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William Z. Foster

Philly’s Odunde Festival begins with this ceremony along the Schuylkill River

The annual celebration honoring the African diaspora kicks off with an offering of fruits, flowers, honey and more.

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William Z. Foster
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

This year, like every year, Odunde Festival organizers will take fruit and flowers to the river.

They’ll reach the South Street Bridge, where they’ll drop their offerings into the Schuylkill, after making their way to the ceremony with drumming, dancing and song.

For the uninitiated, Odunde honors the African diaspora each June. It’s pretty much the black pride festival of Philadelphia and the largest African American street festival in the US. Organizers say some 500,000 festival-goers attend annually. It’s renowned for its food, vendors, fashion, music and dance performances, but before the more secular aspects of the festival get rolling, Odunde always begins with its tribute to the Yoruba deity Oshun.

“Odunde would not have survived 42 years if it had not been for God, so that’s why [the procession] hasn’t changed,” said Odunde CEO Oshunbumi “Bumi” Fernandez. “We follow the same blueprint, we’ve never deviated”

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Sean Wilson

Oshun, also spelled Osun, is an orisha, or a divine spirit in Yoruba religion, which hails from the Nigerian ethnic group of that name. Yoruba faith and philosophies traveled to the New World, preserved by slaves, and became a base for syncretic religions like Candomble and Santeria. Experts say that in recent years, African Americans have become more interested in West African religions. You may have seen Oshun’s name and image a lot around the internet over the last year, as Beyonce fans smartly connected visual references in Lemonade, her maternity photos and 2017 Grammy’s performance to the orisha.

Odunde founder Lois Fernandez, Oshunbumi’s mother, visited Nigeria in 1972 and came back with the inspiration for the event. A friend, the artist Twins Seven-Seven, took her to the Osun River. She tasted the water there.

“The river was sweet,” she remembered. “It impacted me.”

Three years later, the first edition was called, naturally, the Oshun Festival. Today, the festival spans 12 blocks. Back then, they just had one. The elder Fernandez called up choreographer Arthur Hall and asked if his dance troupe could join them, and he obliged. The first procession to the Schuylkill River left from Fernandez’s house on Madison Square — a tiny block between Catherine and Christian streets. On the way, they sang the song “Odunde,” which means “Happy New Year.”

“People thought that we were crazy,” Lois Fernandez explained. She recalls comments like, “You ain’t gon be able to go across the bridge and do nothing in that water.”

She’d explain back: “We’re not [dumping]; we’re offering. We’re coming with fruits, flowers, honey, money.”

“We don’t throw no trash into the river,” she said. If they bring champagne, and yes, they bring champagne, the liquid goes in the Schuylkill, but not the bottle. “It’s a beautiful sight to see,” she continued. “You see the fruit going down the river. You smell the honey.”

Before the procession begins, the presiding priest does a reading on what Oshun would like. This year, the reading revealed doves. Lois Fernandez said it’s maybe only the second time they’ll be releasing doves at the ceremony.

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William Z. Foster

“When we get to where we’re going on the bridge, the prayers are offered up first,” she explained. There, another reading happens: Of course they carefully prepare all of the items they bring to the river, but they stopped pouring them until the priest or priestess sees that Oshun is satisfied. They’ve run out, but they’ve never been stuck. The festival’s founder explained that worshippers routinely bring their own offerings, and some might be late-arriving. If the reading comes back that Oshun wants more, they simply welcome those people to come forward.

With the black diaspora guaranteeing that Yoruba-based traditions are practiced around the world, the crowd for the ceremony is quite diverse. “Some of them don’t speak English, but they’re there every Odunde,” Lois Fernandez said, also noting there’s long been a strong Latino presence.

Even with four decades of ceremonies, sometimes people are still surprised to see them. Many worshippers come wearing gorgeous garb, and one year, the dress alone of an attendee shocked the elder Fernandez’s neighbor. She remembers him being amazed, and telling her, “I never thought I’d see a king on Fitzwater street.”

Odunde, under Bumi Fernandez’s leadership, holds programming and events all year round. But with the growth, Odunde’s CEO hasn’t found it difficult to stay true to their roots.

“I believe that Odunde is God’s work, and my mom and I are just the vessels,” she said. “We’re sticking to paying homage to Oshun because that’s what has kept us on South Street.”

The procession for the 2017 Odunde Festival begins at noon Sunday. The processions starts at Osun Village, 2308 Grays Ferry Ave. The festival itself starts 23rd and South Street.