“We’re an American band
We’re an American band
We’re comin’ to your town
We’ll help you party it down
We’re an American band” – Don Brewer/Grand Funk Railroad
In April I shot the Cambodian New Years Celebration at the Wat Dhammararam Buddhist temple in Stockton. A group of about 10 musicians sat beneath a small tent as they played traditional Cambodian songs. Busy looking for more animated photos to shoot I passed them by. Later the group strolled through the crowd around the grounds of the temple like a roving band of minstrels. It was then I noticed their instruments.
There were a variety of Cambodian drums and cymbals being played. A woman sung into the microphone of a portable loudspeaker she was carrying. One guy had a violin-type instrument called a tror sao. The final instrument was a banjo. It looked like something you might see in a Bluegrass band and, while it made me do a double take, its sound fit in perfectly with the rest of the group.
The next day I photographed the annual Sikh parade in Stockton. Parade may not be quite the right term. Although there are a couple of floats (the main one being the one that carries the Sikh holy book and clerics) thousands of Sikhs, young and old, from around Northern California simply walk along a route that wends its way from the Sikh Temple in south Stockton to downtown and back again. This year included a marching band which helped to give the event more of a parade atmosphere. It was the Sri Damesh Sikh Malaysian Band and, except for a few drums, it was comprised entirely of bagpipes. When I think of the music of India I think of the mystic strains of the sitar, the complex rhythms of the tabla or the harmonies of the harmonium. Bagpipes are stereotypically Scottish. But there they were bleating out the nasally drone of the ‘pipes. Even visually they stood out. Amid a sea of the colorful Sikh headdresses they were all dressed in all white sporting Scottish tartan sashes. I surmised that it was a leftover from the days of British colonial rule of India. But as they played and marched there was a certain slight Bollywood-esque swing to their beat.
More recently I covered the United Farm Workers’ 50th anniversary concert that featured Kris Kristofferson as the headliner. One of the opening acts was Ozomatli ,a Latin-based band from Los Angeles. Though they only played a short set of 5 or 6 songs, they had the crowd on its feet. Like how groups such as Santana and Los Lobos mixed Latino music with Rock, Ozomatli played a variety of genres, rap, pop, even ska, all tinged with Latin rhythms. Interestingly, providing the percolating beat to it all on congas was Jiro Yamaguchi, a Japanese guy!
At the Delta Fusion event the story of Stockton and the San Joaquin Delta’s history and culture is told through song and dance. The band of musicians sported an eclectic array of instruments. A banjo and fiddle played next to a ukulele. African djembe drums were pounded next to a Japanese taiko drum. Bundles of bamboo stalks were even used to augment the beat.
In music, as in all things, there are things that defy expectations. When that happens it can add to the artistic and diversity and richness to the fabric of our shared cultures.