Since it opened in late October 2012, Klyde Warren Park has offered plenty of entertainment - from movies, concerts and fireworks to food trucks, dog training and fountains to chess, foosball and putting greens (oh, and possibly an ice skating rink in the winter).
But the best entertainment, I discovered last Sunday afternoon (June 9), isn't provided by the park itself; it's provided by the visitors.
Arriving around 3 p.m., I immediately heard some people performing Afro-Caribbean percussion, complete with bongos, congas, claves, guiros and maracas. They were in the Muse Family Performance Pavilion - a diverse group with an audience to match.
A Hispanic man skillfully played the congas while an older black man and a white teenager played the bongos. Young children gleefully shook and banged a variety of other instruments. Some of the surrounding crowd danced and clapped along.
After about fifteen minutes, the busking reached an intermission. I approached the performance leader, 52 year-old George Cortez, who wore a ponytail, sunglasses and a sleeveless black button-up. Cortez likes to perform every Sunday for around five hours, and he provided the instruments that his fellow spontaneous 'band members' were playing.
The lifelong West Dallas resident has played the congas for over 25 years. He learned without any formal training. He's the youngest of seven siblings, and was able to teach himself with the instruments left around the house by his older brothers.
Cortez has played with bands of various genres, although he currently performs with his Santana tribute band, Abraxas. Earlier in his life, he did professionally pursue music and often performed in Deep Ellum in the '70s and '80s. "That train has passed," he tells me in between shaking hands and receiving thanks from the crowd. "I'm not going to be a rock star, so now I play what I love."
Cortez, who works in warehouses during the week, explained to me how relaxing he found the park. "I bust my butt all week," he says. "This is just fun." The grandfather was happy to share the joy of music with the children, especially since he understood that the instruments aren't something that Dallas kids get to see or play with everyday.
He loves meeting new people at the park, who come from around the city, from Oak Cliff to Southlake to Richardson, and even some from other countries: Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Germany among them.
One of Cortez' park friends is Barbara Brands, who acts as his unofficial photographer. Brands has visited the park every day since it opened and loves its variety and surprises. "I have never seen anyone with a stern look," she says.
Sam Epstein is a 19 year-old from Richardson. The Yavneh Academy graduate was visiting the park for the first time with his grandparents. "There's so much to do. You can do anything, you can do nothing." And he was right. The majority of visitors passively listened to the performance while reading or enjoying the food trucks' cuisine, but not Epstein. When Epstein, who had worked with hand drums in high school, saw an unused bongo drum, he decided to join Cortez and the others.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
An older man, who wore a skullcap and Ankh necklace, was playing the drums across from Epstein. Baba Lawrence, a 67 year-old from Oak Cliff, is a frequent visitor to Klyde Warren Park and plays almost every Sunday with Cortez, whom he met at the park three months ago. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lawrence moved to Dallas in 1985 for work. Like Cortez, the retired mechanical engineer hasn't had any formal training, but that hasn't stopped him from playing the drums for over 40 years.
Echoing what Cortez and others told me, Lawrence loves the park's "energy and vibes." As a longtime drummer, Lawrence loves how appreciative the crowds are. He told me about a time when, "People were lined up in chairs like they were in a symphony hall. At the end, they gave us a standing ovation." Performing, for him, was "therapy." When I asked him if anything compares, he laughed and said, "Yeah, sex. But that's it."
Toward the end of our conversation, Lawrence summed up what I had discovered: "The park's unscheduled performances like this are more interesting than the park's scheduled concerts."