In 1975, a $100 grant kickstatred what would become one of the largest and most longstanding African-American street festivals in the nation. Held the second Sunday of June for the past 37 years, the Odunde Festival attracts more than 500,000 people annually and is one of the largest community-based street festivals in the country. The event begins with a procession to the Schuylkill River, where prayers, flowers and fruit are offered to the goddess Osun. Afterwards, the festivities continue at one of the city’s largest street fairs featuring vendors offering their wares from around the globe, live music and dance performances, and palate-pleasing foods inspired by African and African-American cultures.
Odunde is the creation of its 77-year-old South Philadelphia founder, Lois Fernandez, who launched the festival after visiting the Eli Efi festival in Nigeria. The concept originates from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, West Africa, and celebrates the coming of another year for African Americans and Africanized people around the world.
“We have truly been blessed. We have stood the test of time,” remarked Fernandez. What started out as a small street festival in ’70s has blossomed over four decades into one of the biggest East Coast seasonal events drawing over 500,000 people to the region and generating $4 million for the city.
“Odunde attracts up to a half million people for the festival,” explained Fernandez’s daughter, Oshunbumi Fernandez, chief executive officer of Odunde. “We cover over 12 city blocks and feature two stages of live entertainment along with 200 arts and crafts and food vendors who come and participate. So, Odunde is full of love — and culture — for everyone.”
Traditionally, the festival draws 22 percent of its visitors from outside the Philadelphia region. Every year, Odunde draws vendors from not only America but from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Guinea. Sunday’s traditional Odunde street festival will also include an African marketplace with hundreds of craft and food vendors selling African art, artifacts, keepsakes, clothing, jewelry and two stages of live entertainment. During the rest of the year, ODUNDE, Inc. is an educational and cultural organization that sponsors year-round programs featuring the African Diaspora, as well as the annual Odunde Festival.
The 37th Annual Odunde celebration kicks off June 1 with a reception at the Arts Garage, 1533 Ridge Ave., followed by 10 days of workshops and community events, including African Family Day at the Please Touch Museum on June 2, a Happy Hour art exhibit at Vivant Art Collection on June 4 and a Guiness World Zumba class on June 9. The week of events culminates with the Odunde Festival on Sunday, June 10 at 23rd and South streets from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information about Odunde. call (215) 732-8510 or visit http://www.odundeinc.org.
The first African Dance and Drum classes at the Universal Institute Charter School concluded with a recital this week at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in Marian Anderson Village. Over three dozen elementary grade children performed several intricate drum and dance routines they learned this fall to the delight of a capacity audience of over 150 parents, guardians and community supporter, including Odunde founder Lois Fernandez. Odunde is a national leader in providing opportunities for diverse audiences to meet, engage, cultivate and learn about the diverse African American and African heritage, communities, leadership and arts.
“All of these children have never been exposed to this type of programing or African culture with African dancing and drumming,” explained Odunde CEO Oshunbumi “Bumi” Fernandez. “All the little boys you saw drumming and the girls dancing, that was their first time. What we want to do is teach the children where it comes from — where they come from — and not to be embarrassed by where you come from and that you are from kings and queens. All the dances that they do now all came from Africa, and is a derivative of African dance. We’re looking to teach these children that.”
The mid-week performance was the result of Odunde 365, a new initiative whose ultimate goal is to provide cultural and athletic programming year round to the tri-state area. “It is just a wonderful experience!,” noted Fernandez. “Our mission is to preserve and celebrate African and African-American culture. This initiative will allow us to provide cultural programming such as African dance and drumming classes, African art classes, youth leadership lectures, computer literacy classes and other programs in schools, universities and community centers. When I created Odunde 365, I wanted to have this programs 365 days, or all year round, but I realized due to limited funding we had to take small steps. My ultimate goal is to get Odunde 365 in all the schools and all the community centers.”
The next series of Odunde 365 African Dance and Drum Saturday sessions begins on Jan. 28 at 10 a.m. at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 744 S. 17th Street (between Catharine and Fitzwater streets). For more information, call (215) 732-8510 or visit odundefestival.org.
