The 17th Annual Fête de la Musique once again showcased the spirited talent of our town

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

As a long-time writer and resident of Laguna Beach, I’m often required to put into words what makes our community unique. Apart from the obvious answers about Laguna’s natural beauty and astounding topography, our many successful residents and quirky characters, an argument can be made that our town runs on the steam of its own passions.

There are countless examples. The Pageant of the Masters’ 900 volunteers have kept that organization alive for nearly a century. Our hilarious No Square thespians have performed decades of antics in the annual Lagunatics show. The Coast Film Festival, a relative newcomer to our arts scene, has brought Laguna’s active sports culture onto the big screen for the past five years. Last weekend, local musicians lit up the village with more than 30 bands and soloists performing across several genres. They, and many other steadfast servants, keep our town fun and funky. And they largely do it for free.

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The popular Grey Hill Gospel String Band returned again to perform in front of Tuvalu

Like Laguna’s other arts organizations, the Fête de la Musique sits at the intersection of tireless dedication and wide-ranging talent. Roughly 15 people are responsible for organizing this event, which has become synonymous with the start of summer. All the acts perform for free, and local shopkeepers forfeit some weekend business as locals and visitors soak up the sun and listen to tunes. It’s traditions like these, run by ardent supporters of the arts, that set our enclave apart.

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JJ & the Habibis Belly Dancers return year after year

“Once again, Laguna Beach came to play, and it made all of us who work on this event all year long so happy. I’m proud, but mostly it’s just pure joy and happiness that I feel,” said Laguna Beach Sister Cities (LBSC) President Maggie Hempen.

What began in 2007 as a small pop-up event with fewer than 15 performers (and no budget or advertising) has swelled into an annual tradition with thousands of people packing Laguna’s Main Beach and Downtown streets to see more than 30 live bands, soloists and ensembles.

The Fête de la Musique, also known as World Music Day, got its start in France in 1982. Since then, it’s spread to more than 1,000 cities across 120 countries. In the U.S. alone, 117 cities participated alongside Laguna Beach.

“An invitation to Beverly Hills to attend their first Fête started the idea of having a Sister City and the Fête in Laguna Beach,” said Founding President Karyn Philippsen. “After French Consulate assistance and the effort of residents Fred and Jennifer Karam, the original delegation traveled to Menton, France at their own expense to attend the official ceremony linking the two cities.”

Three years after Laguna’s first Fête, LBSC won “Best New Arts Program” at the annual Art Star Awards. “We have continued to improve the Fête experience each year,” Philippsen said, noting that the number of performance sites grew to as many as 40 locations over the years. This year, there were 32. “I feel proud that our devoted group passionately embraces the vision. It is really about being a global citizen. Everyone does something to make the Fête happen.”

One key member who makes it happen is Fête Chair Ken Aubuchon who, alongside Jean Fallowfield, has selected the entertainers for 12 years. Aubuchon scours the local music scene all year – including Forest Avenue, The Cliff, The Ranch and the Sawdust Festival – to unearth new talent.

“Roughly three-quarters of the performers are returnees from either last year or a previous year,” Aubuchon said, noting longstanding artists like chanteuse April Walsh, classic rockers Jim & Warren, singer Lenelle Hamil, the Grey Hill Gospel String Band and JJ & the Habibis Belly Dancers. There were seven newcomers this year. “Having many of the same performers makes it easier to organize. On the other hand, one of the most exciting things for us is to find a new performer who immediately becomes a star!”

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Chanteuse April Walsh is one of the longest-running Fête performers, returning for at least 13 years

One rising star is newcomer band The 9AM, with vocalists and guitarists Tom Twyman and Savannah MayWood. The duo met last summer on Vampr – a networking app for musicians. MayWood is from Montana, Twyman from the U.K. They began busking on Forest Avenue, where they were discovered by Aubuchon and Fallowfield. When Shelton Taylor and The Forest Boys canceled the night before the Fête due to illness, Twyman and MayWood slid into their spot in front of the Rivian. The crowds went wild and, by day’s end, Rivian offered them a regular gig on Saturday afternoons. They’ll also be performing at the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center (LBCAC) on Friday, July 26.

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Savannah MayWood and Tom Twyman of The 9AM were one of this year’s hit newcomers

“The Fête democratizes music by providing a stage to young and amateur musicians. I love finding these hidden gems in our community,” said LBCAC founder Rick Conkey, who is credited by several performers for launching their careers. “It also offers seasoned professionals a way to connect, both locally and internationally, with a wonderful celebration of music.”

Part of what made The 9AM connect with Saturday’s audience was their willingness to deliver what people want to hear and not get too precious about their art. They played popular covers across various genres and decades including Of Monsters & Men, Franki Valli and the Four Seasons and Post Malone.

“Covering someone else’s song is a good way to market yourself,” Twyman said. “If they like what you’ve done with songs they already love, they’ll want to hear what you’ve written.”

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The 9AM will now have a regular gig outside the Rivian Theater on Saturday afternoons. They’ll also perform at LBCAC on Friday, July 26.

The success of an event like this doesn’t happen by accident. The late-night cancellation that led to Rivian’s open slot had to be quickly managed, as did dozens of other details and unforeseen circumstances like traffic delays and infrastructure logistics.

“In an event this big, with so much coordination required, it’s fun to watch people navigate these problems as they arise,” said Philippsen. “I’m so proud of the level of presentation we’re able to bring for 17 years. We’ve grown not just the experience, but we’ve grown the caliber of musical variety. We bring musical joy every single year.”

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The Laguna Community JaZz Band opens the ceremonies every year

“All the aches and pains getting to this day are forgotten and replaced with the sound of music and laughter. It’s the absolute best and so worth the ups and downs that come with planning an event like this,” Hempen said. “Our committee is just amazing, and I can’t thank them all enough for working so hard to make this event happen. And we’re so lucky to have a city that not only welcomes this day of joyful musical chaos, but fully participates in it. Thank you, Laguna Beach! You are the perfect partner.”

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(L-R) City Councilmember George Weiss, Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley, Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi and City Councilmember Mark Orgill with LBSC Founding President Karyn Philippsen kick off the event

So, the next time someone asks about Laguna’s secret sauce – after pointing out our unblemished canyons and pristine bluebelt – don’t forget to mention folks like Maggie, Karyn and Ken and their tireless teams – and all the dozens of teams like theirs across town – whose driving dedication is the engine on which our artistic community runs. It takes a village, as they say. And ours is particularly fortunate.

For more information on the LBSC or the Fête de la Musique, visit their website by clicking here. Mark your calendars for next year’s Fête scheduled for Saturday, June 21, 2025. For the first time in many years, the event will take place on the summer solstice.

For more photos by Jeff Rovner, go to the slideshow below:


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