CEL­E­BRA­TION IS ONE OF NA­TION’S ‘MOST SPIR­ITED’

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Ben Cran­dell | SouthFlorida.com

Ahead-spin­ning whirl of su­gar skulls and som­brero-ed skele­tons, masked luchadores and marigolds, tow­er­ing pup­pets, par­ents and kids in their best Frida Kahlo, the Florida Day of the Dead pro­ces­sional in down­town Fort Laud­erdale is con­sid­ered one of the Top 10 Día de los Muer­tos cel­e­bra­tions in Amer­ica.

That would be the opin­ion of Raul de Molina, host of Univi­sion’s “El Gordo y La Flaca,” who shared a list of his fa­vorite Day of the Dead fes­tiv­i­ties with USA To­day, as well as Afar mag­a­zine, which ranked Fort Laud­erdale among its half-dozen “most spir­ited” cel­e­bra­tions in the U.S., and the global travel pro­fes­sion­als at Trip­ping.com, who ap­pre­ci­ated the at­ten­tion paid to “tra­di­tional cul­tural el­e­ments.”

A few days be­fore last year’s events, the in­flu­en­tial New York­based hip­ster web­site Thril­list.com jumped on­board with a six­city com­pi­la­tion of “The Best Day of the Dead Cel­e­bra­tions in the United States.”

“Nor­mally staid Fort Laud­erdale rocks a baller pa­rade for the Florida Day of the Dead,” the Thril­list scribe wrote.

Artist and pup­peteer Jim Ham­mond, who leads the team that cre­ated Florida Day of the Dead in 2010, is pleased with the ac­co­lades, but the first two words of that sen­tence drive him crazy. Thanks to an ex­pand­ing part­ner­ship with mu­sic venue Rev­o­lu­tion Live and Live Na­tion Florida, he’s about to do some­thing about it, with an ex­panded, two-day cel­e­bra­tion this year.

But that’s just the be­gin­ning: Ham­mond be­lieves the part­ner­ship has cre­ated a tem­plate and the in­fra­struc­ture to put on more an­nual fes­ti­vals in down­town Fort Laud­erdale on the scale of Florida Day of the Dead.

“A lot of peo­ple ex­pect this in Port­land or Austin. A lot of peo­ple ex­pect this in San Fran­cisco. A lot of peo­ple ex­pect this in New York. But South Florida, Fort Laud­erdale specif­i­cally, is filled with in­cred­i­bly creative peo­ple,” Ham­mond says. “With Florida Day of the Dead, we gave a lot of really creative peo­ple an op­por­tu­nity.”

Fam­ily-friendly and free

An­tic­i­pated to draw more than a thou­sand par­tic­i­pants ( just show up and walk) and a thou­sand more on­look­ers, Florida Day of the Dead’s sig­na­ture pa­rade, the Skele­ton Pro­ces­sional, gets go­ing at Huizenga Plaza 6:30 p.m. Fri­day, Nov. 2. The pa­rade, the fam­i­lyfriendly af­ter­party — filled with tra­di­tional mu­sic and dance, food and craft dis­plays — and nearly all other re­lated events are free.

Pre­sented in part­ner­ship with the Mex­i­can Con­sulate in Mi­ami, the high bar that Ham­mond sets for the event’s au­then­tic­ity de­mands year-round at­ten­tion, lo­cat­ing mu­si­cians, craft­ing new pup­pets and masks, and cre­at­ing the iconic Fort Laud­erdale His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety dis­play of ofren­das, deeply per­sonal al­tars from the artist to the dead. Most of the peo­ple who cu­rate in­di­vid­ual el­e­ments of the event, in­clud­ing the art, mu­sic, dance and food are of Mex­i­can her­itage.

More than 250 vol­un­teers take part in Florida Day of the Dead, which is pre­ceded by months of free art­mak­ing work­shops.

Hol­ly­wood res­i­dent So­nia Matthews, a Colom­bian-born graphic de­signer and fash­ion de­signer who has cre­ated Florida Day of the Dead pup­pets and masks since its sec­ond year, says the event is more than a Mex­i­can hol­i­day.

“Fort Laud­erdale has so many peo­ple from dif­fer­ent His­panic back­grounds. What Jim did is con­nect Amer­i­cans and His­pan­ics. This is a very good way to bring us all to­gether and learn from each other and our cul­tures. Fes­tiv­i­ties con­nect peo­ple. When we’re all to­gether cel­e­brat­ing, peo­ple seem to con­nect bet­ter,” Matthews says.

For the past sev­eral months, Ham­mond has had a pop-up of­fice at the Mex­i­can con­sulate in Mi­ami, where he’s con­ferred with Con­sul Gen­eral Ho­ra­cio Aarón Saave­dra Archun­dia and his rep­re­sen­ta­tives, who have praised his ded­i­ca­tion to the coun­try’s cul­ture and tra­di­tions of Día de los Muer­tos, a cel­e­bra­tion of life through pay­ing honor to the dead.

Florida Day of the Dead is one of the few fes­ti­vals around the coun­try that has al­ways been held on Mex­ico’s Día de los Muer­tos, Nov. 2, re­sist­ing the con­ve­nience of cel­e­brat­ing on an ad­ja­cent week­end.

“The con­sul gen­eral al­ways laughs when I talk about the ofrenda I make to my dogs,” Ham­mond says. “He said, ‘That’s so non­tra­di­tional. We would never do that in Mex­ico, but I love that.’ He loves it be­cause it’s very Florida, it’s very Amer­i­can, but it’s still pay­ing re­spect to the tra­di­tions while re­flect­ing what’s in my heart.”

