Celebrate AMERI’KANA Music & Arts Festival: Bringing Communities Together

Enrique Chi, founder of Art as Mentorship and front man for Making Movies (photo by Travis Young; courtesy of “The Pitch”)

This year’s event received National Endowment for the Arts support through KC’s Art as Mentorship music education group

The eighth Celebrate AMERI’KANA Music & Arts Festival, scheduled for Sept. 10 at Crossroads KC at Grinder’s, looks to be the most ambitious yet in support of Black, Indigenous, immigrant and Latino music and culture in Kansas City.

In large part, that’s because the National Endowment for the Arts earlier this year awarded $20,000 to Art as Mentorship, the nonprofit music education group in Kansas City that utilizes the festival to fundraise and connect communities to the arts.

“The biggest thing is that we have a story with national significance,” says Enrique Chi, founder of Art as Mentorship and front man for Making Movies, effectively the host band for Celebrate AMERI’KANA that will share top billing with a cadre of international headliners.

“We’re not alone in Kansas City trying to create space where communities can come together,” Chi says. “The whole nation is trying to figure that out. It’s cool to see that the NEA recognized us.”

Something even cooler? If more Kansas City area residents actively acknowledged the systemic barriers of the area’s live music scene. And then did something about it.

“Concerts in Kansas City are as segregated as the town is, like concerts for these kind of folks and concerts for those kind of folks,” Chi says. “This festival, I hope, becomes a Kansas City staple, where you really do see the community coming together — both the music community and black and brown folks, which don’t get together very often in this city, not at the same events and the same venues.”

To that end, for Celebrate AMERI’KANA, “we’re creating a star-studded band for the Making Movies performance,” Chi says, with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo and saxophonist Steve Berlin of iconic rock/Tex-Mex band Los Lobos, who have mentored and worked with Making Movies in years past.

“We opened up for them (Los Lobos) at Knuckleheads,” Chi remembers. “That was an amazing opportunity, which turned out to kind of change our trajectory when they took a liking to us . . . and now Dave and Steve are going to be onstage with us. I think that’s kind of the fun of it.”

Also on the main stage at Celebrate AMERI’KANA: Los-Angeles-based Latin/hip-hop/rock singer and trumpeter Asdru Sierra of Ozomatli; gospel soul group the Sensational Barnes Brothers from Memphis, Tennessee; and singer/composer/violinist Mireya Ramos, a Latin Grammy Award-winner and co-founder of New York’s acclaimed all-female mariachi group Flor de Toloache.

“Not only will Mireya be playing her music, but she’ll be jumping onstage with us, and we’ll have a concert like none other in Kansas City,” Chi says. “It will be fantastic. And part of its beauty is it’s collaborative, like our spirit.”

Musician and instrument-maker Amado Espinoza playing a charango in the Crossroads Art District
(photo by Karen Lisondra)

The notion of a rising group essence, musical and otherwise, may also be found among the festival’s free afternoon attractions. These will include youth and street performers, a varied maker fair, food trucks — and South American-born folk musician and instrument-maker Amado Espinoza. Espinoza will display, discuss and demonstrate a sampling of his many indigenous-inspired instruments, including the African harp, Australian didgeridoo and Native American and South American flutes.

“I love to make instruments,” Espinoza says, but it can take time. “The hardest is the charango, a string instrument similar to guitar, between ukulele and mandolin. It is very difficult to make one. I need to spend at least one month making that instrument, six or seven hours per day. But it has a very powerful sound. I want to show that energy.”

Espinoza might also offer a little philosophy for those who may pause to listen and learn about his craft.

“Each person for me is like one note,” Espinoza says. “You need to harmonize with the other notes to create a big symphony. And so I need to be in tune every day, so I can harmonize in good ways with other people around me. We are connected. That is my mission to show all of the connections between us.”

Making Movies (left to right) Juan-Carlos Chaurand, Diego Chi, Enrique Chi, Duncan Burnett
(photo by Amber Knecht; courtesy of KEXP)

Another unifying aspect of Celebrate AMERI’KANA is how young artists, such as those involved with the Rebel Song Academy, the well-loved summer music program sponsored by Art as Mentorship, will get to share their developing skills and even perform onstage with the pros.

“The day of the festival,” Chi says, “we’re not only going to highlight some amazing (Rebel Song Academy) alumni now developing their own artistic lives, but there’s also a free portion of the event where younger students can perform. And we’re cooking up a workshop with Asdru from Ozomatli for some horn players. And we’re collaborating with Paseo High School to bring out some young horn players to sit in on a song, so they get to actually be onstage next to Asdru and Steve playing horns in a professional band.

“And I’ll tell you, in those minutes onstage, you learn things that you could not learn in a year in a classroom. You’re watching master craftspeople work an audience and you’re inside of that energy right next to them. Those are lessons that just can’t be replicated.”

Chi knows that everyone may not love everything they hear at the festival. It may also open their minds to some other things.

Regardless, Chi says, “There’s nothing else of its kind in Kansas City, where you’re going to see a concert at this level with these folks who are significant to the history of American music, and knowing that when you’re buying that ticket and you’re buying some merch from the vendors and you’re participating in the economics of it, that what you’re facilitating is the ability for free music education to exist in your community. That link has never been made here.”

Celebrate AMERI’KANA will be from 1 to 11 p.m. Sept. 10 at Crossroads KC at Grinders, 1826 Locust St. Admission is free to an afternoon “block party,” featuring local musical performers, craft vendors, food trucks and other attractions. Tickets are available at celebrateamerikana.com for the 7 p.m. mainstage concert, featuring Making Movies, David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Asdru Sierra of Ozomatli, Mireya Ramos of Flor de Toloache and the Sensational Barnes Brothers.

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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