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Elmer Smith: A new vision for Odunde

LOIS FERNANDEZ looks back at the early years of the Odunde festival like a driver glancing up at her rear-view mirror.


OIS FERNANDEZ looks back at the early years of the Odunde festival like a driver glancing up at her rear-view mirror.

The mirror view gives her a reference point. But her focus is through the windshield in the direction that this Philadelphia institution she created 33 years ago is headed.

Odunde is the largest African cultural festival in Philadelphia, and one of America's largest and longest-running celebrations of African culture. Since its inception as a one-day street festival, Odunde has drawn more than a million celebrants, including visitors from as far away as West Africa.

Odunde, which means happy new year in the Yoruban language of Nigeria, is rooted in the tenants of the Ifa religion. Ifa worships one God and 401 revered figures including Oshun, a goddess of the rivers.

The three-day festival culminates with an annual procession tomorrow from Odunde headquarters at 23rd and South streets across the South Street bridge where pilgrims in colorful costumes offer fruit and flowers in a ceremony to Oshun.

But, for the tens of thousands of people who celebrate it each year, Odunde is mostly about music and dance, entertainment on two festival stages on and near 23rd and South. Hundreds of vendors hawk wares from all over the African diaspora.

This year's highlight is an appearance by KRS-One, a hip-hop superstar who will headline a lineup of nationally known and local entertainers appearing on the festival's stages today and tomorrow.

A number of events centered on an appreciation of African ancestry have come and gone. None has had the staying power or the drawing power of Odunde, thanks mainly to the tenacity of its founder.

"That first year, we got just $100 from a Neighborhood Advisory Council," Fernandez recalled. "We bought hot dogs using our pocket money and sold them ourselves. There were maybe a couple hundred people.

"We got a little stage, but people danced in the street. I heard children say they never saw an African dignitary before. That's what lifts me.

"Now, when the banners go up all over South Philly, it's like a rite of spring."

But Odunde is not just for a season. The festival and African marketplace herald a year-round list of events under the Odunde banner.

A program called "Thru African Doors" offers instruction in African and African-American culture and folk traditions featuring lectures and demonstrations by scholars and artists. Project Zero teaches African rites of passage to school groups; Cultural Caravan provides excursions to historic sites.

To continue this ambitious agenda will require a level of sponsorship that Fernandez, up to now, has been wary of.

"I'm getting older," she conceded. "We need some help. We haven't had any major sponsors. When we started, we felt we shouldn't count on anyone but ourselves.

"People suggested getting a title sponsor. We rejected that because our commitment is to stay connected to our community.

"We have had some money from the city. [State Rep.] Dwight Evans gave us some money to extend this to a weekend celebration.

"The city's Commerce Department is helping us sponsor our African business roundtable. We're doing our business roundtable [today] at City Hall [room 201]. We're getting $25,000 from the city.

"But we need a dedicated funding stream in the city budget, like the Mummers. Right now, we're trying to get by on vendor fees [about $350 each]."

Through the windshield, she can see a new direction that includes opening an Oshun Village with 16 units of senior-citizen housing around Odunde's four lots in the 2300 block of Grays Ferry. The $3 million project has been stymied by zoning issues.

"They've been holding us up for a couple of years now," Fernandez said. "We've had the funding in place, but it's something we have to go through."

It's not the first roadblock they've had to get around in 33 years. But you don't grow into one of the largest cultural celebrations in America without getting around some roadblocks. *

Send e-mail to smithel@ or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: