Best Cultural Festival 2011 | Arizona Aloha Festival, Tempe Beach Park | People & Places | Phoenix
The annual Arizona Aloha Festival goes beyond big, burly Samoans slapping their chests and sexy hula dancers swinging their hips — though we certainly don't mind either of those attractions. The event has grown in popularity and size since moving to Tempe in 2009 and now boasts a marketplace filled with coconut shell purses, hand-carved mother-of-pearl necklaces, and replicas of the carved wood and shark's tooth clubs used by ancient Polynesian tribes. We dug this year's focus on dance and education, which brought new treats, including a seminar on Maori bone carving and the return of master dance teacher Kehau Chrisman. Chrisman's hula group, Halau Hula Napuaokalei'ilima, paid homage to a Verde Valley resident who helped build a two-hulled canoe to prove that the ancient Hawaiians could navigate open waters without sophisticated instruments. We'll stick with club dancing and speedboats, thank you very much, but it was impressive nonetheless.
To be honest, we havent bought a thing at a so-called arts festival in years. In fact, if we never see another ceramic Kleenex box holder or a howling coyote watercolor, it will be too soon. About the only thing art festivals are good for is people-watching and kettle corn. At least, that was our position til we hit the first Crafeteria a couple of years back.

On a cool night in December, local crafty types take over a Phoenix parking lot for Crafeteria organized by Smeeks and Frances owner Georganne Bryant, a woman we are quite certain has never possessed a ceramic Kleenex box holder. Crafeteria is a jackpot for anyone with an addiction and a one-stop shop for any letterpress, jewelry, or custom-button craving. All Crafeteria goods are 100 percent locally made by the likes of Danielle Hacche, Against the Grain, Crafty Chica, Harmony Handmade Books, Nancy Bobo, and SeeSaw Designs (to name a few). The baked goods at Crafeteria will keep the corn in its kettle, and the people-watchings just as good as at any old arts festival.

