Over the Hills, to Portland’s multi-cultural present

The energy at Portland's ethnic community events is great, and so are the performances


“You come every year!”

I do not recognize this observant Sri Lankan woman in a peacock blue sari, who’s obviously proud of the show we’re both attending.
“Yes, I‘ve been here since nearly the beginning,” I reply.

Last month, I was at a Sri Lankan event feting the community’s children with dance, drama and song— the fourth annual Pipena Kekulu (Blooming Buds), and I’ve attended all but the first. This time, Oregon state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian presented one of the three welcoming speeches, with touching thanks to the community for allowing him and his wife to participate once more in the sharing of children’s arts/entertainment activities, his own children having left the nest, both happy successful artists/entertainers.

Oregon Buddhist Temple in Portland, USA celebrated the Vesak Festival last May with Sri Lankan Buddhists living in Portland.

Oregon Buddhist Temple celebrated the Vesak Festival last May. Photo:  ceylontoday.lk.

I attended the first such event in 2013 because I feel part of this community whose many children I have the privilege of teaching piano. I keep going because these events are ebullient. In fact, I’m stepping it up this Saturday, catching Sunil Edirisinghe and Neela Wickramasinghe in concert at PCC Sylvania (see listing at end of this story). Sri Lankan pop stars as popular on the island as Lady Gaga, but they are so underground outside of the culture that you have to call several numbers to secure tickets. Portland is the smallest city they’re playing on a tour which includes London, New York (where they drew 1,200) and Los Angeles (where they drew 1,000). Sri Lankans from Seattle and Vancouver BC will be making the journey to catch this show. In addition, performers from Pipena Kekulu 2015 will be opening. That’s like Bethany elementary school kids opening for the Rolling Stones. And yet, when I search the web for them, no website or Facebook page or Twitter or ANYTHING comes up. Promotions and marketing are as baffling to some of these ethnic communities as they are in the classical music milieu. In fact, Oregon Arts Watch might be the first Oregon arts/entertainment publication starting to cover and preview events like this when we find out about them.

These community and professional shows are part of a world of “ethnic” arts unknown to many Portlanders, especially those east of the West Hills. These events are worth knowing about — not just for their own joy and beauty, but also for what they can teach us about restoring Western classical music’s connection to the larger community.

I live in a Bermuda Triangle, an unincorporated area at the intersection of Hillsboro, Beaverton and Portland. I now share this once all white farming community (where I was the Greek minority growing up) with communities of Indian-, Pakistani-, Bangladeshi-, Sri Lankan-, Korean-, Chinese-, Japanese-, and African-Americans. For variety, add Mormons.

I walk through a park daily where this salad of ethnicities looks like a 21st century Pleasantville: playing basketball, flinging frisbees, walking the park circle, frolicking on the equipment, whooshing by on skates or cruising in strollers, squealing and yelling and laughing — from toddlers to grandparents. English is the common language and the various accents make even drab American slang sound exotic. I remember before this immigration when the park stood lonely, its chubby white larvae avoiding it, preferring to play computer games indoors. I can’t help but think that there is a connection between happy noisy shared public spaces and happy noisy participatory cultural events.

Besides the Asian cuisine (far more adventurous and ethnic than Portland’s, with prices far lower), this area also boasts some of the funnest entertainment … if you know where to find it. From what I’ve seen, these disparate cultural expressions—including arts—are often confined to the ethnic communities that create them. But as much as anything that happens on the Schnitzer stage or Roseland dance floor, they too are Oregon arts.

Colorful Communities

Because of my students, I am plugged into music fests they gleefully share with me because they’re on stage. I have migrated from Indian happenings at the massive Tigard and Tualatin high school auditoriums, overflowing with sitting and standing audience offering suggestions to those on stage (if I had to judge by their jewel-toned saris alone, I couldn’t tell the difference between performers and attendees) to smaller spaces at Jones Farm (Intel) auditorium for Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan festivals of singing, dance and drama. They all have in common the neon, jewel-toned saris and sarongs worn by performers and audience (a festival participated by ALL); the celebration of youth on stage, the youth ebullient — NOT rolling their eyes at having to participate in traditions marking them as outsiders to hip white American teens; “roadie” fathers who swarm on stage to move instruments or tweak the sound equipment complex enough for pop concerts; traditional food at the culmination.

Sri Lankan Portlanders built this large Vesak Lantern in a few days. Photo: ceylontoday.lk.

Sri Lankan Portlanders built this large Vesak Lantern in a few days. Photo: ceylontoday.lk.

They also differ from each other. The Indian festivities are HUGE (300+ participating or attending!). The audience is boisterous, laughing, kibitzing, bossy, EVERYONE’S on stage! The Bangladeshis are more reserved, focused, grittier but no less beautiful. The Sri Lankans are serene.

