Celebrating Africa – Afropolitan style, By Ladi Olorunyomi

Fest Africa - Afropolitans, the organisers2

You could easily miss Tolu Olumide in a crowd. She is short, somewhere between 4’9” and 5’3”. She is slim, somewhere between size 2 and size 6. She was thus lost in the blend of yellow ‘Event Staff’ tee-shirts when she – in her capacity as Director of Entertainment – stood with her team to declare Fest Africa 2014 closed.

“Thank you, thank you,” she belted into the microphone in a voice that carried more punch than her frame.

The time was about 8:20 pm on August 10, way past the agreed terminal point of the festival. The slowly-unwinding crowd milled around the stage in languid movements that suggest a reluctance to let go of the party spirit. Vendors were even less willing to call it a day. Of the thirteen or more clothing and accessory vendors near the performance area, all but one were still bargaining and selling. Food vendors were even busier as one-half of the festival crowd drifted to their stalls to get dinner.

Fest Africa - Cheick Hamala & Tolu Olumide
Fest Africa – Cheick Hamala & Tolu Olumide         Pix: Aramide Olorunyomi

The Fest Africa team seemed quite understanding and did not put any pressure on the people to leave. It had been a fourteen-hour party spread over two days, August 9 and 10, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Fest Africa 2014 is the twelfth celebration of the yearly African Cultural Festival, unarguably the most flamboyant display of African cultural heritage in the Washington DC metro area. It started off as Naija Fest, a nostalgic and affirmative celebration of the culture and lifestyle of millennial transplants from Nigeria.

The first outing did not merit the name festival by any measure. About thirty people crammed into the living room of its organisers, ate familiar Nigerian meals and danced to familiar Nigerian music for a few hours. It grew from that point, went from living room to a 500 seat hall and now, for the fourth year in a row, to the outdoor Veterans Plaza in Silver Spring. Along the way, it metamorphosed from Niger Fest to Fest Africa and, acquired an expanded organisational base known as Afropolitan youths.

Ms. Olumide and five other Diaspora West Africans remained a fixture on its organising committee. They guided the festival’s progress from 30 people to the 8,000-strong crowd at Veterans Plaza; from quickie Nigerian meals to 13 multi-ethnic vendors serving rice, kabobs and vegetables in as many flavours.

What has not changed is the nostalgia and the need for affirmative cultural expressions. These have been the driving force behind the celebration and, they became keener as global recession hit the US-based Afropolitan demography.

“Money is always a challenge,” said Olumide with a frown; a challenge that forces organisers to hunt for volunteers, donations and vendors all year round. Even then, they still end up passing the begging bowl around during the two-day festival. It is impossible to say how many times each of the six hosts at the 12th Fest Africa implored the crowd to drop something, “however little”, in the donation box placed at one of the vendor stalls.

The vendors have been Fest Africa’s lifesavers. Most of the revenue needed to foot expenses for the artistes, especially the star attractions who headline each day’s show, would simply be unavailable without the vendors. Donations are few and far between and you will wonder why that is so when you experience the electric pull of the music, fashion and pure jive talk the festival dishes out.

Veterans Plaza is located at the cross section of Ellsworth and Fenton streets, a prime section of the equally prime downtown Silver Spring. It is a trendy neighbourhood of upscale stores, eateries and movie houses whose year-round frenetic pace quadruples with the summer crowd. But unlike Ms. Olumide’s yellow tee-shirt moment, Fest Africa does not fade into the ready liveliness of downtown Silver Spring; it takes the neighbourhood vibe up several notches.

The festival usually kicks off at 1:00pm on each day and runs seven episodic acts featuring musicians, dancers, fashion designers or stand-up comics. When it is in progress, Fest Africa’s percussion-rich sound casts a spell on the neighbourhood giving it the intimacy of a living room.

That was certainly the case when Latunde Silver, a young Nigerian Juju act, took the stage on the second day of the 11th Fest Africa. The bubbling beat of the gangan drum and his up tempo vocals suffused the entire neighbourhood from a quarter mile south – around Wayne Street – to a quarter mile north – around Cameron Street – of Veterans Plaza. It drained energy from other activities in the area and pulled the entire summer crowd to the Plaza. People of all colors and all ages surged around the stage and spilled on to the temporary vendor stalls and the door front of the brick and mortar stores next to the Plaza.

Grammy nominated Cheick Hamala Diabate from Mali repeated that feat in the closing hours of the 12th Fest Africa. His performance was all the more remarkable because it was preceded by Serge Baynaud & Zota, the youthful and energetic singer and dancer from Cote d’Ivoire. The duo got on stage at about 6:00pm and boy, did Zota strut her stuff! That lady dances with every bone in her body but on this day, she also demonstrated the inclusiveness of African showmanship by inviting other ladies to the stage and yielded the spotlight to them. This got her more applause when she resumed dancing.

Dressed in the familiar flowing robe of West African men, the mature Cheick Hamala contrasted sharply with the Ivorien duo but he easily wrested the crowd’s attention from their act with an all percussion flourish as he stepped on stage. His ten-piece band flooded the neighbourhood with djembe, conga and balafon (African xylophone) beats which he spiced with string sounds manufactured on the ngoni – the native guitar of Sahelian Africa – and re-produced on the banjo.

From the Plaza to the streets, people danced with complete self-abandon to songs rendered in a Malian language they did not understand but found entertaining because of the drum beat.

This was a supreme display of the pretty face of Africa most Americans never get to see, a much prettier face than the aid, Ebola, corruption and God-knows-what topic that dominated the Obama administration U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit which took place the same week as Fest Africa 2014. Though the Summit ended only forty-eight hours before Fest Africa began and its venue was less than fifteen miles from Veterans Plaza, no one mentioned the meeting or its thematic obsessions at this festival.

Fest Africa is an example of Africa’s youth pushing the continent’s agenda in novel ways without help from the powers that be, inside and outside the continent. It is amazing that a celebration of contemporary African heritage and lifestyle, hosted in an area with oh-so-many business and political stakeholders who profess interest in Africa gets next to zero attention from those folks.

In 2013, Arik, the Nigerian airline that operates weekly flights to New York, was one of the vendors at the 11th Fest Africa, they were conspicuously absent this year. No Africa-focused corporate sponsor of a like calibre supported the festival this year, a crying shame if one may say so.

All pictures for this article were done by Aramide Olorunyomi

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