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  Philadelphia's Odunde Festival is one of the oldest African American street festivals

 in the country. (Odunde is a Yoruba word that means "Happy New Year" in

the Yoruba language of Nigeria. ) The first festival was held in 1975



Odunde Celebrates 27th Year

One of America's Largest Street Festivals

By Junious Ricardo Stanton


For the past twenty-seven years each year on the second Sunday in June, literally hundreds of thousands of people mostly of African descent ,come to Philly for the Odunde Festival celebration. 

Hundreds of devotees of Ifa, Santeria, Candomble, Lukumi, Voodan or other traditional African cultural/religious systems converge on South Street, Grays Ferry Avenue, and the neighboring streets to jam, enjoy and revel in the joy of being with black folks. 

Philadelphia's Odunde Festival is one of the oldest African American street festivals in the country. (Odunde is a Yoruba word that means "Happy New Year" in the Yoruba language of Nigeria. ) The first festival was held in 1975 and it was spearheaded by a strong willed Sistah named Lois Fernandez, a devotee of the Yoruba cultural tradition.

She had visited Africa and witnessed the festivals celebrating the various Orishas in several towns and villages that she visited while in Nigeria and Yoruba land. She was most impressed by the festival of Oshun and being a devotee of Ifa she decided to replicate the celebration in her home town of Philadelphia. 




A South Philadelphia resident, Fernandez went about planning for the festival but had to overcome the doubters, nay-sayers and bureaucratic red tape to make the festival happen. She was implacable and resolute in her determination to actualize the festival. 

Since the festival was in celebration of the feminine spirit of Oshun (the energy of the river), Fernandez held the first festival close to the Schulkyll River just across the South Street Bridge.

The Odunde Festival  features a lively procession of drummers and chanters from 23rd and Grays Ferry Avenue near South Street to the river and back. Over time the festival has grown to the point it attracts an estimated two hundred thousand people.

 The festival flourishes despite the gentrification of  what was an black community southeast of the South Street bridge.This 27th year was no different.

In a matter of minutes as my wife and I strolled down Grays Ferry Avenue to South Street and then down South Street greeting friends and looking at the vendors, the streets went from being crowded to jammed packed.

At one point we had to make a detour off South Street and cut through a side street just to get back to Grays Ferry Avenue. The streets were literally jammed with people.

Odunde is a truly grass roots effort. With a few exceptions over the years there are no major corporate sponsors to pay the bills. Fernandez' initial success with the festival and its growth has created additional problems other than financial. 

As the crowds swelled so have complaints by white settlers who are buying the properties in the surrounding neighborhood that has become increasingly gentrified. In 1984 whites signed a petition and went to City Hall to halt the festival. 

Ed Rendell who was the mayor at the time asked Fernandez to take the festival to Penn's Landing on the Delaware River. The mayor even offered to subsidize the festival if she would move it from the residential area to Penn's Landing. Fernandez refused, stood her ground and the black community rallied in support of both her and Odunde.

The neighbors still complain. The City of Philadelphia spends extra money on police overtime for traffic and crowd control, even though the crowds are always mannerly and well behaved.

But the City also realizes millions of dollars in revenues from vendors fees and the ripple effect of hundreds of thousands of people spending money on food, candies, soft drinks, artifacts, books, gifts, toys and personal products, not to mention transportation, restaurant and hotel fees from out-of-towners who come religiously every year.

If you've never experienced the Odunde Festival, it's like a one-day Caribbean Island Carnival or a New Orleans Mardi Gras, only a bit more serious and spiritual. There is the traditional procession to the river to offer fruit, flowers, honey, and coins to Oshun and ask her blessings and the revelry of the procession/return from the river.

There are sound stages strategically located on South Street and Grays Ferry Avenue for entertainment. Vendors line the side walks offering a myriad of wares and products.

Many participants are decked out in a great variety of colorful African garb, though not a requirement.The devotees of Ifa, Santeria, and Voodun usually wear white, but there is a virtual spectrum of colors and shades both in textile and skin tone. The smell of a smorgasbord of foods fills the air along with the sounds of all types of music. 

Odunde signals the beginning of the Summer festival season in Philadelphia. It is a giant family reunion, a chance to see and greet old friends especially if you were/are part of the black is beautiful, black power/black consciousness movement. To see an African-based festival grow like this over the years has been truly phenomenal especially considering all the obstacles Mrs. Fernandez and her family have had to overcome. 

All kinds of folks converge on that triangle of streets to just enjoy being in the mix. The popular radio stations are on the set doing remote broadcasts which helps to hype the crowd as well as attract the less racially conscious who come because

Odunde is a happening, a place to see and be seen. Being at Odunde is like a mystical baptism. The festival there immerses you in a vibratory sea of blackness. You get dipped into a positive spirit of being African and come up revived, energized, and feeling good.

Because of this African-derived spirituality of generosity and of giving offerings of thanks and gratitude and because of its infectiousness and influence, Odunde has survived and flourished for twenty-seven years, despite the forces arrayed against it and its founder. What would happen if Africans all over the world decided to replicate the spirit of Philly's Odunde Festival?

June 2003

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