Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Umoja Festival: Event growing into new downtown venue


NET News Service

JOHNSON CITY — The Umoja Festival may be 15 years old, but it was held at Freedom Hall Civic Center through 2009, so the festival is only two years into its life as a downtown Johnson City festival. And it continues to grow into its new surroundings.

Umoja Festival organizers came away from last weekend’s event happy with things, said Ralph Davis, Umoja Committee chairman. The festivities brought in thousands of people for live music, food, arts and crafts, a 5K run, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, storytelling, kids’ events and more.

The festival promotes unity and cultural diversity; the word “umoja” is Swahili for “unity.” While the Umoja organization largely comes from the black community, the festival prides itself on making everyone feel welcome and on offering something to interest everybody.

“We were pleased,” Davis said. “We thought the festival on a whole was very good. We didn’t have any major incidents that we heard about, the weather held off and was beautiful, and the firstever road race was a great success. We were really happy with that for our first time out.

“We feel like moving to downtown was the move we needed to make, but we’re still in that learning curve. It may take two or three more years to get everything the way it needs to be, but overall I think this year was great, and we had great response from the people about it.”

As for overall festival attendance, organizers had estimated 30,000 as last year’s figure, but it’s largely a guessing game and Davis said they’re waiting for some more data for this time around.

“We were pleased with the crowds Friday and Saturday nights,” he said. “The Saturday daytime crowd wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but the night crowds brought it back up.

“We’ve got some surveys out to help us do some counting, so we may know a little more when we see those. But it’s hard to gauge attendance if you don’t have ticket sales to go on.”

The festival headliners — Shirley Murdock and Zapp Band on Friday night and Chocolate Buttermilk and Con Funk Shun on Saturday night — drew rave reviews.

Music included national acts as well as local ones, plus a stage geared toward a younger audience. Davis said the Young Adult Stage was a success, and they plan to bring that back next year, “with a little tweaking.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Vendors, musicians offer good time at Umoja Festival


NET News Service

JOHNSON CITY — When people show up for the Umoja Festival, they expect sights, sounds and a good time. Vendors like Nema Saho and musicians like the 4.0 Band supply those key festival qualities to give everyone just what they’re asking for when they step onto the streets of downtown Johnson City.

Saturday’s festivities provided a welcome home party of sorts for Cybil Holman and her family. Originally from Johnson City, Holman’s visit from Murfreesboro coincided with Umoja for the second time.

“I still feel like it’s home,” she said. “I think the Umoja Festival brings a lot of people here and there is something here for the entire family.”

Music is just one part of the family-friendly atmosphere. The 4.0 Band made its public debut at Umoja cranking out an array of funk tunes inspired by bands of the past. Avery Deakins, the group’s youngest member at 15 years old, is broadening his horizons by performing a type of music he’s always liked, but hadn’t played much of on his electric guitar. Deakins said the band practiced for months to give people an entertaining set of groove records.

“We worked our fingers to the bone during long, long, practices,” he said. “I’m more nervous about equipment malfunctioning than us. We’ve got it down pat. Unless something explodes, I think we’ll be fine.”

The 4.0 Band blasted out renditions of “Brick House,” “Mustang Sally,” plus Kool & The Gang’s “Fresh.”

Umoja attendees looking to wander around rather than watch entertainers from a lawn chair in front of the stage may have searched through the piles of African fabrics under Saho’s tent at the corner of North Roan and East Main streets. The Gambia, West Africa native travels to different parts of the country to gather authentic crafts like masks, handbags, clothing and beads. He says traveling to diverse festivals like Umoja enable him to present his wares to a new set of customers who are mixed in age and ethnicity.

Holman, like other festivalgoers, combined the two elements of performers and vendors, and spent the day in a watch-and-shop routine. She had already purchased a pair of earrings and said she wouldn’t leave without buying a few CD’s. Holman’s family also watched the parade Saturday morning.

“Festivals bring you different experiences because you meet a lot of people good and bad, but mostly good,” Saho said. “Umoja is interesting because you have such a variety. I get a chance to teach people about each other because while you are traveling, you’re still learning.”

Friday, August 12, 2011

Umoja ‘a festival for everyone’


NET News Service

JOHNSON CITY — It’s unity in the community. That’s what the 15th annual Umoja Festival hopes to bring to downtown Johnson City.

The festival starts today at 3 p.m. with an opening ceremony and call to the drums, featuring Shaka Zulu and the Zulu Connection, on the Main Stage at Fountain Square. Then it’s music all night plus a host of other festivities throughout downtown today and Saturday.

Umoja promotes unity and cultural diversity. It originates from Johnson City’s black community but, as Umoja Chairman Ralph Davis emphasizes, “It’s a festival for everyone.”

Admission is free. There will be music on the Youth Stage at Roan Street and on the Main Stage. People can see both local and national talent, with headliners Shirley Murdock and Zapp Band tonight, then Chocolate Buttermilk and Con Funk Shun on Saturday night.

The weather report calls for a high of 85 degrees today, mostly sunny, with not much chance of rain during a pleasant evening. For Saturday, there’s a 40 percent chance of late-evening thundershowers, so people should come prepared.

