Party politics

Some trends take awhile to catch on.

“Goombay is spreading now, because diversity is cool and people are into culture,” comments YMI Cultural Center Executive Director Rita Martin.

Citing fledgling versions of Asheville’s annual African/Caribbean-flavored festival in other areas — “There are smaller Goombays in Tennessee, festivals that are maybe just a block, like when we started” — Martin nevertheless stresses, “This is the only festival of this type in North Carolina.”

Launched in 1982, Asheville’s Goombay! festival reflects a five-centuries-old tradition. “It’s happened every year [here],” says Martin, “despite hardships.”

When Goombay! was Gombey

Even after being brought to the West Indies as a slave, African chief John Canoe fought for his right to party: He insisted on being allowed to celebrate traditional holidays with his people. Some believe his Anglicized name spawned the term “junkanoo,” meaning paraders and revelers bedecked with African masks.

Junkanoo festivals found their way into the Bahamas at the beginning of the 16th century. “Gombey” referred to the skin-covered drums played at what had become the slaves’ once-a-year holiday (in Jamaica, the music and dancing were known as “Gumbay,” and in the Bahamas, “Goombay”).

In later times, the ongoing heritage festivals so inspired visitors of African and Caribbean descent that they brought Goombay to their hometowns.

“There are Goombay festivals in Chicago and New York — it’s everywhere. Miami has a huge festival that spans five streets,” says Martin.

Unfortunately, the mother festival in Nassau was discontinued more than a decade ago in favor of the smaller, more packageable “Junkanoo in June,” designed to attract off-season tourists.

The local celebration, though, seems headed in the opposite direction.

“People didn’t used to come here”

“The first one had only about 10 vendors, and it happened right outside the YMI Center,” Martin reports. “Bele Chere had been happening for a few years at that time, and the Friends of the YMI [an auxiliary group] thought it would be neat to try to have their own festival.”

Nearly 10 years before that, “a few of us from Asheville attended the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority meeting in Florida in 1974,” recalls festival co-founder Gloria Howard Free. “I was there with my daughter. One of the events offered to us was Goombay night. I was intrigued by the word.”

Sorority sister Jackie King adds: “I’d never heard of Goombay, so I paid my money and got on the bus, and they took us to an out island [off the coast of Florida], where some people from the Bahamas put on the festival. There was rice and curry, dance, crafts.”

King recalls the evening as slightly tacky and exceedingly mosquito-y — but Free was enchanted. “As soon as I got off the bus, I could hear and feel the steel drums,” she remembers. “My senses were so stimulated by the music and language. People were dancing and frolicking in the sand, and I joined in.”

Returning to Asheville, Free couldn’t stop talking about her experience. “When I came home, I was so full of Goombay, I wanted to see that in my hometown.”

But it would be eight more years before her dream could take form.

“After Gloria talked about it, maybe embellished it, I thought, ‘Maybe this is something we could do,'” King says with a laugh. “My cousin in Coconut Grove [in Miami] told me they have a big festival every year, so I got the information from her. Then we wrote to the Bahamas to learn more.”

Free, King and a host of volunteers introduced Goombay! to Asheville in 1982.

These days, Goombay! spans the entire Eagle-and Market-streets business area (known as “The Block”) and is barely contained by the neighborhood the YMI calls home.

“It’s always expanding,” Martin observes. “But we want to remain on Eagle and Market because that’s our neighborhood — that’s where the YMI has been for 110 years.”

George Vanderbilt commissioned the YMI Cultural Center, established in 1893 as the Young Men’s Institute. The building housed the city’s first black library and has long been a focal point for Asheville’s minority community.

Like most of Asheville, The Block went through a long period of decline in the ’60s and ’70s. The ’80s brought a renewed national interest in historic preservation, and a coalition of local churches bought the YMI building, restored it, and re-established the Cultural Center.

The rest of The Block is now experiencing what Martin describes as a renaissance, including major renovations and an influx of new businesses. “We’re using the arts to draw people [here],” she explains. “People didn’t used to come here, but now this is the heart of the local black business community.”

Still growing … but in what direction?

Although the fete now attracts about 40,000 visitors annually, Free recalls the struggle of the early years. “I honor the original group of people who saw the vision of Goombay!” she says. In fact, she’s not surprised to learn that the Nassau festival is now defunct.

“Often the people who help perpetuate the ideas are volunteers,” she explains. “It saddens me to know it’s no longer happening, because it had such great potential.”

And despite the YMI’s expanded roster of activities over the past 21 years — including December’s increasingly popular Kwanzaa festival — the local Goombay, Free maintains, is “the most important event the YMI holds.”

But like the streets that support it, Goombay! is a changeable entity. And Martin and her staff — Goombay! Co-coordinator Connie Jefferson and Arts and Education Coordinator Margaret Fuller — have implemented new features this year that seem designed to boost the festival’s competitive edge.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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