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.”

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