In the be­gin­ning

Florida Day of the Dead be­gan humbly nine years ago with a $2,000 county grant and dozens of marchers walk­ing from the pa­tio at NSU Art Mu­seum Fort Laud­erdale to Ham­mond’s old ware­house in FAT Vil­lage.

Ham­mond had just re­turned af­ter sev­eral years as a de­signer on the tour­ing pro­duc­tion of “The Lion King.”

“I was look­ing for a bet­ter sense of com­mu­nity, more con­nec­tion to the grass­roots of what art is about,” says Ham­mond, a res­i­dent of Fort Laud­erdale with wife Shelly since 1995.

Sur­rounded by a group of artists, graphic de­sign­ers and mu­si­cians who shared themes of death and spir­i­tu­al­ity, Ham­mond and friends started look­ing for a Día de los Muer­tos cel­e­bra­tion in South Florida to help with. Find­ing none ex­isted, they started their own.

One of those artists was Ronni Ger­s­tel, a pro­fes­sional pup­peteer who has known Ham­mond for two decades and has made the drive from her home near Boyn­ton Beach to work with Ham­mond since the first year for Florida Day of the Dead.

“I love Jim. I love ev­ery­thing he stands for, his open mind to new ideas, his bring­ing the com­mu­nity to­gether,” Ger­s­tel says, while work­ing on a gi­ant papier-mache head in Ham­mond’s cramped work­shop in Fort Laud­erdale’s Edge­wood neigh­bor­hood. “There’s not much of that hap­pen­ing near me. It’s get­ting bet­ter, but I think Jim’s a pi­o­neer in com­mu­nity events.”

A cou­ple of years af­ter Florida Day of the Dead got go­ing, at the FAT Vil­lage Art Walk, Ham­mond struck up a friend­ship with Jeff John, a part­ner in Damn Good Hos­pi­tal­ity, owner and op­er­a­tor of the Him­marshee Vil­lage com­plex that in­cludes Rev­o­lu­tion Live, Amer­ica’s Back­yard and Stache Drink­ing Den and Cof­fee Bar. As Ham­mond ex­pressed the need for more space for his fes­ti­val, John stepped in, and for the past few years the Skele­ton Pro­ces­sional has snaked its way along the New River to a fam­ily-friendly block party in the street out­side Rev­o­lu­tion Live.

But the two men kept talk­ing — Ham­mond the artist and “doll maker,” and John the well-con­nected en­tre­pre­neur who pre­sides over a mu­sic venue that show­cases ev­ery­thing from hard­core hip-hop to rock­a­billy gui­tarist the Rev. Hor­ton Heat — and they dis­cov­ered a shared in­ter­est in cre­at­ing some­thing big­ger, a com­mu­nity-build­ing Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tion that may come to de­fine the city in the na­tional con­scious­ness.

“When Jim and I got to­gether, we had a vi­sion of grow­ing this into a larger, mul­ti­ple-day event, a large down­town fes­ti­val, with mu­sic and food, a tra­di­tional cul­tural event, a cel­e­bra­tion of life,” John says while seated in Ham­mond’s work­shop.

Night of the Dead

The part­ners will take the most ob­vi­ous step in that di­rec­tion at this year’s cel­e­bra­tion when they roll the Day of the Dead theme into a sec­ond day, with Night of the Dead, wink­ing at tra­di­tion with a con­cert on Satur­day, Nov. 3, by Dark Star Orches­tra and Galac­tic, two na­tion­ally tour­ing bands in­spired by the Grate­ful Dead. South Florida’s Bobby Lee Rodgers Trio and Crazy Fin­gers also will per­form.

But that’s not all: The men hope to cap­i­tal­ize on the na­tional rep­u­ta­tion of Florida Day of the Dead to keep ex­pand­ing it, per­haps cre­at­ing a week­long event that would be a des­ti­na­tion for trav­el­ers across the U.S. and Mex­ico.

“We want to create stuff to give the city an iden­tity,” John says.

The duo say credit for the suc­cess of Florida Day of the Dead must be shared with sev­eral peo­ple, in­clud­ing Mayor Dean Tran­talis; Sharisse Pes­sar, Live Na­tion’s se­nior VP of tal­ent for Florida and the tal­ent booker for Rev­o­lu­tion Live; and Ge­nia Dun­can El­lis of River­walk Fort Laud­erdale.

Ham­mond and John be­lieve the in­spi­ra­tion and in­fra­struc­ture that pro­duces Florida Day of the Dead can be used to create other ma­jor down­town Fort Laud­erdale fes­ti­vals in the area be­tween River­walk and Rev­o­lu­tion Live. First on the draw­ing board are a Mardi Gras fes­ti­val and an LGBTQ event, each with its own pro­ces­sional.

Many mid­size cities spend thou­sands of dol­lars re­search­ing and fly­ing of­fi­cials to Texas to fig­ure out how to repli­cate the “keep Austin weird” vibe back home, says Ham­mond, point­ing out that it’s im­pos­si­ble to re-create some­thing so or­ganic. Why not repli­cate the or­ganic suc­cess of Florida Day of the Dead in­stead, he says?

“What Jeff and his team and what my team create are au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences that are fo­cused on the most im­por­tant thing about hu­man­ity, and that is cul­ture. Cul­ture is what links us. Cul­ture is what brings peo­ple to­gether,” Ham­mond says.

bcran­dell@sun-sen­tinel.com

Fort Laud­erdale artist and pup­peteer Jim Ham­mond.

MIKE STOCKER/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SEN­TINEL

“We want to create stuff to give the city an iden­tity,” Jeff John of Rev­o­lu­tion Live and Damn Good Hos­pi­tal­ity said.

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