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L.A.’s Grand Park is a celebration of contemporary America

Aalok Mehta’s electric sitar is a decidedly different sound than the piccolo and snare drum of colonial days.

But the artist who played it at a Fourth of July celebration Monday in downtown Los Angeles considers his music as quintessentially American as Yankee Doodle.

Mehta, the New Jersey-born son of Indian immigrants, says his fusion of Western and South Asian sounds reflects his own melded heritage. And multiculturalism, he says, is the story of America today as the nation celebrated its 240th birthday with fireworks, barbecues, parades and other traditional festivities.

That theme was reflected in musical acts featured at Grand Park’s celebration, which included influences from Japan, Ghana, East Africa, Mexico, Cuba, Brazil and beyond. Julia Diamond, the Music Center’s programming director for Grand Park, said she deliberately sought out an eclectic mix of musicians and artists to reflect both the park’s open access to all and the diversity of Los Angeles.

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“This is a contemporary Fourth of July, which reflects the America we live in today,” Diamond said. “Los Angeles in particular is an incredibly rich tapestry of people with such diverse, blended backgrounds.”

The event drew a record-setting crowd of 38,000 people to the park, which is owned by L.A. County and managed by the Music Center. Sprawled throughout three city blocks from Spring Street to Grand Avenue, they ate, danced, played soccer, splashed in water fountains and enjoyed a fireworks display featuring 755 shells shot 400 feet in the air.

Many were bedecked in similar colors of red, white and blue but shared diverse family stories of ever-evolving America.

Gregory Ramos, a 44-year-old surgical technician, said his family fled the Mexican revolution two generations ago. Subsequent family members, including his father, joined the U.S. Marines and hammered home the values of patriotism, he said.

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Ramos brought his wife, a Mexico native, and their three children to Grand Park from West Covina to continue his family tradition of recognizing America’s independence and the men and women who fought to preserve it, he said.

Amid the nation’s political strife and economic fears, he said, Independence Day was a good time to reflect on themes that unify Americans.

“We have our freedom, thanks to the sacrifices of others,” he said. “We just have to count our blessings.”

Dawnett McGee, a 41-year-old real estate agent, brought her two children and two friends to Grand Park — opting for the diverse music and activities over fireworks at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

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Like Ramos, McGee also expressed her gratitude for American life. The daughter of immigrants from Jamaica, McGee said her mother was able to attend nursing school in New York, a dream she would not have been able to fulfill in her homeland. Now, McGee’s 7-year-old daughter, Destiny, is attending a Spanish-English dual immersion school in Glendale.

“America is the land of opportunity,” McGee said. “In Jamaica, there is no free schooling, so we Americans have to take advantage of our educational opportunities here.”

Peter Madana, the 29-year-old producer and deejay for 108 Hill, hailed the event’s diverse cultural programming. He noted that the band that played before him, Kotolan, was headlined by a Japanese immigrant who sang in Japanese, English and Spanish and shared her journey here to pursue a lifelong dream to make music in America.

The story struck parallels with his own family story, said Madana, an India native brought to the United States as a child by parents seeking a better life. His father started off on an assembly line for walkie talkie components in Chicago but earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering. Now, Madana is forging new paths, melding the latest computer technology with music inspired by both his Indian and American heritages.

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“A lot of the overseas immigrants who come to America have the same aspirations: Fulfill their dreams, take care of their families,” Madana said. “We are all living the American dream.”

For at least one family, L.A.’s dazzling diversity was a new experience. Brandon Nicklas, a 22-year-old engineering consultant who recently moved here from a rural town near Pittsburgh, said he usually celebrated the holiday with farm shows featuring pigs, cows and other livestock, school bus races, country music and pie-eating contests.

As they stood in line to get free red, white and blue bandannas, his sister, Alyssa, looked around.

“It’s really different here — a lot more cultures,” she said. “You guys don’t have farm shows around here?”

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @teresawatanabe

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UPDATES:

July 5 11:40 a.m. This article was updated with the Music Center’s final crowd estimate and additional details.

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This article was originally published at 9:18 p.m. July 4.


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