For visitors and even for some residents of Santa Barbara, Old Spanish Days can be something of an enigma. Depending on whom you talk to, either it’s a deeply felt community or family tradition that goes back to the 18th century, or it’s a bunch of tourists day drinking while watching ersatz flamenco. Or, if you are lucky enough to find someone reasonable, it’s something else that exists in between these extremes of uncritical reverence and dismissive cynicism. Meanwhile, there’s no better cure for Fiesta confusion than Project Fiesta!, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s ongoing attempt to gather images, objects, and testimony that reveal our annual descent into an imaginary Old Spanish culture for what it is — an evolving set of practices, some frivolous, others heartfelt, all of which add up to an event and a feeling that could only happen in Santa Barbara. Project Fiesta! consolidates and documents what Old Spanish Days set out to do — invent a tradition inspired by the past but designed to create new memories rather than get lost in a labyrinthine quest for historical fidelity.
This edition of the exhibit focuses on the music and dance that form the backbone of the Old Spanish Days celebration. Lilting melodies and buoyant dance rhythms fill the gallery space (at an appropriately civil volume, to be sure), leading visitors to the centerpiece of the memorabilia this time out, which is the original marimba of Fiesta stalwart and Santa Barbara legend Lencho Martinez. For 63 years, the sound of Lencho’s marimba was the siren call that let everyone know it was party time in Santa Barbara. From the Coral Casino to countless homes and backyards, this tireless and talented musician wove familiar melodies into syncopated arrangements that never failed to get people up and dancing. For a glimpse of Old Spanish Days the way it was in its 20th-century prime, there’s now a guaranteed authentic experience that includes beautiful images, carefully researched text, and danceable music waiting for you at the S.B. Historical Museum.
Project Fiesta! Building a Complete History of Old Spanish Days shows through October 16 at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 East De la Guerra Street.