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'We're all family here'


More than just a place to get funnel cake, ride a Ferris wheel or listen to music, the African American Heritage Festival is a place to learn about African and African-American culture, promote local arts and to build community, those who attended the festival said yesterday.

"We're all family here," Olu Butterfly told a gathering crowd as she played host and emcee at the festival's B-stage. She later added: "It's a wonderful place to be exposed to culture and to each other. It's like a reunion."

Organizers expect more than 500,000 people to attend the festival, now in its fifth year, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The three-day festival, which ends tonight, features two stages of soul, funk, hip-hop, gospel music and poetry; a stage for children's entertainment; educational tents; carnival rides for children; food booths; and other vendors in the parking lot outside the baseball stadium.

The Poole family of Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood said they make it a point to attend the festival. As part of the African-American community in the city, they feel it's an important event. "It's a positive display," said Curt Poole, 45.

Maxine Poole, also 45, said she most enjoys the entertainment, especially the gospel music. Daughter Christine, 14, and her friend, Akkia Long, 13, said they enjoyed looking at the African clothing for sale. Christine also appreciated the wealth of information available about city services - she was looking for volunteer opportunities for the summer and found out about the Baltimore City Youth Commission.

"You learn a lot more about your culture," Christine said of the festival.

"It's a way to get all the youth off the street, at least for a little while," added Akkia.

Others were attending the festival for the first time, including Lindsey Stewart, 24, and Ryan Salamony, 18, students who live in Baltimore. Salamony was volunteering at a booth for the International Rescue Committee, but the pair took a break to check out the scene. Browsing through racks of African garb, Stewart gave the festival her approval.

"Nice clothes, good crowd, good food," she said. "I can't believe how big it is."

Heba Elshayeb, who brought her daughters, ages 8 and 5, her husband and a few Egyptian friends, said they traveled to the festival from Northern Virginia looking for a connection to Africa. Elshayeb, whose family moved from Egypt to Virginia 10 months ago, said she enjoyed talking to other Africans, some of whom were vendors, and looking at the African art.

She said her children enjoyed the kids' area, and said she was looking forward to the musical performances. To keep cool, Elshayeb said, they were carrying small fans and drinking lots of cold beverages.

The cold drinks were plentiful yesterday, as was the food. Along with typical festival fare of funnel cakes and cotton candy, there was Creole, Caribbean and soul food. Vendors offered an array of African art, jewelry, T-shirts and temporary tattoos.

Paul Ayelgasah, 33, a native of Ghana now living in New York City, said the Baltimore festival is among his top stops as a vendor. He imports drums, leather bags and jewelry from countries in East and West Africa.

"It's worthwhile to do business here," he said.

Georgia Boothe, 41, of Harlem, N.Y., thought the festival would be the perfect place to sell her "Soul Sister" T-shirts. With messages like "Beauty Comes From Inside," she said the shirts are "more about who's wearing it, not about the person who makes the brand."

Pride was a theme among many sellers. There were T-shirts with notable black figures in American history, including Angela Davis, Billie Holiday, the Tuskegee Airmen and Leroy "Satchel" Paige. A booth with black Barbie dolls stood next to a stall where tapes of speeches by famous black and African figures were being sold.

A history, education and art tent was filled with exhibits and performances, including an area about financial empowerment, technology and homeownership.

Aside from the national artists scheduled to perform - Chaka Khan is on the bill for tonight - many local acts were being showcased this weekend.

Olu Butterfly, a poet who was scheduled to read from her work last night with Fertile Ground, a local band, said she hopes that the local talent on display will make people realize the richness of Baltimore's arts scene.

"I hope people will wonder, 'What else is going on in Baltimore?'" she said. "There is a lot of talent here."

The festival will continue today from noon to 8 p.m.

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