Sacramento’s outdoor festivals push revival while fueling the cultural life of the city 

The Dirty Chops Brass Band performs for a crowd at Sac Brunch Fest in June. Members of the group have also performed at Sacramento Mardi Gras in Old Sacramento and the Crawfish and Catfish Festival in Southside Park. Photograph by Fred Greaves

Upcoming Crawfish & Catfish Fest Sept. 9 and 10, Sacramento Salsa Fest Sept. 16 latest efforts to bring city together in memorable ways  

By Scott Thomas Anderson

It’s a hot morning on Sacramento’s waterfront and members of the Dirty Chops Brass Band are spread across its worn lines of wood, their bodies shifting through rhythmic stances that resemble church-swaying or parade marching-in-place. The group’s drummer starts hypnotizing the crowd with some savvy, snare-hitting dynamism. As visitors look on, the tuba player begins punching low-end notes like a boxer throws hooks and crosses, his bandmates holding their horns to the side, their hands free to clap to an ever-more riotous and relentless beat. 

It’s the opening moments to the city’s inaugural Sac Brunch Fest in June. Those arriving like what they hear. 

In unison, the musicians start chanting, “I feel like funkin’ it up, fee-eel like funkin’ it up.” They’re reciting a jazz anthem first popularized in New Orleans by the Rebirth Brass Band, a tune that often sends crowds two-stepping through the street with an almost spiritual intensity. Now, as the players chant louder, the trombonist calls out, “Who dat? Who dat!” Then, he and the trumpeter put mouthpieces to their lips before they let their blaring brilliance pierce the air. 

The group starts reaching its crescendo just as a thunderous train horn comes calling overhead. The event-goers boogieing on the gangway suddenly notice an iron locomotive rolling in behind them, its century-old growl matching the sweet roar of the brass band: The entire audience erupts.

Jose Ortiz, tuba player for the Dirty Chops Brass Band, gets the action going with “Feel like Funkin’ it Up.” 

Jesse James, the organizer of Brunch Fest, could hardly have hoped for more when he conjured the maiden voyage of this event. 

“It’s a hit,” James observes, “and it’s our first time doing it.” 

James already made a big splash last year by throwing Sacramento’s first Salsa Festival in May, which drew 6,000 people to this same spot on the waterfront. That gathering involved locals feasting on the juicy results of a competition between 13 salsa chefs, all while enjoying the Mexican rock band Los Gents, as well as Mariachi Bonitas, an all-female mariachi ensemble. The inaugural Salsa Fest was kicked off with traditional Aztec dancers offering a blessing. 

This morning, with Brunch Fest, James is launching a jubilee that takes the dog days of summer into account. 

“One thing that festival promoters in Sacramento have to deal with is the heat this time of year,” James notes. “You can end up with a lightweight presence in your audience, where it wouldn’t have been that way if it was 105 degrees out. So, the idea behind Brunch Fest was about his question of: Now could we do something on the Waterfront and get everybody out here early to experience that freshness of summer on the river?”  

What James has come up with is an elaborate collection of breakfast and dessert food trucks, a line of unique craft vendors, a bustling mimosa garden, and two stages of live music. The apex of today’s energy, as he’s planned it, is meant to hit around noon. 

Photograph by Fred Greaves

Right now, the Dirty Chops Brass Band is helping guide that momentum. Its members know what they’re doing. Some of them, either performing with Dirty Chops or with Bigger Than Us Art, have provided the entertainment for various outdoor festivals over the last two years. That means they’ve looked beyond the bells of their instruments to see a growing hunger for street and park gatherings, especially ones that immerse people in cultural celebrations. 

And it’s not lost on City Hall that such calendar dates help neighborhoods recover from the economic shadow of COVID. James, who owns the ad agency and consulting firm Meraki Logic, stresses that’s an important piece of his Salsa Festival, which will happen again on Sept.16, this time ringing in Mexican Independence Day with a performance from Blue Mountain Tribe, an all-Native American blues and rock band. 

“There’s the whole multicultural aspect and being able to bring that element to Old Sacramento,” James reflects. “But it’s also about helping develop our small businesses, which is important to us. That means everything from our craft vendors to a new local mobile company that’s trying to build their brand. There’s an economic impact because we’re bringing the masses in, and that’s people they can directly market to.”  

‘I fly away’ 

The Nolacal Second Liners bring some Mardi Gras spirit to Sacramento while partnering with “Louisiana Sue” Ramon on her events, including the upcoming Crawfish and Catfish Festival on Sept. 9 and 10. 

Few could remember seeing a crowd like it in Old Sacramento before: As the 2023 Mardi Gras festival got underway, city police officers started counting an estimated 57,000 people moving through the historic quarter and then out onto the waterfront. That was more than double the attendance that Mardi Gras had the previous March when it was held in the nearby parking area below the freeway. This time, its organizer, the enigmatic “Louisiana Sue” Ramon, had partnered with the Delta King as she brought the two-day action out to the breezy, blue riverside.