Wristbands to bring beer on the streets (in a plastic cup) cost $3 per night and can be purchased at all downtown clubs. People are required to keep their beer within festival boundaries, which are clearly marked. Friends of Olde Downtowne is in charge of wristbands.

Festivalgoers are reminded not to bring backpacks or glass bottles, and pets are not allowed.

The festival will be highlighted by the Kings of the Blacktop 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament in the parking lot on Spring and Tipton streets. It will be going on each evening, with a cash prize to the winner. East Tennessee State University great Tim Smith is giving a pre-tournament free clinic for ages 16 and under at 5:30 p.m. at the tournament site.

The Umoja Unity Race 5K is tonight starting at 7:30 near the Main Stage, and runners will go up into the Historic Tree Streets before returning to the start/finish.

“We’ve had a tremendous response for the 5K and Kings of the Blacktop,” Davis said. “We hope those events turn out great.”

The Umoja Parade will take place Saturday starting at 10 a.m. at Carver Park and will finish at Fountain Square. U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st District, will lead the parade in a limousine provided by The Charles. The parade is a tradition of the festival and always highlights the African dancing and drumming of Shaka Zulu and the Zulu Connection, stilt walking, dancing and drumming along Main Street.

The Children’s Carnival takes place Saturday from 4 to 9 p.m. at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church. There will also be graffiti art on display and a graffiti artist who will give a demonstration.

As always, Umoja will offer a health fair Saturday starting about 10 a.m. with free medical screenings.

A hot wing-eating contest will take place Saturday about 5 p.m. in front of the Youth Stage. Elmer Washington, a festival organizer and co-owner of Taste Budz, will provide the wings, and he’ll be adding some extra kick to how he usually serves them.

Entry for the contest is free, and people will be given a short amount of time, and a bottle of water, to see how many wings they can eat. The winner gets a cash prize.

For more information visit www.umojajc.org or find Umoja, Johnson City Tn on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Appalachian Training, Central High & Bland High School 2011 Reunion

The reunions of 2011 continue, with our friends in Southwest Virginia celebrating the reunions of the old Appalachian Training School, the Central High School of Appalachia and Bland High School of Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

Please click here to go to the schools' new website!

You'll find a schedule of activities this weekend by clicking "Activities" on that page.

We also hope to have pictures from one of the celebrations, whose link will be posted on this page.

Monday, August 8, 2011

UMOJA festival unites cultures



For 15 years, the UMOJA/Unity Festival has brought diversity and entertainment to downtown Johnson City, and this year will be no exception, given the unique events and activities that are scheduled to take place.
The festival will begin on Friday, Aug. 12 and conclude on Saturday, Aug. 13.
“The festival will be 15 years old this year and the initial purpose was to bring all the different cultures and diverse ethnic groups that are in the region together,” said Ralph Davis, UMOJA chairman.
When the festival began in 1978, it was held as an annual Unity Picnic with members of the local NAACP, Concerned Citizens Group, Herb Greenlee of Carver Recreation Center and many other community residents. Unfortunately, the picnic eventually lost the interest of the community.

In 1997, some of the original founders decided to reinvent the picnic with a different format.
Since the original purpose was to blend different cultures and ethnic groups, the founders agreed on revamping and renaming the picnic the UMOJA/Unity Festival. “We have a lot of different ethnic groups and a lot of different races and we just want to bring everyone together and let everyone see what they have to offer,” Davis said.
Davis emphasized that the festival is not aimed specifically at African-Americans.
“One of the things that we always hope for is that people don’t say that this is an African-American festival. This is a unity festival, and we stress that every year,” he said.
The weekend will consist of music, food, entertainment and fun for all ages and ethnic groups.

“This is a festival for all to come out and enjoy,” Davis said. “That’s the main purpose, for everyone to come out and have a good time, listen to the good music, eat the good food and let the kids play,” he added.
Returning to the festival this year will be The Zulu Connection stilt walkers, along with storytellers from East Tennessee State University, who will spin tales at the gazebo.
Music headliners on Friday night include Shirley Murdock along with Zapp. Taking the main stage Saturday night will be Chocolate Buttermilk and Confunkshun. Comedian and DJ M.C. Lightfoot will perform both nights.
In addition to the usual events and vendors, festival attendees will have the chance to participate in some new events this year, including a “Kings of the Blacktop” threeon-three basketball tournament to be held Friday and Saturday, and a film festival, showing both days on the youth/young adult stage.
One of the most anticipated new events is a 5K run that will take place on Saturday night.
“We’ve been trying to do a run for the last few years,” Davis said.
Thanks to volunteer Charnita Hammonds, the 5K run will finally make its debut.
“She’s done a fantastic job of getting it started, so we’re really looking forward to that this year,” Davis added.
Davis gave a special thanks to the people who have attended the festival for many years and he also encourages everyone to take part in some of the new events that will be held this year.
Volunteers are still needed to help out during the festival. Anyone interested in volunteering should call Davis at (423) 426-2851.