I’ve long been a fan of Lois Fernandez, the lady who co-founded the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia in 1975. As great a visionary as Lois has always been, however, I’m sure even she couldn’t have imagined 38 years ago when she was planning the very first festival in her beloved family neighborhood at 23rd and South streets, that the stars would re-align and that global economic realities would shift, so that she, her daughter Bumi and the Festival itself would become critical players in the overall Greater Philadelphia economy.
But, hey, that’s exactly what has occurred.
Even though I was born and raised in North Philadelphia and usually just “passed through” South Philadelphia, quickly, on my way to other destinations, I did follow Odunde, almost from its inception.
When I say “follow,” I don’t mean in the “Twitter kind of way,” where you simply sign up on a terminal or a mobile device and “follow” people from the comfort of your own home. No, if you wanted to “follow” Odunde, back when Lois conceived it, you had to actually get on a bus, or the subway, or drive your car to South Philadelphia, and be in it.
You had to actually hear the music from Western Africa and from throughout the continent as it was being played. You had to dance to it. You had to taste the food, haggle with the vendors and actually wear the garb from Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere. You had to actually go to the banks of the Schuylkill River with Lois and the rest of the community for the annual tribute to Oshun.
You had to arrive early and stay late, because you knew you would run into all kinds of folks that you hadn’t seen for awhile — people who had been “too busy,” or out of town, during the rest of the year. You just knew they'd be back for ODUNDE.
At Odunde, you knew you’d get to see and meet with real African and Yoruba leaders, that you’d be entertained by artists such as Hugh Masakela — for free — Sweet Honey and the Rock — for free — and scores of others. Did I mention that all the entertainment was free?
In its early years, Lois’ vision was, in my opinion, marginalized by the City’s leadership. Perhaps that happened because back in 1975 being really concerned about African culture, and indeed, about Africa people, was definitely not a mainstream phenomenon.
At the time, Odunde was very much perceived as “just a street festival,” attended, in the main, by Black people, and of virtually no interest to the people in the rest of the Philadelphia community.
In fact, as the Festival grew each year, Lois and the other organizers began to receive signals from "new" people, who had begun to gentrify parts of her beloved South Philadelphia. They were saying, for all the world to hear, that perhaps Odunde should no longer be held on South Street. They even went so far as saying that a predominantly black and African event should no longer be “tolerated” in a community that had recently seen an influx of middle- and upper- middle class whites.
Clearly, that was not Philadelphia’s best hour.
I remember, as clear as day, reading a response made by Lois to an Inquirer reporter who had asked whether it really was time for Odunde to move from its original home on South Street. I’ll never forget Lois’ answer. It was direct, profound and, I dare say, poetic. Here’s what she said: “I’ll move Odunde off of South Street when the people in New Orleans move the Mardi Gras off of Bourbon Street.”
That’s when I called Ms. Fernandez and asked how I could be of service.
I found that there were already some long-committed community members working tirelessly, on Odunde’s behalf. They included Stanley Straughter, Mayor’s Office for African and Community Affairs; Barbara Daniel-Cox, local public relations and promotional legend, and Kenny Gamble, and Rahim Islam, both of the Universal Companies, among many others. As we moved in more closely to support Odunde, elected officials such as Dwight Evans, Anthony Hardy Williams, Vincent Hughes, John Street, Anna Verna and Kenyatta Johnson were also champions of the Festival.
We begged for corporate and government support, and negotiated with, when possible, and fought with, when necessary, the new South Philadelphia opposition, helping to build a healthy, productive respect for the African culture in Philadelphia.
But, you know, there must really be a God, because, while all of this was going on, the global economy began to shift. Countries that used to consider themselves economically independent, such as the Western powers, now, no longer were.
At the same time, other countries, that previously had been seen as global economic “paupers,” as “third world” and “developing," now were seen, clearly, as the world’s emerging, economic giants.
In keeping with all of that, over the past several years, Odunde’s leaders have also begun to recognize that their annual celebration of African culture need not necessarily be confined to specific places on the African continent. Indeed, they have increasingly realized that the African Diaspora has produced African-based cultures on virtually every continent, all of which deserve to be celebrated.