And the crowds flocked in force. 

By that Sunday afternoon, an ocean of faces was gathering around Bigger Than Us Art, a musical ensemble with members of the Dirty Chops Brass Band, Element Brass Band and City of Trees Brass Band. As impressionistic clouds drifted over the docks, its players launched into a raucous jazz version of the Depression-era hymn “I Fly Away.” The song’s free-flowing energy swept the waterfront, causing many to lift their voices with the chorus: “I’ll-ll fly away, Old Glory, I’ll-ll fly away / When I die, halleluiah by and by, I’ll-ll fly away.” 

The community spirit might have set off a Richter scale. 

Having grown up in New Orleans, a city famous for street festivals, Ramon always thought she could grow an event on this scale in Sacramento. But her recent success in Old Sacramento is not the only momentum she’s built: Ramon is also the organizer of the upcoming, annual Crawfish and Catfish Festival, a kaleidoscope of culinary and musical grandeur set under the oaks of Southside Park. 

Event-goers will get some Gulf Coast culinary madness at the annual Crawfish and Catfish Festival in early September. 

Event-goers to this ongoing vision Ramon has seem to love drooling over its cooking stations, taking in the sight of shrimp and crawdads smoking on grill tops; sausages and celery getting dumped into vats of bubbling gumbo; golden-fried catfish being stuffed into sandwich rolls while getting glazed with special toppings. Ramon makes sure it’s a food throw-down that’s highlighting primarily local cooks, including Chef Tony Ransom of Soul on a Roll Sac food truck, Chef Rozale Byrd of the Byrd BBQ & Fish pop-up, Chef Lashunda Cormier of Louisiana Heaven in Valley Hi, and chefs Carl and Sandra Johnson of Bear West Barbecue and Soul Food in North Sacramento.  

For Ramon, shining a spotlight on up-and-coming culinary talent is part of a broader local-first credo that makes her festivals an economic sparkplug. She’s already seen the exposure help some of the scrappy home kitchen cooks take their businesses to the next level.

“We’ve had several who have started in a tent, and now they have food trucks or brick-and-mortars,” Ramon recalls, adding with a chuckle, “I won’t let them tell me that it’s because of me: I just say right back that I can only help show people who you really are.”

Whether it’s the Crawfish and Catfish Festival or Sacramento Mardi Gras, Ramon’s ongoing motto is “come for the food, stay for the music.” This year’s action in Southside Park is no exception, with 2023’s go-around featuring live Zydeco from Funky Gators, Mark St. Mary and Zydeco Flames, live blues from Sid Morris Duo, Rowland & Tumbline and Bob Jones and the Chosen Few, and live funk from Inner Soul and Al Lazard & the World Street Players. 

“And of course, we have a whole stage for brass music and youth players,” Ramon declares.  

There will also be some distinctly Louisiana carnival-like entertainment, which includes the state’s longtime fascination with zombie lore. A local costume and partying club called the Sacramento Zombies will be putting on a wrestling event called Crawfish Rumble. Costumed “pirates” will also be sweeping in for what they’re describing as a bayou buccaneer invasion.   

The Sacramento Zombies will be bringing some fun and entertainment to the upcoming Crawfish and Catfish Festival. 

All of this fun is meant to offer Sacramento’s southern expats a temporal bridge back home, while giving locals a genuine taste of the food and musical heritage of the Gulf Coast, especially those who have an interest but can’t afford to travel there. In essence, it’s about enlivening the city for a weekend in an unusual way. But Ramon also stresses it’s about paying and supporting her cooks, musicians and craft vendors, almost all of whom are from the Sacramento area.     

“Unlike some of the major events that come in, and take the money out, my vendors are local, and they buy local,” Ramon points out. “So, when our customers come in, their money stays in Sacramento. That goes for the food and the music, too. When we pay somebody, they’re spending their money in Sacramento. And when we’re buying stuff, we’re buying stuff from Sacramento. … We have a really good economic impact between Mardi Gras and Crawfish.”

Ramon adds that she often coordinates with Jesse James, and Miguel Castillo — the organizer of Sacramento’s Cinco de Mayo Festival and vegan festivals — and believes all three promoters have a similar philosophy about supporting the city.

“The three of us pretty much think alike when it comes to all this stuff,” she notes.

Festivals of protection, new beginnings  

The Sacramento Zombies will be bringing some fun and entertainment to the upcoming Crawfish and Catfish Festival. 

When Jennifer and Remy Tokunaga wanted to push back against a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes sweeping the country, their vision was a massive event that would be both a safe space for the community’s artists, as well as a showcase for a vital part of the region’s identity. 

What they had in mind was an outdoor festival.

