Bumi Fernandez hasn’t missed an Odunde in 42 years. Her mother, Lois Fernandez, created the African American cultural street fair in 1975. Bumi attended that first festival as an infant.
Today, she helms her mom’s creation, which has expanded from a single city block to 14 and from a few hundred people to a few hundred thousand. Odunde has become such a hallmark of summertime in Philly, it’s surprising Will Smith hasn’t rapped about it.
Still, for all its years, and for all its popularity, the event and all that surrounds it remain largely a one-woman operation. Year after year, Fernandez proudly (and glamorously) brings the international pageantry, two stages of talent, and more than 100 vendors, with mom on call for advice and consent. Bumi has also made sure her family’s legacy lasts much longer than one epic day per year.
She talked with us about how she does it – all of it.
You’ve taken over your mom’s job. How does that feel?
My mom passed the baton to me, and I run with it with a lot of honor. It really feels good to continue my mother’s legacy. When she created Odunde in 1975, I was strapped to my mother’s back. I now carry Odunde on my back.
People used to laugh at my mom. They’d say, “Go ahead with that African stuff, Lois, go ahead. No one’s going to let you have that festival on South Street.” Now we are the largest African American street festival in the country.
How did that happen? How did Odunde grow?
Odunde spread through word of mouth, through tradition. We don’t have a social media staff. I don’t have PR. We throw a class-A production on a shoestring budget.
Has the event changed much over the years?
Some of our performers have been with us since the beginning. Kulu Mele [African Dance & Drum Ensemble] has been with us since the beginning. African Heritage Dancers and Drummers have been coming up from D.C. since the beginning. They’ve known me since I was strapped to my mother’s back. Sometimes, I have to remind them I’m a full-grown woman.
Our vendors come from everywhere: California, North Carolina, Chicago, Florida, Ohio. A lot of them come from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Liberia. People drive from across the tristate area to get to the festival. They spend the night in hotels. They spend money. We are an economic driver.
You’ve also expanded beyond one day.
I got tired of people saying Odunde is just a festival. So, in 2011, I created Odunde365 to teach children African drumming and dance, African art, and African history through arts and crafts.
Last year, children from the Odunde365 program danced at the festival. This year, they are dancing at a Phillies game.
The week leading up to Odunde, we have African pottery class, a free yoga class, a mobile kitchen, and an African business roundtable. It’s all on our website.
Still, the day itself is the big draw. Describe how it starts out.
The festival does not kick off until we go to the river. We go to the river at noon. We pay homage. We ask for the blessing of Oshun, the [Yoruba] goddess of love and fertility.
I’ve had people tell me, ‘When I went to the river, I got a job.’ ‘When I asked for a blessing, I got pregnant.’
Any tips for surviving the crowds?
If you don’t like crowds, come early. If you love the crowds – the ambiance, the music, the drumming – come late.
Odunde, 23rd & South Streets, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, odundefestival.org.