Odunde, anyone? Philadelphia’s leading cultural festival returns — June 10, 2018

The Odunde Festival, now in its 43rd year, celebrates the Yoruba tradition with music, food, and artwork.

Women play the sekere, or shaker, a traditional instrument of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, as they make their way toward the South Street Bridge during a procession at the Odunde Festival. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

Women play the sekere, or shaker, a traditional instrument of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, as they make their way toward the South Street Bridge during a procession at the Odunde Festival. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

43rd Annual Odunde Festival
Sunday, June 10, noon to 8 p.m.
23rd and Lombard streets to Grays Ferry Avenue and Christian Street, 20th to 24th and South

If the blockbuster success of “Black Panther” has taught us anything, it’s that African-Americans still prize their ties to the Motherland. While the fictional country of Wakanda sadly exists only on screen, there is an American version of it right in the midst of Philadelphia.

The long-running Odunde Festival, the brainchild of community activist Lois Fernandez, is the longest-running and largest African festival in the United States. Now in its 43rd year, it continues to be a staple of the Philadelphia events calendar, drawing Afrocentrically-minded visitors from around the globe. Odunde, which means Happy New Year in the Yoruba tradition, is a way to celebrate another year for people of African origin, whether they still reside in Africa or not.

Held on the second Sunday in June (and, local lore has it, always on the year’s hottest day) — Odunde features live entertainment, tasty food and a multitude of vendors peddling African and African-American wares.

This year, TV personality/author Iyanla Vanzant and legendary rapper KRS-One are appearing at the Festival. Vanzant, who once lived in Philadelphia, is being honored with the Osun Award (South Stage, 4 p.m.). KRS will be performing his brand of high-octane classic rap at the stage at 23rd and South at 6 p.m.

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Odunde’s genesis was a trip Lois Fernandez made to Nigeria in 1972. Moved by what she experienced at the Osun Osogbo Festival there, Fernandez decided to create an African festival in her South Philly neighborhood. The first Odunde festival took place in 1975, initially covering just one block of South Street.

“My mother never thought in a million years that the festival would grow to this magnitude,” says Oshunbumi “Bumi” Fernandez West, CEO of the Odunde Festival. Fernandez West has been running the Festival for 21 years, taking over the reins for her ailing mother, who died last year at 81.

Odunde has flourished under Fernandez West, becoming an annual celebration of African and African-American culture. The wide array of vendors and the live entertainment offerings set it apart from other festivals nationwide. Its closest cousin may be Brooklyn’s smaller International African Arts Festival, which has taken place since 1971.

“It’s always packed,” says Aja Dantzler, one half of the Philadelphia duo Kindred The Family Soul, who has performed at Odunde. “It’s the most intimate, massive crowd ever. For us, it’s home court, so there is an extra element of community and familiarity that feels good.”

That community extends to its vendors, some of whom have been coming to the festival for years. Odunde is one of the best opportunities to purchase from a black-owned company, be it food, artwork, jewelry and clothing — traditional and otherwise. It is also a great source for African art and clothing proclaiming black pride or showcasing institutions such as historically black colleges, universities, fraternities and sororities.

Traditional African dress is encouraged, but not required. And if you are not African or African-American, but want to break out that dashiki, Ndebele or mudcloth clothing you bought on vacation, this is one place you won’t be judged as a cultural appropriator. As for a colonizer, well, we can’t be sure.

One key item of clothing you’ll need is comfortable footwear. The festival now extends over 15 city blocks. This year’s forecast calls for cooler weather than usual, but those blocks can seem long with the large crowds. If you’re with young children, newborns or toddlers, particularly in strollers, come early or late and avoid the stages where people tend to be densely packed during performances.

Odunde officially starts at noon at 23rd and South with a traditional walk to the river (in this case, the nearby Schuylkill) with offerings of flowers and food to pay homage to the ancestors, in keeping with the festival’s Yoruba origins. The festival’s official end is 8 p.m., but, as anyone can tell you, those who live near the festival often cook out on their front steps or backyards and keep it going further into the evening.

The Odunde organization also hosts events throughout the week leading up to the festival. And it runs ongoing educational programs in dance, culture and videography at local schools.

“We are always looking to expand,” says Fernandez-West. “We’d love to bring our program to your school, or your county, whether it be Bucks County, Montgomery County, Jersey or Delaware. Wherever you are, let us bring the program to you to educate the public — adults and children — about African and African-American culture.”

This article is part of a new effort recommending things to do in the Philly region. Tell us what you think.

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