a notch immediately after. The group from Oakland showed off how they’ve earned their reputation as one of the most exciting live acts in California with their highly danceable, slightly punk take on old-school genres of cumbia, porro, and gaita.
La Misa Negra
Things slowed down after their set as MCs Jessica Carrillo and Luis Sandoval introduced a Huichol shaman who performed the “Tatata Teuxikalla,” an ancient ritual carried out during the sunset.
Huichol Musical, the first of night’s special guests, arrived straight off of a flight from their Australian tour, and hit the ground running on the main stage for their first-ever LA performance. Dressed in traditional Huichol outfits, the Grammy-nominated quintet—who sing in their indigenous Huichol language—worked the crowd into a frenzy with their acoustic instruments. The performance was an especially celebratory one for the group, as one of its member’s recently recovered from a year-long coma. The band went on hiatus during that time and were now making up for lost time—and how!
The quintet blazed through songs off their debut album Cielito Lindo, including the title track, a Huichol/mestizo take on the unofficial anthem that can be heard at Mexican gatherings large and small. The group also played a Spanish cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.”
Xavier Quijas Yxayotl, the evening's penultimate act, couldn't have been a better warm-up for headliner Lila Downs. The master indigenous instrument maker and performer has become a YouTube sensation thanks to his work with the Aztec death whistle, which he learned about 30 years ago and has been promoting ever since.
Yxayotl and his Indigenous America music group performed using his recreations of ancient Aztec and Mayan musical instruments. He busted out the death whistle a few times, an instrument he says the Aztecs used to make the Spaniards literally shit their pants in fear. There were no reports of pants-shitting at the festival, as far as I know, but that death flute did sound scary as hell.
Yxayotl enlisted the help of numerous Aztec dancers, whose performances included the famous “Baile Del Fuego (fire dance),” in which dancers test themselves mentally and physically while being licked by flames from a small chalice.
Mexican-American recording great Lila Downs closed out the main stage, arriving for her headlining slot to great cheers and applause. The singer has won fans worldwide for decades thanks to her fusion of Spanish, Mexican, and indigenous musical styles, as well as for her social activism surrounding the rights of indigenous peoples.
Downs stuck to songs off her latest album, March's Balas Y Chocolate, plus a few older tracks, mostly from Pecados Y Milagros. Standout included “Humito De Copal” and “La Patria Madrina,” songs dedicated to Mexican journalists who have risked and sacrificed their lives in order to expose corruption, as well as to the 43 kidnapped students from Ayotzinapa. Other tunes, like “Mano Negra,” “Balas De Chocolate,” and “Una Cruz De Madera,” offered up sweet guitar solos and, best of all, an accordion duel described by Downs as a “border standoff” between two of her bandmates. She took a fat swig of mezcal straight out of the bottle before launching into “Mezcalito.”
Downs ended her set with arguably her most popular track in recent memory, “Zapata Se Queda,” flanked by dancers dressed in Chinelos, the traditional costumes used during the Jiutepec Carnival and other celebrations in Morelos.
Dia de los Muertos isn't about hipster-chic sugar skulls or alt-Halloween vibes—the LA event's organizers make a point of holding it the weekend before to distinguish the two holidays—it's about reflecting on and celebrating life, while acceptinging that death itself is very much a part of it. For the 16th year in a row, the LA's Dia de los Muertos event at Hollywood Forever succeeded in expressing that lesson and complex spectrum of emotions intertwined with it.
Afroxander is a writer/photographer based in Southern California who prefers football in Español. Follow him on Twitter.