DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - It happens every summer: On occasional Friday or Saturday nights, the sound of staccato horns, pulsing electro beats or singing violins drift from Bunker Hill down to the Historic Core and beyond.

Residents of Downtown Los Angeles know to look, and listen, in the direction of Cal Plaza, home of Grand Performances, the free summer concert and performing arts series that beckons thousands of Angelenos with its eclectic, free programming.

The award-winning series kicked off its 27th season last week, and continues through the end of August. As usual, the schedule is peppered with live music acts guaranteed to make hips move and feat stomp around the Cal Plaza Watercourt on Friday and Saturday nights. There are dance shows too, and even a cooking demonstration. There’s a heavy dose of L.A. artists, along with a diverse array of bands and performers from around the globe.

Leigh Ann Hahn, Grand Performances’ director of programming, curates the series with an eye toward acts she thinks will attract a diverse audience. 

“Our goal is always to create those mixed audiences and experiences where you’re going to find yourself sitting next to someone that you wouldn’t normally sit next to in your day-in day-out business,” Hahn said.

That’s why on Aug. 10, for example, Hahn has paired a Chinese opera orchestra with an Algerian chaabi group. In Hahn’s eyes, she has done her job right if fans of traditional Chinese music turn out for the opera orchestra, then stay for the North African sounds, and vice versa.

Concerts and events happen every Friday and Saturday through Aug. 24, with several Thursday lunchtime concerts and a few Sunday evening affairs. What follows is a collection of some of the highlights. View the full schedule at

Electro Originators, June 30: It’s easy these days to find fans of the electronic music genre dubstep. While dubstep DJs like Skrillex have indeed carved out a niche, they’re following in the footsteps of lesser-known electronic music pioneers such as Pole and Plaid. Berlin-based Pole and the UK’s Plaid are veteran music masters that have been overlooked by the mainstream. Both bring their drum machines and laptops to Grand Performances at 7 p.m. to help L.A.-based music promoter Green Galactic celebrate its 20th anniversary. L.A.’s own crafter of house sounds John Tejada will join them for the show.

Strong Women, Strong Voices, July 5-6: The High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, would have turned 80 this year. While Grand Performances prides itself on presenting up-and-coming and lesser-known acts, the series also strives to honor legacy artists like Simone. At 8 p.m. on July 5, an all-star cast of singers including Joi Gilliam and Georgia Anne Muldrow will belt out Nina tunes with support from a jazz ensemble directed by multi-instrumentalist Dexter Story. Expect some surprise guests, and an invocation DJ set by KCRW’s Afrobeat- and jazz-loving Jeremy Sole during the show dubbed Young, Gifted & Nina.

Then, at 7 p.m. on July 6, a trio of lady-anchored acts put a modern spin on roots music. Nigerians Adunni and Nefertiti promote culture, music and womanhood with a cappella chorusing against a hand percussion backbeat. Also on the bill is Martha Redbone, with a project that has her singing songs based on the poetry of William Blake over a sonic tapestry that weaves from blues to bluegrass to energetic gospel. L.A.-based crooner Dessy Di Lauro closes the night with her neo-ragtime band that lends a pop air to some jump and jive beats.

Asian Gateway, July 12: The National Endowment for the Arts has armed Grand Performances this year with a grant to present an array of performers who embody how Los Angeles is a real immigration portal for the mixed Asian and Pacific Islander populations. In the first installment of the series of performances supported by the grant, Beth Lapides — the mind behind the UnCabaret alternative comedy show at First and Hope Supper Club — presents a cast of Asian comedians on July 12. They include Alec Mapa (“Ugly Betty”) and Kristina Wong with music by Charlene Deguzman. Other shows in the series include a soba noodle making demonstration on July 11, the Cantonese Opera Orchestra on Aug. 10 and a variety revue called The Filipino Show Remixed! on Aug. 16. 

Kick Your Brass, July 19: Every year, at least one Grand Performances concert gets halted because the throngs of dancers simply cannot resist the temptation to take their tango into the shallow Watercourt. Our bet is on Fanfare Ciocarlia, the apex predator of Balkan brass music. To understand their sound, imagine if Charlie Parker and John Bonham were born in Romania, and all of their brothers and sisters trained with Turkish military marching bands. They’re preceded by Chicago’s Mucca Pazza, a 30-member brass attack that features guitar players wearing headgear amplifiers and a gaggle of self-proclaimed band geeks. They could be the first artist that ends up in the Watercourt. The show starts at 8 p.m. 

Different Dancing, Aug. 9: While most of the dancing is done by the audience at Grand Performances, on Aug. 9 attendees will watch the dancing happen on stage courtesy of Tijuana-based LuxBoreal. This contemporary dance company employs a style described as “fierce and fearless” to tackle social and cultural issues. They will perform two pieces starting with “Lamb,” an exploration of religious belief that includes a section where performers tap away at the keys of mini red pianos while dancers whirl around in wool costumes and sunglasses. The other piece, “Industrial Desert,” looks at maquiladores, the controversial south-of-the-border garment factories that make cheap consumer goods mostly for the U.S. How do dancers invoke industrial factories? Find out at 8 p.m. 

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013