The Record - Hackensack, NJ
Drumming up the spirit of a holiday

December 10, 2004

WHAT: The Spirit of Kwanzaa Celebration.

WHEN: Thursday through Dec. 19.

WHERE: New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center St., Newark. Information: (973) 353-8051 or

HOW MUCH: Prices vary. For tickets: (888) GO-NJPAC.

Seeing his father in a trance during a spiritual festival was nothing new to 6-year-old Obo Addy.

What surprised him was being asked to play the drums during the ceremony held in his Ghanaian village in West Africa. Spiritual drummers need to be closely attuned to the movements of the Wonche, or medicine man - in this case, Addy's father.

"I played non-stop from midnight to 6 a.m. while all the other children were sleeping," recalled Addy, now a father of five who came to the United States 26 years ago. "It was the spirits who guided me on how to play that night."

Kwanzaa is an African-American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community and culture. It was established in 1966 during the Black Freedom Movement by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way to restore pride in African culture. Celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits" in Swahili.

The holiday revolves around seven principles, with the lighting of candles as a central ritual each evening. Kwanzaa candles are black (for African people), red (for their struggle) and green (for the future and hope to come).

Festival highlights

  • Shirley Caesar and the N.Y. Fellowship Choir, 7 p.m. Thursday. $15 to $37, children under 13 $15.

  • Obo Addy's Okropong, 7 p.m. next Friday, 2 and 5 p.m. Dec. 18. $19, children under 14 $10.

  • Jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn with Ahmad Jamal on keyboard, 8 p.m. next Friday. $12 to $50.

  • Reggae classics with Third World, Sister Carol and Gregory Isaacs, 8 p.m. Dec. 18. $12 to $50.

  • Children's Festival, noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 18.

  • The Kwanzaa Marketplace is open 4 to 10 p.m. Thursday and next Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Dec. 18, and noon to 6 p.m. Dec. 19.

    - Vera Lawlor
  • The performance earned him the title of Master Drummer in the Ga tribe. He went on to study the art of drumming and to perform traditional Ghanaian music and dance throughout the world with three of his 54 siblings (his father had 10 wives).

    Addy will perform for the first time in the Garden State during the eighth annual Spirit of Kwanzaa Celebration at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Other highlights include a performance by gospel singer Shirley Caesar; reggae classics with Gregory Isaacs, Third World and Sister Carol; and African music by the Women's Sekere Ensemble, an energetic group of percussionists and singers. Throughout the festival, the Prudential Hall lobby will be transformed into a shopping mall with vendors selling African art, instruments, handcrafted jewelry, clothing, sculptures and books.

    "Kwanzaa is a holiday that was created in America. It's not a tradition I grew up with," Addy said by phone from his home in Portland, Ore. "But I think it's a very good idea, and I've taken part in the festival every year since I came to this country."

    Participating in holiday events gives Addy, a music teacher at Lewis and Clark College and Portland State University, an opportunity to share his culture with a wider audience.

    As a teenager in the '60s, Addy traveled throughout Ghana studying the music of the Ewe, Ashanti, Fanti, Dagomba, Nafana and Konkomba tribes. He will lead his nine-member troupe, Okropong, in songs and dances from some of these regions at the festival. They will play traditional instruments including hand and stick drums, bells and shakers. The dancers will be dressed in the colorful clothing of West Africa.

    "During the war dance of the Ewe, we'll invite children up to the stage to dance with us," Addy said. "Kids are always very eager to get involved."

    Caroline Katunge Mimy, an African storyteller, likes to hear that.

    "Children are a very important part of Kwanzaa," said Mimy, who will present family workshops on the meaning of the holiday during the Children's Festival on Dec. 18. "Kwanzaa is a time specifically set aside for family, and that includes extended family in the community, which is what events like this one at NJPAC are all about."

    Children's activities are free and include face painting, sekere crafting, Kwanzaa wish scrolls and African dance workshops. There's lots of singing and clapping during Mimy's presentation.

    "This festival is very important to me," said Mimy, a Newark resident who works as a counselor and recruiter at Essex County College. "My primary focus is on helping my people to gain a sense of pride in themselves and their history."

    It's not unusual for Mimy to have up to 100 people gathered in her home for Kwanzaa.

    "Everyone brings a dish," Mimy said. "The young people give presentations to show their talents while the adults tell African stories."

    The ritual lighting of candles provides time for family members to reflect on the accomplishments of the year past and goals for the future.

    Mimy will talk to children at festival workshops about the importance of family and the need to respect elders.

    "I like to remind them that parents, teachers and community leaders provide the map that helps them to see where they are going in life," she said.
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