Located just off the 405 in Los Angeles’ Sepulveda Pass, the Skirball Cultural Center, open to the public since 1996, lives up to its name in more ways than one. The Jewish educational institution not only features a museum with regularly changing exhibitions but also film events, theater performances, and an array of family happenings, with its Sunset Concerts having been a big attraction since 1997.
Indeed, the outdoor series, which kicks off July 21 and runs every Thursday through Aug. 25, features six musicians, all deemed bridge-builders from around the globe and in L.A. Presented in the Skirball’s edenic hillside courtyard, the free concerts, which in the past have included performers such as Lila Downs, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (on their U.S. debut tour), and Hugh Masekela, draw music fans of all ages from across the area and beyond.
Jen Maxcy has served in numerous positions at the Skirball for more than a decade. Currently director of public programs, she oversees development and production across all disciplines — literary, film, theater, and music. She’s thrilled to be helming the series as it celebrates its 25th anniversary and pointed out how the series has evolved.
“The concerts were much more traditional, and people used the term ‘world music.’ That’s been replaced by global music,” Maxcy noted. “But as far as criteria is concerned, we’re always looking for artists that have an interesting cultural story, as opposed to [being] a performing arts center that might just present music [that is only] appreciated for the music itself.
“At the Skirball,” she added, “we’ve been interested in presenting music as a way to talk about culture. It’s not just the art form itself, but what it tells us about the culture, about the artist — how cultures have come together. That has not changed. There’s always an interest in the story of the artist: how the music came to be. Our audiences do expect to learn something when they come for concerts. They enjoy it.”
Maxcy attributes some of the changes to social media, globalization, and the way today’s artists have access to the world. “The artists we’re seeing now, some of them are rooted in a tradition — perhaps where they grew up, where they came from — but they’ve lived in another place or lived in a few other places, and they’ve picked up influences and brought them into their music.”
Diversity is decidedly key, with this year’s concerts featuring a range of world-class performers. On tap are Mamak Khadem, Rocky Dawuni, Nefesh Mountain, Booker T. Jones, Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7), and Son Rompe Pera.
“Mamak is deeply influenced by Iranian tradition,” Maxcy explained. “She left Iran but studied there, and her vocal technique is influenced by the sounds of Iran. She’s lived here and her music is like a mixture of things.
“Rocky Dawuni is African, but he brings a reggae tradition to his African beats. With Nefesh, they’ve taken bluegrass [and] a little bit of Eastern European and Ashkenazi Jewish roots and musically and culturally overlaid them. They were the first Jewish group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.”
As for the American musician, songwriter, record producer, and arranger Booker T. Jones, Maxcy said that he’s beloved for not only being a legendary artist but for also being a pathmaker. “We have an affinity for those who have forged new paths, and the fact that he’s still vibrantly performing at 78 is amazing.”
Maxcy seeks out artists through agencies that have large rosters and by attending conferences such as APAP|NYC (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) or globalFEST, New York City’s bustling world music festival. During COVID, globalFEST partnered with NPR to produce the acclaimed Tiny Desk series of online concerts.
Maxcy said that one of those concerts featured Son Rompe Pera, the marimba-playing Mexican fusion band whose trio of founding members, Kacho, Kilos, and Mongo Gama, are siblings. “This group was very exciting,” she declared of these musicians headlining the last evening of Sunset Concerts.
Maxcy, however, doesn’t make the final decision on booking the musicians but brings 12 or so potential artists to the Skirball’s leadership committee. “I do a PowerPoint, and there’s a big lineup of everyone, their story, why they’re relevant and important. Knowing they would attract an audience is also a consideration. Do they have a following? Can we get a nice audience for this? And then the list is whittled down to about six.”
The Center will also be releasing its second season of Skirball Stages, online concert films that began during the pandemic and will give audiences the chance to experience last summer’s offerings. Including exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, the films can be seen on the Skirball’s YouTube channel, a major accomplishment for what Maxcy calls an “analog” place. “Luckily,” added the director, “my team rallied, and we hired a local filmmaker and are proud of those episodes. We’re in a questioning phase [regarding continuing the series] now that audiences can watch live music again.”
And nothing beats live music, especially seeing and hearing world-class artists in an open-air, sylvan setting. That the concerts, which are sponsored by grants and individual donors, including the Bilger family, are free make them even more appealing.
“We’re fortunate that people have seen the value in these concerts. Of the many years at Skirball and of all the disciplines, nothing brings people out like music, and nothing brings more diverse audiences — culturally diverse, age diverse — like these concerts. They’re really good for bringing people together.”
Correction: The article, as originally published, confused New York City’s globalFEST for an event of the same name in Canada.