In the last month of summer, festivalgoers gather along Eagle and Market streets to dance to the rhythm of Gombey drums, savor Mr. Gene’s famous fried chicken and celebrate the diverse heritage and history of African-Americans in Asheville and Western North Carolina.
Goombay!, a three-day street festival in the area affectionately known as “The Block,” features eclectic Afro-Caribbean-themed events, live music, original art, children’s activities and much more. The annual Goombay! Festival is a gathering that promotes unity—asking visitors and residents to come together and celebrate as one.
Inspired by her experience at the Goombay! Festival in Florida, local activist Gloria Howard Free brought the concept to Asheville in 1982 and proposed that the festival be organized by YMI Cultural Center. The concept took off and has become an integral part of the YMI’s yearly program.
“It’s the YMI’s way of giving back to the community,” says Harry Harrison, the YMI Cultural Center’s executive director. “It’s like a family reunion for the African-American community: There are vendors, visitors and residents that come to Goombay! and don’t see each other again for another year. It’s a gathering of souls.”
Though Goombay! has been celebrated in Asheville for 27 years, its history reaches back to the 16th century. Originating in Bermuda and various Caribbean islands during the heart of the African slave trade, Goombay! offered a rare chance for the black community to celebrate their heritage.
“The Goombay! Festival was the one day (in the year) that slaves were allowed to have some liberty, go to town, to dress nice, to rejoice in their culture, their singing, music and their art and, most importantly, to celebrate their freedom,” Harrison says. “In spite of knowing that the next day they would be enslaved, they were able to forget their hardships and celebrate life.”
In light of this history, Asheville’s Goombay! is all the more meaningful considering that it is held in the city’s historic African-American neighborhood, a neighborhood transformed by urban development only 30 years ago.
“Though the Goombay! festival has gone on for decades, it is synonymous with what we’re trying to do here,” Harrison says. “(The festival) brings recognition to the community spirit that was so prevalent in this area before urban renewal. We want to make sure the African-Americans factor into the progression that’s happening, that they’re not excluded from the conversation or from the improvements. So, Goombay! was a big idea, and it has been a mainstay at the YMI for many, many years.”
In a city with great African-American history, a festival like Goombay! bridges the past with the present, working to prove that cultural and racial unity is a cause worth celebrating. Luckily, planning a party for the whole community to enjoy is something that the YMI Cultural Center does especially well.
Throughout the weekend, live music will fill the streets from two stages set up along The Block. Local and regional musicians will perform everything from blues to jazz, Christian rap, funk and R&B. Friday night’s main stage performance will feature Reggae Infinity, with reggae/dub artist Zema from Kingston, Jamaica.
The funk/jazz band Brick will headline Saturday night. “Brick was a part of the music phenomenon of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. They’re synchronized, harmonic and they represent a musical era. I am looking forward to their performance,” Harrison says. Saturday’s events will also include the Goombay! Fun Walk/5K Run and the annual Goombay! parade featuring the Carver High School marching band from Winston Salem.
Sunday’s musical lineup begins with gospel music by the Weston Brothers and Friends, B-Wise and The Brothers of Faith. In the evening, the mood switches to jazz with headliner The Stanley Baird Group.
This year’s Goombay! Festival also will feature a variety of traditional Caribbean, African and Southern food. Festival specialties include roasted goat meat, alligator, pulled pork and fried chicken with all the right fixins.
In addition to authentic ethnic food, vendors will line the streets showcasing an array of traditional and modern arts and crafts including wooden sculptures, colorful handcrafted jewelry, clothing and decorative fabrics. A children’s play area modeled after an African village will provide family-friendly activities for the young ones. And those interested in learning about the YMI Cultural Center’s yearly program will have a chance to talk with board members and staffers about volunteer opportunities available for all members of the community.
“We’ve certainly got all the ingredients for a fun and successful community gathering,” Harrison says. “It’s time to come together and celebrate.”
what: A celebration of American-American arts, music and culture on “The Block”
where: Eagle and Market streets
when: Aug. 22 – 24