Stroll by 32nd and South any Wednesday evening this summer, and you might think you’re in Cuba — or Trinidad, or Brazil, or Cajun country. Anyone within earshot of Penn Museum’s Summer Nights concert series is musically transported across genres and around the world. The destination changes each week, brought to life by live bands like Zydeco-A-Go-Go, a perennial favorite.
Music from Eastern Europe to Africa to Brazil
“We’ve played for the last several years. I love the audience and the venue,” says Pete Eshelman, lead singer and accordionist for the band. “It’s such a diverse international community, and we have many repeaters [in the audience] — we look forward to seeing them now." Courtesy of its campus location, Summer Nights attracts a cross-section of ages, ethnicities, and lifestyles, from professionals and academics to students, young families, and older couples, all winding down with music and a bite to eat on a summer evening.
Audience diversity at Summer Nights is matched only by the series’ musical range. On June 28, the West Philadelphia Orchestra brings a program of Eastern European folk, followed on July 5 by 1920s jazz from the Red Hot Ramblers. Later this summer, pre-revolutionary Cuban, Middle Eastern, African, Brazilian, 1950s rock and roll, Latin jazz, reggae, and hip-hop music will be featured.
Zydeco-A-Go-Go appears July 12. “Our music is happy,” says Eshelman, who fell in love with zydeco on a trip to Louisiana in 1978 and came home determined to play it. He explains that zydeco draws together regional Creole and Cajun music with rhythm and blues to produce a citified version of the traditional sound. Zydeco uses electric guitar and bass instead of acoustic, and a drum kit and rub board for percussion instead of triangle and cymbals. Eshelman’s accordion differs, too — it’s a piano-key type rather than Cajun music’s button accordion.
“Whether people have heard zydeco before or not, they like it right away,” he says.
Sitting still is impossible, and dancing is likely to break out — a statement that applies across the Summer Nights schedule.
Picnics, tours, beer, and snacks
Performances are held in Stoner Courtyard, but move into Penn Museum in inclement weather. Eshelman recalls once playing in the Egyptian gallery, which led to couples dancing Cajun two-steps and waltzes around the base of the big sphinx.
Light fare, as well as alcoholic and other drinks, are available for purchase, and attendees are invited to bring picnics (alcohol cannot be brought in). Admission is $10 for the general public and free for museum members, PennCard holders, University of Penn and Children’s Hospital employees, and kids five and younger. Admission includes entry to the museum, and a brief tour is available at the set break.
Penn Museum’s Summer Nights Concert Series, running through June 21 through September 6, is coming to the Museum’s Stoner Courtyard, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia. For more info and the full lineup, call 215-898-4000 or visit online.
At right: Musicians at Penn Museum's Summer Nights always draw a crowd. (Photo courtesy of Penn Museum.)