MOJA Festival celebrates the city's African-American and Caribbean roots 

Hakuna Matata

Although Charleston relies on its historic houses and its lush plantations to net tourists, there's another local legacy that's brought to the fore once a year — its Caribbean heritage. The connection is evident in the architecture, color schemes, and patterns throughout the city, but it takes the MOJA Festival to really remind us we're tight with the islands.

MOJA is an 11-day celebration of African-American and Caribbean contributions to the world in general, and the Lowcountry in particular. It's organized by the City's Office of Cultural Affairs and the MOJA Festival Planning Committee. As with Piccolo Spoleto, the OCA produces some events and encourages self-producing artists to get involved as well.

Although MOJA 2009 is the same length as last year, the budget has decreased from a projected $378,000 to $275,000. According to OCA Director Ellen Dressler Moryl, the shortfall has created a challenge, not a problem. "We've had to be a lot more innovative, creative, and willing to find ways to do the festival without the same level of expenditure," she says. Cuts have been made "not in the program but in production costs, advertising, and promotion. We're definitely asking more from people."

The organizers have still packed the event with a cross-section of performing and visual arts, talks, and get-togethers. Moryl points to Piccolo Spoleto as an example of resourcefulness in tough times. "This year's Piccolo budget was cut by 33 percent," she says. "It may have been smaller, but people showed up and they were happy with it."

Without popular support, there wouldn't be a MOJA. The Planning Committee is made up of 40 volunteers from every segment of the community, all willing to work around the year to put the event together. There are subcommittees for MOJA's different categories, such as community outreach, theater, and dance. They choose the events that are in the festival, decide which artists will appear, and weave it all together.

"We have a lot of support, and I can't see that eroding," says Festival Program Coordinator Elease Amos-Goodwin. "People are interested in learning as well as participating. This is the only time when you're going to have all African American history, culture, and entertainment in one place."

The festival will kick off with a street procession on Fri. Sept. 25 at 5:30 p.m. Drummers and R&B dancers, Charleston County schoolchildren, scouts, and members of civic organizations will set off from Marion Square on the corner of Calhoun and King, parading through downtown streets to the Custom House. The opening ceremonies will be held there, followed by a reggae block party.

The dance will feature music by the neo-reggae Dis-N-Dat Caribbean Band, fresh from winning the New England Urban Music Awards' Caribbean Group category. De Lions of Jah, also on hand, is a reggae band from Jacksonville, Fla., which performed at Wannamaker County Park back in May. The party will also include African drummers, dancing, ethnic foods, and crafts. The whole shindig will involve an estimated 18,000 residents and visitors.

MOJA's biggest musical event will be a soul/R&B concert by The O'Jays. Their first MOJA appearance was in 1994, and they've returned several times since. Hailing from Canton, Ohio, they're probably best known for their hit songs "Love Train" and "For the Love of Money," which has been used recently as The Apprentice theme song. Other hits include "Back Stabbers" and "I Love Music." The O'Jays will be at the Family Circle Tennis Center on Sat. Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Downtown, Lalah Hathaway, the Charlton Singleton Group, and violinist Daniel Davis will perform jazz at the Cistern on Sat. Sept. 26, also at 7:30 p.m. The following day cellist Kenneth Law of Converse College in Spartanburg and New York-based pianist Stephen Buck will play a selection of Faure, Piazzolla, and Rubinstein at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park at 2 p.m.

Law and Buck will be surrounded by paintings by Jonathan Green and three artists Green has mentored — Jean Dornevil, Ryenier Llanes, and Juan Diaz, each of whom contributed two pieces to the show.

Visual arts are well represented in this year's festival. In the second floor lobby of the Gaillard Auditorium, a group show called I, Too, America riffs on a 1925 poem by Langston Hughes called "I, Too." The artists have expanded on Hughes' themes of diversity and unity in their paintings.

The Avery Research Center will host an art exhibition juried by Juan Logan, the outspoken contemporary artist who recently reinterpreted art at the Gibbes Museum for its Prop Master show. Both ends of the age spectrum will be represented in a Junior-Senior exhibition at Joseph Floyd Manor, Mt. Pleasant Street on Sat. Oct. 3. Budding young artists will have their art displayed alongside the work of old hands in a range of media.

Ballethnic will be dancing at the Gaillard on Fri. Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m., giving ballet an African spin. The company's varied line-up adds to the festival's sense of diversity. After all, that's the meaning behind MOJA. It's a Swahili word meaning "One," symbolizing harmony amongst all people in our community.

Not up on Swahili's daunting dialect? Springfield Elementary School in West Ashley is hosting a workshop that just might help you on Fri. Sept. 25. S. Johari Andika will present lectures about the language. By the end of the workshop, saying hi, introducing yourself, and asking for food in Swahili should be hakuna matata (no problem).

MOJA also features poetry and storytelling events, with appearances from Carlos Johnson, Tribal Raine, Dr. Marion Phillips, Bev Prince-Muhammad, and Terri L. McCrea in venues across the downtown area.

Thrift and creativity are never bad elements for a festival to have, even if those elements spring from necessity. We'd rather see a heap of grassroots music and storytelling than budget-busting bands. MOJA should also be commended for keeping its prices low; Ballethnic for example is a very reasonable $15, and most events are free. This isn't an elitist festival, but it isn't a shabby one either. Moryl and her colleagues realize that "people need arts in these hard economic times." The OCA director firmly believes that the arts "buoy up people's spirits, connecting them with friends, neighbors, and people they don't even know."

We know 18,000 block party participants who would heartily agree.


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