Last May, I dashed over to an old neighborhood in Hillsboro to attend Vesak, a celebration of Buddha. The temple masquerades as a modest little house in this neighborhood and the celebrants welcomed everyone driving or walking by, then stopping to absorb the spectacle of parading children with gifts for Buddha, choirs of adults and children backed ably by the band set up on the porch. I was not prepared for the ginormous lantern on the front lawn, housed under a 10X10 tent, built over the weekend for this event.  

At last month’s Sri Lankan event, the stage changes were interminable. But the distractions during these changes cannot be beat: One little rascal slides down the railing in his bright orange sarong, his mommy in an off the shoulder purple-pink sari with white piping hiding her head, sliding down in her seat in embarrassment while a shepherding adult coaxes him off the makeshift horsey and backstage. With as many video cameras as attendees (I’m only slightly exaggerating), tripods sprouted all over the center section of the auditorium. The three costume changes per participant (I counted) are schlepped by beautiful moms with bags under their eyes from three weeks worth of sewing and shepherding kids to rehearsals, not to mention the coaching at home.

The 22 (!!) acts were well practiced and rehearsed. This year the kids were given the option to memorize or use notes for the additional pre-act introductions. In pairs, youngsters swiftly took the stage to give a short fun intro about the next act — in Sinhalese by one and translated to English by the other. About half took the option to use note cards, noticeably reducing the stress from the previous two years.

Scene from Pipen Kakulu 2015. The kids singing a song about two siblings arguing whether mom or dad loves them more - big brother is in the background and finally settles the argument at the end of the song.

Scene from Pipen Kakulu 2015. The kids sing a song about two siblings arguing whether mom or dad loves them more. Big brother (in the background) finally settles the argument at the end.


Siblings seemed to be the theme. Sisters danced pas de deux, tribes of siblings presented the short play, brothers with sisters sang duets. The small nucleus of siblings rippling out to the family coaching them, beyond that to the fathers on stage sound-checking them, to the community orchestra always presided over by multi-instrumentalist Kapila Ranasinghe (usually on keyboard), to the mothers who orchestrate bringing the kids to practice, painting the backdrop for the stage and providing the banquet following — and finally to the Venerable Pallebage Chandrasiri, a Buddhist Monk who founded this event, always there to give one of the welcoming speeches and to hand out gifts to the participants in the end, sitting in the front row, smiling at his creation.

Beyond the Niche

I have mistakenly thought that these FREE events were a community building endeavor for the community that puts them on, and that therefore I was kinda special to be invited. They’re not! I’ve learned that these productions, this ebullience, are meant to be shared with a larger diverse population in the broader community. As with the niche Western classical music milieu, finding a larger audience is the challenge. Since I grew up playing classical music and have spent the last several decades performing it, I couldn’t help noticing the contrasts.

Unlike the classical music community, price is not a barrier: the ubiquitous FREE admission is a very good price, although I would welcome a donation jar and I would contribute. The rare performances by touring professionals are more expensive.

Unlike in the classical music world, the expectation here that I viscerally join in the audience’s squealing, laughing, commenting often to my neighbor in the audience makes me feel like a participant. There is a give-and-take between performers on stage and participants in the audience that erases the us-vs-them detachment I feel at classical music concerts. The sense of reverence and self-importance emanating from the stage at too many classical music concerts I attend is entirely missing from these celebratory events.

Unlike the classical music community, the thought that goes into more than just the aural or strictly instrumental/vocal makes for a more up-to-the-minute activity for the audience. Acts bounced from singing (about which parent loves them most to the natural beauty of their homeland), to dancing (one particular dance with two teenaged sisters made my scouting nose twitch with future visions of A Star is Born), to theater skit (this year’s featured a traditional story about what we see when we look into mirrors; last year’s was Tarantino-tight and funny and written by one of the moms), to pre-act announcements. All short and with a sense of forward motion.

Unlike the classical music community, cohesive on-stage COLORFUL COSTUMING is the new black!

These community performances differ from most of Oregon’s mainstream world music and dance presenters. I have attended a few classical Indian music concerts produced by Kalakendra in downtown Portland, but they have westernized the audience experience to classical music morgue expectations. If you prefer solemn, churchy conditions, do NOT attend the shows I describe; opt for Kalakendra instead.


The context matters because the kind of music matters less to me than the effect the experience leaves. I simply love great entertainment that moves me and stays with me for days, years, lifetime — helping me to find my place in this cosmos, my meaning of life. And isn’t that what art is? It doesn’t have to be sanctified by Paris, The New York Times or RACC but rather by our own honest visceral response — a response I seldom get at Western classical concerts anymore.

None of these problems is inherent to Western classical music — only in the stuffy, detached way it’s now too often presented. These events can help show us western classical musicians how to restore the music’s joy and connection to broader communities.

This is why, I tell the Sri Lankan woman in the peacock blue sari, even though I’m not a member of any of these communities, “I‘ve been here since the second coming!”

“Good!” she replies with a grin. “Then you’ll be back next year!”

I will.

Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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