Change is coming to Asheville’s historic Goombay! festival this year. The YMI Cultural Center has partnered with Powerhaus Productions (the team behind the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival and French Broad River Fest) to make the 31st year one to remember — and one to build upon for the future.
In addition to the food, music and arts that celebrate African-American culture in Asheville, there will be a few new elements, including an added performance stage and a dance competition. The weekend culminates on Sunday, Aug. 26 at the Orange Peel with the Goombay! Showcase, a night of music and performance featuring Arrested Development — yes, that Arrested Development. The Grammy-winning hit-makers of 90s staples “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendel” will be joined by renowned kalimba player Kevin Spears and the Urban Arts Institute's celebrated Eternity youth dance troupe.
This year’s festival is managed by Jen Gordon, the executive director of Arts 2 People and a manager of Powerhaus Productions (with partner Roshon Cray). Gordon takes the principle of umojah (a Swahili word that translates as “unity”) to heart. “It has been a little challenging to keep the lines of communication open between the African-American community and ourselves,” she says. “We just really want to make sure that the philosophy and integrity of the event maintains the highlight on African-American culture. Of course, myself and my partner are not African-American, so it’s been a little challenging to bridge that gap and make sure everyone knows, ‘Hey, we’re here to support what you do.’”
Gordon intends to revamp parts of the festival while maintaining the unique qualities that have made Goombay! a three-decade tradition. “For us, primarily the vision focuses around creating children’s programming, lots of interactive activities and really getting community involvement to be part of making the festival happen,” she says. “We want to raise the caliber of artistry that happens and get local folks involved with arts vending and music.” The festival's Umojah Enrichment Center will include workshops on storytelling, West African drumming and dance and information booths set up by local organizations.
The Friday night Block Party offers an informal opportunity for mingling and working together to get the Goombay! party started. Volunteers are welcome to join the festival crew to help set up the Block for the weekend — and of course there will be food and music. Simultaneously, Bruce Waller will host an all-ages dance competition at the nearby YMI.
Saturday brings the Goombay! opening parade, which doubles as the beginning of the weekend and one of its most exultant, brightest events. Starting at 11:10 a.m., the moving carnival carries drummers, dancers, acrobats, puppeteers and more from Asheland Avenue to Biltmore Avenue. The yearly parade is an overture for the festival's lush schedule.
Stephanie Swepson-Twitty, chief executive officer of Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation, also considers this year’s festival a breakthrough. She predicted that this would be “one of the more successful years” and added that the 2012 Goombay! is “one more positive aspect to developing and revitalizing the Block.” She echoed Gordon’s excitement about the new changes to the layout and schedule and believed that they will make the festival more successful financially.
The ideal of umojah spans the breadth of Gordon’s work at Goombay!, as well as her involvement with other community-building programs. With Arts 2 People, she works to make community-based, participatory art an integral part of the city, a goal that finds expression in Goombay!.
“Asheville is a place where festivals seem to be a real visible way for organizations to come together and collaborate as well as a way for us to celebrate and come together as a community,” she says. “The idea of a festival, and one of the reasons that LAAFF has been successful, is that it’s a way for us to help build the branding for a place and to talk about business and how do we best work together to create economic incentives for merchants, art vendors and artisans. It’s a way to focus on our local culture, what we consider to be truly Asheville’s.”
As our community grows and changes, it is natural that the ways we come together and celebrate should change as well. The Block neighborhood has been through heydays and declines, and this year’s Goombay! and the changes that come with it bring a much-needed dose of positivity for our community.
— Lindsey Pharr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.