Through the mass dispersion of African people, largely as a result of the slave trade, in early years, and through the ever-increasing mobility of self-determined Black people around the world in the 21st century the celebration of African-ness can be virtually held any place on earth.
Hence, about 18 months ago, Odunde’s organizers began to meet with the Convention Bureau, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, Select Greater Philadelphia, the Mayor's Office and others with strong economic development interests, to discuss ways to leverage Odunde’s nearly 40 years of global relationships, to create mutually beneficial economic benefits for Philadelphia and other countries, around the world.
Brazil was a natural, early choice.
The nation is the world’s fifth-largest country by both population and geography, and the home of one of the globe's fastest-growing economies. The country has export relationships with approximately 400 U.S. firms, including several located in the Philadelphia area. Brazil has a population of approximately 190 million inhabitants, and has the largest number of people who are of African descent outside Africa, and is second only to Nigeria in the world. According to that country’s 2010 census, persons of African descent now represent the majority of the population, for the first time in Brazil’s history, constituting 50.7 percent of the total population.
And, here’s the Odunde connection: Of this population, an estimated 500,000 people practice a form of the Yoruba religion, which originated in Western Africa.
Consequently, over the past 10 days or so, largely through the good offices of Stan Straughter, two major Brazilan dignitaries — His Excellency Mauro Vieira, Ambassador to the United States from Brazil, and Ney Campello, Secretary of the Bahia Government, Department of Special Affairs for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, have visited Philadelphia, at Odunde’s specific invitation. They have met, among other places, at the Wharton School of Business, and at Drexel University's LeBow College of Business, to discuss, with a diverse group of economic, business and political leaders, opportunities to further enhance the City's economic relationships with their country. Taking a special interest in these visits, of course, were the Philadelphia Sports Congress and Nick Sakiewicz, president of the Philadelphia Union Soccer Team.
Who would have thought?
Clearly, it is an entirely new day for the ODUNDE Festival, under the leadership of its dynamic, new president, Bumi Fernandez, and a new day of direct economic engagement between the city of Philadelphia and places such as Brazil, thanks to organizations such as ODUNDE.
Keep an eye on all of this. It's a great and timely story.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.
When Oshunbumi Fernandez called me a couple of weeks ago, and asked me to listen to another of her new, “whiz-bang” ideas, I already knew I was in trouble.
As I’ve made clear in this space before, there are very few people in Philadelphia whom I respect more that Lois Fernandez, the founder of the Odunde Festival, and her daughter, whom the whole city knows, simply, as Bumi.
Lois, of course, is the family visionary, the person who, 38 years ago, co-founded the West African-themed festival that annually attracts hundreds of African vendors and musicians and nearly half a million of the rest of us to 23rd & South Streets, and to the banks of the Schuylkill River, where the highly successful event has always been held.
But, if Lois is the family visionary, then Bumi is the 21st Century, Millennial, idea-generator of the Fernandez family. In recent years, she has received the chief executive's baton from her mom, and has never stopped running with it.
You’d think that would be enough. Not for Bumi. It’s a rare week, or month, that she’s not calling, texting, emailing or tweeting her newest/latest concept to grow the Odunde brand, and to help support the people in her city-wide community.
As I said, a few weeks ago, I took the call, not really sure just what Bumi had up her highly creative sleeves, this time.
But, all of a sudden, there it was.
In her normal, 200-words-per-minute delivery, Bumi was explaining to me a concept that she said was just what Philadelphia’s Black community has long needed. As if that already wasn’t enough to hook me, she then went on to explain that this was a program idea that she planned to implement every other month, here, locally, and then roll out onto a national stage, in other cities.
What it was, was a brilliant concept called “My Story,” which would essentially consist of two or three African Americans of proven achievement, who would be asked to share with young people, college students, entrepreneurs, and others, just what it took to move them from point A, to the success they eventually achieved.
