When South Philadelphia residents Lois Fernandez and Ruth Arthur launched the Odunde festival 42 years ago, the celebration took place within one city block.
“I wanted to bring more African culture to Philadelphia,” said Fernandez, now 80. Her desire was a success. The festival now takes up more than 10 blocks of South Philadelphia and is attended by thousands every year.
Odunde is derived from the traditional Nigerian New Year celebration of the Yoruba people. This year’s celebration took place on a sweltering June Sunday, but the heat didn’t stop the dancing and celebrations.
To begin the day, members of the Ile Igone Church, of the Ifa religion, led the ceremonial procession to the Schuylkill River where they threw offerings of fruit, honey, rum, and even money into the water to welcome Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of the rivers. From on top of the bridge revelers dropped their offerings, dotting the river below with beautiful colors of fruit and flowers.
By the time the ceremony was completed and participants returned to the festival grounds, the 2017 Odunde Festival was in full swing. Bright colors and bold food lined the streets. Vendors peddling homemade art and body products mixed and mingled with other members of their community.
The festival was rounded out by two performance stages at opposite ends of the festival grounds. African and African-American music and dance was performed on the stages throughout the day.
A standout of the day was the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers. They have performed and wowed at every Odunde Festival since 1975, and this year was no different.
Founder and director Melvin Deal led his group of drummers through several songs. Deal began the group in 1959 because, as he puts it, there was “so much ugly and ignorance in the black community.” He thought that if he could introduce the community to their rich African heritage, “they would maybe act better and better themselves.”
At 75 years old, Deal still teaches dance at Duke Ellington School for the Arts. His ninth grade girls and boys performed classic African dances at this year’s Odunde Festival.