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This is Africa

Lowell African Festival celebrates food, music and culture

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
This is Africa
Percussion instruments and basket work on display at the Lowell African Festival. photo: celina colby

The African Cultural Council has hosted the Lowell African Festival every year since 2000. On Saturday, June 16, the tradition continued on the banks of the Merrimack River. Crowds of festivalgoers from Lowell’s African communities gathered to eat, drink and dance to the sounds of headlining band Mamadou Diop.

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Children and young adults enjoy music and good weather. photo: celina colby

Children and young adults enjoy music and good weather. photo: celina colby

Benjamin Opara, vice president of the African Cultural Association board says, “Every year we seem to be growing in leaps and bounds. The food alone seems to bring a lot of people to the festival.” Food is a key element in cultural connection and the African Festival offered a rich variety. Vendors touted tender goat ribs, savory rice and African donuts, dishing out second and third portions to eager attendees.

Opara recalls a time when a couple visiting from Africa attended the festival and immediately felt at home. That is part of the festival’s goal — to create a space for those of African descent in Lowell, and to educate the rest of the population on African tradition.

The stage, with its back to the water, featured the musical stylings of Afro Gems, a funk band from West Africa; Lax Lubega, a Ugandan artist now living in the U.S.; and a dance performance by Georgette Adije and her troupe, originally from Cameroon and now living in Brattleboro, Vermont. Lowell Mayor Bill Samaras made a welcome speech and lit the festival torch. Chief Randolph Brashears, director of public safety at UMASS Lowell gave a keynote speech.

Opara says it was an intentional choice to have Mamadou Diop, a Senegalese band, headline the festival. The Council wanted to highlight West African music, which has not been featured in the festival’s main entertainment as often as East African music. The music is another important component in bringing the community together. Opara says, “The way the younger kids of different cultures tend to cluster around the stage to enjoy the music is very touching.”

Booths arranged in a semi-circle around the stage offered clothing in vibrant African textiles, as well as baskets, sculptures and jewelry. Informational booths represented organizations such as Africans for Improved Access, a division of the Multicultural Aids Coalition fighting for more accessible healthcare for people of African descent.

Though the festival itself is just one day a year, Opara hopes the education it brings to the Lowell area makes a profound impact. “We’re making an effort to bring African culture to the community,” says Opara. “To show that we can be benefactors, and not just beneficiaries.”