As Bumi explained it, young Black people are finding it increasingly difficult to gain the attention of potential role models. There can never be enough mentors, it seems, for those who need them. This program would be established to offer young, and other interested people in our community, open and direct access to information about successful people in our community, that’s not generally available.
The format would be designed to encourage, to motivate, to have people understand that virtually everyone who is black and currently successful, has faced challenges that required unique creativity, a special diligence and strong networking skills.
I told Bumi I thought the concept was both sound and timely.
I had no idea.
She asked me to think through the format for the first “My Story” with her, and to assist her with her own, prodigious promotional skills.
We wound up with having the first “My Story” program on extremely short notice, by my standards, on Jan. 23. If you know anything at all about Bumi Fernandez, you’re aware that she always opts to err on the side of doing it now, rather than later – whatever it is. So it was with the first “My Story.”
The first three panelists, it was decided, would be Ahmeenah Young, CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Rahim Islam, president of the Universal Companies, and me.
Bumi, herself, served as moderator.
The event was held at the African-American Museum of Philadelphia and an audience of about 70 people was in attendance.
The panelists were seated in luxurious, bright red, overstuffed chairs at the center of the stage, in an intimate, “Charlie Rose” kind of way.
Now, I’ve known both Ahmeenah and Rahim for more years than I care to mention, now, and thought I knew them both. This new format revealed that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
"My Story" brilliantly allowed/caused the three of us to share with the audience information about our respective backgrounds, about our early plans and aspirations, that have, honestly, never been shared before, in a public forum.
From Ahmeenah, we learned that, to a significant degree, her professional motivation included having a grandmother who was a Black Quaker and a grandfather who was an always-impeccably dressed and dignified banker in her community – a “numbers banker,” she eventually discovered. He, nevertheless, served as a model for professional excellence and for never believing, even for a second, that there would ever be any challenge or any responsibility that young Ahmeenah could not handle.
We further learned that a part of her unique and obviously effective preparation for a ground-breaking career in the hospitality industry was her early family home experiences, in South Philadelphia. It was during a period when some of the nation’s most prolific and legendary jazz artists would come to perform at two nationally recognized jazz venues in the community, “Peps” and “Showboat.”
As was the case for most great Black artists who performed in Philadelphia, at that time, they were welcomed to perform at the city’s jazz clubs – they just weren’t invited to book rooms in any of the city’s prestigious hotels.
That being the case, some of the biggest names in jazz wound up staying with Ahmeenah's family, and other black families who lived right off of South Street, during their performances in the city.
Who knew? No wonder, as Ahmeenah informed us, she now takes piano lessons to ease the stress of running one of the country’s largest convention centers. No wonder the music seems to come to her so naturally.
From Rahim, we learned that he had had a career in Corporate America before moving to co-found Universal, with Kenny Gamble. Like so many other black professionals, after too many frustrating years, he had hit the “black ceiling” in that environment, and decided to branch out into a career that would have him use his considerable financial management skills in helping the African-American community.
It sounds like a nice, neat story, but who knew before his “My Story” presentation, that Rahim worked for the first three years, at Universal — for absolutely no salary.
One young, Black, female, recent-college-grad, during the question-and-answer period, expressed frustration with being the “only one on her job," and with having to work until 7 p.m., from time-to-time, to keep ahead of the competition.
It was then that Ahmeenah explained to the “next great female executive” in our city, that she, Ahmeenah, periodically has had to work straight through the entire night, at the Convention Center, leaving only to go home, take a shower, and return to finish the job.
That, like so many other points in the first, “My Story” seminar, was a true wake-up call for the questioner and for others in the room who came to hear the “secrets to success.”
What they learned, I imagine, is that the “secrets” include “remaining true to your own identity, and close to your friends and family; working hard,; relaxing just as diligently; never letting anyone tell you that you can’t get anything done; and that virtually none of those who have achieved in our community was born with a "silver spoon in their mouths," as they might have suspected.
Judging by the audience’s response, the first “My Story” was a smashing success.
Was that enough for an idea-a-minute Bumi?
As I went up to take my own seat on the stage, her question to me was: ‘Mr. Crawley, do you think that I can turn this program into a book?”
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc.