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A festival of cultural celebrations

The 20-foot lumberjack statue standing sentinel over the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds was wrapped in unusual new garb over the weekend -- brightly colored cloth with African patterns marking a new site for the 16th annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.

Construction at St. John's College in Annapolis forced the celebration of African-American, African and Caribbean cultures from its usual home on the campus, and farther from the Annapolis City Dock where the event's namesake, as chronicled by the late Alex Haley in his book Roots, was brought from Africa and sold as a slave in 1767.

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While the move -- and the sticky weather -- may have accounted for an apparent drop in attendance, there was plenty of celebration yesterday as the event concluded amid bands playing jazz, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, gospel and world beat music, some with dancers.

The Return to Goree African Dance Company was exuberant. As six men beat rhythms on hand drums, five women and two men in beaded and fringed costumes performed traditional dances from Senegal, Gambia and Mali, including wild jumps and flips off the stage.

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The dancers always draw a crowd, said the group's artistic director and dancer Babacar N'Diaye, who was a member of the National Dance Company of Senegal before coming to Maryland. He taught the group -- based at Coppin State College in Baltimore -- the songs and dances.

"The drumming is very powerful and strong," he said. "It makes people want to get up and do it."

"It was so good," Catonsville resident Debra Parson said of the dancing. She brought daughter Sade, 2, and her parents, James and Jackie Harper, who were visiting from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to the festival. "We wanted to take in as much of the entertainment as we could," Parson said. "In this area, I think it is a unique opportunity."

But the festival attendance was down about 6,000 people Saturday, compared with last year when it drew close to 20,000 people over two days.

There were some benefits to the move, said Jean Jackson, the festival chairwoman, such as having the use of two permanent stages and electrical outlets instead of generators. It was also "a wonderful exercise in experimentation," she said of dealing with the logistics of a hilly site that likely will remain the festival's home next year.

With a shortage of flat space, the festival had 20 fewer artists exhibiting works. Organizers also learned they needed a lot of staff to direct parking in a field left muddy by a rainy summer.

None of the drawbacks seemed on the minds of the hundreds of people roaming between attractions that also included storytelling, praise dancers, a magician, food and crafts sales and an educational tent with information from community and government groups.

Jerome Hall of Baltimore set up an exhibit in the tent with other members of the Baltimore Metropolitan Chapter of the 9th and 10th [Horse] Cavalry Association Inc., telling about the African-American buffalo soldiers who protected the railroad, settlers and travelers in the west after the Civil War.

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Hall, who retired from the Army in 1981, said, "This is about black people, but it is American history. It was just left out of the history books. ... We're just trying to tell the younger generation they have a rich heritage."

Children's activities set up by the Chesapeake Children's Museum in Annapolis centered on four biomes of Africa: the savanna, desert, mangrove forest and rain forest. Children could do a variety of hands-on crafts, like making masks out of paper plates and drums out of balloons stretched over film canisters.

Alexis and Amanda Brownlee of Davidsonville were enthralled with audience-participation storytelling. The 5-year-olds pretended to be animals in one story, and then shouted, "I want to be the princess!" for another.

"We can't get them out of here," said their father, Cecil Brownlee. Soon, he was pretending to be a spider and his wife, Elizabeth, was called upon to play an ant.

The Brownlees moved to Maryland from Puerto Rico a few months ago, and Cecil Brownlee said he and his wife have some African heritage. "It is good to know something about as many cultures as you can," Cecil Brownlee said.

The festival receives support from Annapolis, Anne Arundel County and the Maryland State Arts Council, Jackson said. The festival costs about $70,000 to stage, with profits going to a college scholarship program.


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