Goombay Festival hosts diverse crowd in Pack Square

By Ashika Raval – araval@unca.edu – Sports Editor | Sept. 17, 2014 |

Festival attendees enjoyed grooving to music played at Goombay 2014. Photo by Amanda Cline.
Festival attendees enjoyed grooving to music played at Goombay 2014.
Photo by Amanda Cline.

With bright colors all around and Afro-Caribbean beats in the air, the Young Men’s Institute Cultural Center brought Asheville to their feet at the 34th annual Goombay Cultural Arts Festival last Saturday.

“This festival embraces culture — it is a spirit of festivity, a spirit of deity and a spirit of unity. It’s about people just celebrating music. If I could say one thing that this festival is about it would be the music. Wait, the music and the food,” said Sharon West, chair of the board of the YMI Cultural Center.

YMI is the leading organization in charge of putting together the Goombay Festival and for the past 34 years, with the exception of last year, they continue to bring Goombay to downtown Asheville.

“One of our taglines at the YMI is that not only are we celebrating culture, but the gathering of people. Goombay represents our gathering place,” West said. “This is our first time with it being in an open place like this and it already feels wonderful and it feels right.”

Artist Moussa Lissokho sells his paintings at different festivals across the South. Photo by Amanda Cline
Artist Moussa Lissokho sells his paintings at different festivals across the South.
Photo by Amanda Cline

Since its conception, Goombay Festival is known to be celebrated on the block down Eagle Street, but this year due to the construction of new apartments, they were forced to relocate. Rather than being discouraged by this, they wanted to leverage the opportunity of having it in a more visible area, West said. Eventually they chose Pack Square to host the festival.

“I’ve been coming to Goombay for the past 20 years and I love it. I like it this year because we have much more space being up here instead of being down the road, which is much harder. There’s more room to move,” said Sharon Oxendine, Asheville resident.

Oxendine, like many people at the festival, was found grooving to the beat as they walked around and visited different vendors.

“That’s why people look forward to coming to Goombay, because it will always be a lot of fun, a lot of dancing and a lot of moving,” West said. “We appreciate every kind of dance, we don’t have any orchestrated kind of dancing. You just get out there and do whatever you feel like doing.”

People look at Goombay as something different, it’s not just any other festival, West said, before she shouted out, “Oooh that’s my song!”

“I’ve been coming to Goombay since the ‘80s. I would come home from college every time I heard Goombay was going on. It was something I did with friends or something we did with family,” West said. “As in every town, there was a big black community in Asheville growing up that was disrupted after urban renewal, so this area was our community. For a lot of us, this is where we came. This is my home.”

Not only has Goombay managed to gather a group of loyalty amongst the people of Asheville, but also from many of the vendors who are seen all around Pack Square. Vendors come selling everything from authentic African curry dishes and fair food to traditional African art.

“Vendors have been coming to this festival for over 30 years. They go to our website and they see that Goombay Festival is coming back and word of mouth immediately gets around,” West said. “We have vendors from D.C., Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta and some local Asheville vendors.”

Many vendors come to sell their own works of art or they come bringing items from all around the world, including Africa, the Middle East and India.

I’m originally from Ghana, in West Africa, but I’ve lived in Atlanta for 20 years with my family. For me this festival is one of the many festivals I come to so I can make my living and pay my bills,” said Marshall Edja, women’s dresses and jewelry vendor. “I go to festivals in Chicago, Detroit, Orlando and Birmingham. The biggest different with this festival is that most of the people are white people. They like a lot of colors so they buy a lot of things, they are good people.

One of the many goals of Goombay Festival is to celebrate and acknowledge diversity among the different cultures and backgrounds of people in Asheville.

“Growing up I used to come to Goombay all the time. I used to come to Goombay and Bele Chere and I just love Goombay because it’s about diversity and bringing it into the community,” said Joshua McClure, UNC Asheville alumnus. “I think over the years the biggest change is the diversity. It’s more diverse and there are a lot of different colors and cultures all around.”

Though many vendors find this festival different because of the higher number of Caucasian people interested in the different culture, McClure said he sees the number of interest very low and wants more people to take a chance.

“A lot of people see events like this and they think it’s only for African-Americans, but it’s not. It’s about getting all kinds of people out and supporting local businesses and having a good time,” McClure said. “A lot of people group it off and feel fear, but they really shouldn’t feel that way.”

When it comes to the UNCA community, many professors promote Goombay because they strive for diversity, but still only a few UNCA students are actually seen attending, said McClure.

“Sometimes it offends me. My method is you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that’s my biggest thing — never judge something if you’ve never tried it,” McClure said. “I feel like in Asheville there is some judgment on African-Americans, but I feel like as a community if we can work together we can change it.”

West said she remembers when Asheville functioned as a more segregated city, but does not see it as much anymore.

“We have more popularity of ethnic and racial minority and some of the lower income groups around certain areas, but I wouldn’t say it’s representative of saying, ‘This is where the black people are and this is where the white people are.’ Economically I think we have those lines, but geographically I think we have blended in pretty much,” West said.

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