The Tokunaga sisters are founders of The Creative Space, an events production company that launched just days before the pandemic hit. As Jennifer and Remy tried to navigate their business with the world upside down, they began to notice the alarming news reports about attacks on Californians of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent. Ironically, the person who would help them dream up their response, Jason Jong, was someone they met through a series of street festivals. 

Jong is currently the cultural and creative economy manager for the City of Sacramento. But when he first met the Tokunaga sisters, he was acting as an independent volunteer for My Sister’s House, which provides safety for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, particularly victims from AAPI enclaves around Sacramento County. The nonprofit had recently opened My Sister’s House Treasures store to help fund services and wanted to bring attention to that part of the city. It’s an area considered the second iteration of Sacramento’s historic Japantown (the first iteration having been destroyed to make room for the Capital Mall). 

Jong used his extensive knowledge of arts and entertainment to coordinate a series of events that were generally referred to as the Japantown street festivals. The Tokunaga sisters, whose brick-and-mortar for the Creative Space is seven blocks away from the My Sister’s House store, decided to participate by getting involved in the festivals’ scavenger hunts. They wanted to support the neighborhood, especially since their aunt, Lisa Taira, has owned a Kiyo’s Floral Design in it for 43 years. After getting to know Jong, the Tokunagas began to set their sights on something much bigger. 

In May of 2022, Jong and the sisters launched the very first Asian Pacific Culture Fest. It was put on under the umbrella of the Sacramento-Asian-Pacific Cultural Village. The inaugural event, held at the Sacramento Asian Sports Foundation, drew around 5,000 attendees and was a work in progress. 

By the time the trio unveiled 2023’s version at the much larger venue of District 56 in Elk Grove, they had pushed the feat to an all-out extravaganza. This included bringing together artists, craft-masters, musicians and 120 vendors that reflected the experience of different groups within the broader AAPI community. One of the culminating moments of the day was California Poet Laureate. Lee Herrick, an Asian American, taking the stage to read from his work. 

Looking back, Remy Tokunaga says the array of different Asian-American cuisine — including Indian, Pilipino, Islander and special fusion dishes — might have been the easiest way for anyone outside of those backgrounds to connect with the spirit of the day. 

“I always say the universal love language is through food, so it was important for me and my sister to make sure that we had a lot of food, and that there was a lot of story time that was shown through food, in addition to the musical performances and crafts being sold,” Remy explains. “It’s just a great way to see into all the different offerings that AAPI culture brings. … It allows people to focus on flavors they grew up having and it’s really fun to see the melting pot.”

While Jong’s involvement in both the Japantown street festivals and Asian Pacific Culture Fest were on his own personal time, his relatively new role with Sacramento’s Office Arts & Culture puts him on the forefront of similar, citywide efforts. He says it’s important to recognize how blessed Sacramento is, in the sense that beyond lively neighborhood highlights like Our Street Festival, the Broadway Festival and Banana Festival Sacramento, it has big get-togethers that include the Brazilian Festival, the International Kids Festival and the Latino Center for Art & Culture’s Fiesta de Frida, all of which share specific cultural experiences.

“We know that Sacramento has gotten even more diverse in recent years, so when it comes to our different communities, a lot of what we think about is how can we be uplifting their voices, their stories, their cultures, their heritage, especially through their art, through their music and through their food,” Jong reflects. “That’s something that can be beneficial to the overall health and well-being of our city. And one of the best ways to do that is to engage with, and see cultural presentations and performances. And these festivals also support the next generation of our arts practitioners, not to mention they honor and respect our culture bearers.”

He adds, “Nothing beats doing that like doing it in a live setting.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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1 Comment on "Sacramento’s outdoor festivals push revival while fueling the cultural life of the city "

  1. We have a retail business in Old Sacramento, and have taken part in several of the festivals and will continue to do so. This is my opinion on festivals. There is an issue with festivals in the District: festival goers do not spend money. The issues of parking and traffic, which have presented problems are being addressed for upcoming events, but the economic issue remains. Event producers like to come here because of the Old Sacramento cachet, some with little regard for the merchants here. They bring in exhibitors selling wares in direct competition to local businesses; food trucks even though we have some excellent more reasonably priced eateries; and festival traffic has prevented our paying customers from finding parking and shopping.

    The Downtown Partnership has facilitated the formation of a group made up of merchants that interview prospective event promoters. We share our concerns and work with the producers to find ways to accommodate the needs of both parties. Our merchant group has no official authority, but the results of the group discussion are relayed to the City event coordinator who is ultimately responsible for the yay or nay.

    While the festivals may introduce Old Sacramento to some new visitors, we need events that promote exploration of the merchants in the District, not ones that segregate festival goers from the retail area. My hope is that we can get Old Sac merchants to work together to self promote the District and produce events that benefit the District while entertaining our customers.

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