Coined "A Party with a Purpose," this music festival is all about the tunes, but it also has a strong focus on charity. All proceeds raised during the festival are donated to Phoenix Day Family & Learning Center and Ear Candy. This festival packs a punch in the music department, too. Bands come from all over the world to play at the late April festival, including recent appearances by JJ Grey and MOFRO, Xavier Rudd, and The Wailers. Bring your lawn chairs and sun block, and be ready to soak up the sounds.
Here's a little secret: The guys who run the music store next to Changing Hands in Tempe call themselves hoodlums — and maybe they look like it, just a little — but really, they're old softies. Just check them out each spring when they throw a weekend-long music festival, aptly named Hoodstock. Fans pack the tiny store to catch local bands like Dry River Yacht Club and Psych 101 taking the even tinier stage to play their hearts out for charity, specifically the education intervention program at a nearby elementary school. The owners and festival volunteers spend weeks having the school kids paint record albums, which hang on the walls, available for sale. It's a great fundraising idea — who's not going to come down to buy their kid's record and spend a few bucks (a percentage of Hoodlums' sales go to the charity all weekend) while they're at it? Just be sure you get there early to buy your child's creation; last year, there were tears when a stranger snatched up a particularly good-looking album just an hour into the festival, before Mom and Dad could make it down to make the purchase. Best part of this festival: No matter where your kids go to school, this is a great way to introduce them to local indie rock in a family-friendly atmosphere.
We love that this alternative-theater festival spotlights the kind of awesome small-budget gems you'd find showing at a Greenwich Village playhouse, which is welcome relief from the recycled Neil Simon snoozers and jukebox musicals Phoenix is known for inviting. This year's event was also rife with Arizona premières, including Steven Fales' Confessions of a Mormon Boy (originally directed by Tony Award-winner Jack Hofsiss), which follows a drug-addicted, excommunicated Mormon dad as he attempts to get his shit together, and The Fall of June Bloom, written and performed in part by an Australian woman battling dementia. The fact that the latter show was rehearsed entirely via Skype is an indication of just how cutting-edge the festival is. Toss in a play about four people finding themselves during the apocalypse and Van Rockwell's Oppressed, which chronicled a breakup from the dude's point of view, and you have a series of short plays that kicks the habit of sitting through The Sound of Music one more bloody time.
Way out in the desert near Cave Creek sits this bastion of the Christian faith and a congregation about 1,400-strong. Sure, Pinnacle Presbyterian offers the usual Sunday-morning fare and other "normal" church stuff. But there's much more: For more than a decade now, the church has offered an annual series of surprisingly eclectic musical concerts that draw a surprisingly eclectic crowd. We have seen (and heard) world-class Brazilian musicians, the Seattle-based Groove for Thought (a jazz vocal ensemble), the Broadway Showstoppers crew, as well as old standbys the Phoenix Boys Choir and Phoenix Symphony. The sound system is impeccable. Church musical director Brent Hylton ought to be proud of what he's built.
In 1938, Reverend Louis Overstreet heard the voice of God, and it told him to buy a guitar. From that moment on, Overstreet made his way as a gospel singer, belting out heavy, blues-inspired music while preaching on street corners. In July 1961, Overstreet and family found themselves in Phoenix, playing outside a nightclub called Trotter's Inn, on Broadway Road. Overstreet decided to start a church in Phoenix, founding St. Luke's Powerhouse Church of God in Christ in South Phoenix. He recorded an album there, featuring his four sons and his nearly psychedelic approach to gospel music. Ahoolie Records eventually issued the records on CD, and, last year, Portland-based roots music label Mississippi Records re-issued the album on vinyl to thunderous acclaim from critics who actually heard it. Overstreet's church still stands in Phoenix, enduring like the album he recorded there.
Considering the lack of a serious military presence here, it's sometimes surprising just how enthusiastic Phoenix gets about the good ol' U.S. of A. For a clear example, just tune into KOOL 94.5 FM at noon. For some reason, the station, which plays a classic hits format with a strong '70s bent (think: Phil Collins' "Sussudio") plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" every day at high noon. It's not, like, some special version, either. Nope, it's the standard sort you'd expect to hear played on an old cassette tape at a middle school basketball game. It's a pretty good gimmick, though. While our national anthem is not the sort of thing most people would seek out for their listening pleasure, wouldn't you feel a little guilty flipping the channel? How could you, what with our brave boys over there in Eye-Rack fighting to keep us free from Saddam Hussein (deceased) and Osama bin Laden (deceased). Freedom ain't free, you know, so keep it locked on KOOL-FM for this obnoxious display of patriotism — followed immediately by some useful information pertaining to the sale of high-quality, modestly priced used automobiles.
Phoenix is usually proud of its winter weather, especially on those pleasantly balmy days when the rest of the country is snowshoeing to work. Well, except for a few weeks in December, around the time that elves, failed real estate developers, and their respective guardian angels take over our televisions. That's when you can sense that the city gets a little self-conscious about our snowlessness. Phoenix actually has a climate not unlike Bethlehem, where the first Christmas was celebrated by dark-skinned Semitic people, but that's of little comfort when we're inundated with the Yuletide rituals that blond-haired, blue-eyed Germanic heathens grafted onto the saintly celebration. So, yes, Phoenix has to work extra hard to get into the Christmas spirit. Which is probably why so many houses are lit up like Sky Harbor around the holidays. No one does it up better than Lee and Patricia Sepanek. The Sepanek display uses 250,000 blinking lights, many hung impossibly high on the palm trees towering over their home in a middle-class neighborhood south of Camelback and 44th Streets. The real show requires more than a drive-by. Toy trains, real snowfall, a hot cocoa stand, and enough animatronics to shame Walt Disney himself make this a must-see attraction. Yes, there are computer-controlled music systems at many other tacky and totally overdone holiday home displays, but detail on every inch of the Sepanek property really makes this house stand above the others. Keep an eye out for Santa and/or a dog dressed as Santa.
No need to be wary of the large eye watching you walk through the lobby of the Arizona Science Center; the huge lens is the latest collaborative and interactive piece by local artists Mary Lucking and David Tinapple. "Curiouser and Curiouser" borrows its name from Alice in Wonderland. It invites visitors to peer at each other through a giant telescope/microscope that juts out of the center's ceiling, and at the current exhibition through a smaller telescope on the lobby floor. The artwork was commissioned by the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture and fabricated by Magnum Architectural Inc. Thanks to Lucking and Tinapple, we can all feel very huge, and then very tiny — a very wonderland feeling, indeed.

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