Thousands of Philadelphians jammed Sunday’s joyful Odunde African American Festival on 10 sweltering blocks centered on 23rd and South Streets, enjoying the sensory overload of African food, dances, songs, crafts, antique masks and sculptures — all to the daylong beat of drums, drums, drums.
Two stages, one on South and the other on Grays Ferry Avenue, offered five hours of everything from traditional African dances by Kulu Mele, which has performed at the festival for the 42 years since it began in 1975, to hip hop. But Odunde’s street-festival vibe also included a wealth of happenings on the corners with only the gutter for a stage.
Odunde began as a tribute to the traditions of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, and over the years has evolved into an all-inclusive celebration of African American entertainment and culture.
Evan Josef Cohn from South Philadelphia sat on the curb under a maple tree on South near 20th Street and played his otherworldly sounding hang drum, which looks like a space ship in a 1950s sci-fi movie, explaining his no-frills style to curious onlookers, “No salt, no pepper, I just want to let the drum shine,” he said. “I was in Holland. I just jumped out of my shoes when I heard it. The guys who made it, I don’t know whether they were on a trip or meditation. It’s hypnotic.”
A half-block away, at the corner of 20th, three acrobatic street-dancing families from North Philly known collectively as the Crowd Pleasers turned on their boombox beats and delivered a rapid-fire series of spinning headstands, one-hand stands, splits, and contortions that made it look as if they were made of rubber, stopping passersby in their tracks and eliciting gasps from the crowd.
“That’s not easy, folks!” exclaimed a dancing dad who said his name was Nice. He was accompanied by his children, 8-year-old B-Girl Pumpkin and B-Boy J, 7. Aaron Blackston performed with his children Mekhi, 10; Messai, 9; and Nyeem, 6, while a third dancer called himself 360 and his son Kid 180.
The aromas of jerk chicken, goat and salmon on the grill dominated South Street’s hot, heavy air between 20th and 22nd Streets, leading to the stage on 23rd, where an emcee calling himself Six kept asking whether there were any old heads in the house.
“Remember black cheese?” Six asked, recalling when “you burned your … mac ‘n’ cheese” in the bottom of the oven, then “bore a hole in it” to access its cheesy goodness. “Remember when you washed those sneaker laces?” He asked whether anyone remembered layaway. No one did. “Am I the only one who had layaway?” Six pleaded. Channeling ’60s funk, he asked, “Who knows how to pop?” No one did.
Bern Nadette Stanis, who played Thelma on the ’70s TV hit Good Times, sat in a booth near the stage, posing for photos with a steady line of fans, charging a $25 charitable donation for research into Alzheimer’s disease, which claimed her mother, Eula Stanislaus, in 2011. “My mother and I were going to write our book, our story,” Stanis said. “The night she passed, I told her, ‘It’s not over yet.’ ” Stanis wrote the book The Last Night, and was selling it at Odunde, as well.
Denique Butler from West Philadelphia, who was raised in Tucson, Ariz., by her great-grandmother Clara L. Taylor, contributed to Stanis’ charity in Taylor’s memory. The two women who had lost the loved one who raised them to Alzheimer’s exchanged warm, understanding smiles.
At 23rd and Bainbridge Street, Daryl Brooks from West Philly, who was covered in gold, from his golden hat, gold-painted face, and gold-capped teeth to his gold shirt, pants and sneakers, posed on his golden bike for photos and tips, and said, “I’m the Key West Gold Man.”
That was enough for festival-goers to make him the cellphone photo star of 23rd Street.
Back at the South Street stage, Mayor Kenney, wearing cargo shorts, sandals, and a reggae-star T-shirt that proclaimed, “Marley. Satisfy My Soul,” presented a Liberty Bell replica to Arikana Chihombori Quao, ambassador to the United States from the Organization of African Unity. “This actually works,” he told her. “This actually rings.” And it did.