Words by Patrick Williams
Photos by Caitlin Smith

Japanese dance group ShoJoJi performs at the Kent International Festival. Co-director Beverly Kerecman led this particular dance. Photo by Caitlin Smith.

For someone who didn’t know any better, the NEO Irish Harpers could have been performing in one of the countries whose music they were representing—Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Britain or France. The four harps, one acoustic guitar, a stand-up bass and bodhrán drum played out traditional Irish songs such as the “Brian Boru March” and Scottish ones, such as “Katie Bairdie.” But this was in Kent’s own Hometown Bank Plaza at the fourth-annual Kent International Festival Saturday, Sept. 13.

Every year, the free festival showcases differences in culture through music, food, dance and apparel. It began as a way to offset the perceived lack of international food and cultural awareness within Kent, says Genia “G” Kollie, who organizes the festival every year with Main Street Kent, a local nonprofit.

Maracas, originally from Latin America, den-den daikos, from Japan, and specially carved slingshots symbolize the cultural diversity of the Kent International Fest. Photo by Caitlin Smith.

The festival offers community members a chance to experience diversity in all its forms, and this year, taste chocolate as well. Paired with the festival this year was the first-ever International Chocolate Walk, in which 23 business participated.

For $20, Chocolate Walk participants toured storefronts and booths collecting chocolates from countries around the world. FJKluth Art Gallery gave out Ecuadorian chocolates, Carnaby Street Style gave out English chocolate fingers and the Kent Jaycees gave out German chocolates at a streetside booth on Water Street.

Friends Ashley Haladay and Courtney Thaman, both senior psychology majors, agreed after checking most of the businesses off their lists that the Ecuadorian chocolate was their favorite.

“I just want to do more things that are in Kent, and I saw that this is one of the things, and we both like chocolate,” Thaman says.

Emma Kennell, owner of Carnaby Street Style, thinks students should visit downtown more often.

“I think students should know that there’s so much going on in Kent other than just what’s going on campus. Like, they do events like the International Festival and different things like every single weekend,” she says.

Kennell, who is from England, gives out English chocolates for the annual Chocolate Walk in February, whereas most businesses give out American chocolates.

“As a business owner, we love doing [the Chocolate Walks],” says Kollie, who is owner and CEO of International HOME Markets KSU. “It’s fun seeing literally hundreds of people in your store, asking questions, walking around seeing a customer’s face for the first time, walking in and seeing something they never saw before.”

Bands played throughout the day, and Ka De Dunaa closed out the performances with West African drum songs, many of which dunun drummer Tom Zocolo says are used in rites of passages. One is played when young women come of age, he says.

Baba David Coleman, who was primarily playing the djembe drum, serves essentially as the spiritual leader, instigator and drum teacher of the group, dunun drummer Tom Morrow says.

The Gage Brothers, who grew up on a farm in Ashtabula County, performed traditional American folk music. Their repertoire consisted of mostly originals, but they also played a couple covers.

The brothers didn’t actually start playing together regularly until earlier this year, says Zach Gage, a junior geology major at the University of Akron. He and his brother, Ben Gage, have always performed music, but they approached it in different ways. Zach Gage played in heavy rock and blues bands while Ben Gage sang in the choir.

Zach Gage says he appreciates the music scene in Kent and always enjoys playing in the city. The brothers played the Kent ‘Round Town Musical Festival the following weekend.

“This was our first summer of existence and we probably played in Kent 50 percent of all of our shows,” says Ben Gage, who is five years older than Zach and works in the logistics field.

A young girl from the audience pats on a Ka De Dunaa djembe drummer’s drum.

Other performances included Naser Madi, who plays Mediterranean guitar; Japanese dance group Sho-Jo-Ji; and Mame Daiko, a young group of men and boys who played Japanese drums.

Heather Malarcik, executive director of Main Street Kent, says one of the biggest draws of festivals and similar events is always the food. The Kent Jaycees served bratwurst, pretzel necklaces and beer in addition to the chocolate.

“We just did it on Germany because [of it being] that time of the year, Oktoberfest and all that. We just thought it was a good choice,” says Caleb Heller of the Kent Jaycees, who organized the booth’s contributions to the festival. Heller also has strong German heritage and was excited to be able to represent the country.

Pamela Root does not have any Irish heritage, but she enjoys playing harp with the NEO Irish Harpers for another reason. She says she was interested in learning about the healing properties of the harp.

The representations of these cultural practices represent not only the variety of the people who live here, but for some, they allow a deeper understanding of the self.

“It actually mellows the mind, body and soul,” Root says.

Malarcik explains why the International Festival is important to Kent.

“We really want people to come show off what they have for different activities or cultural traits that they have or their performances,” Malarcik says, “and just bring it all together and kind of make it a showcase of all what the mix of Kent really is.”

Ka De Dunaa, which plays West African drum songs, closed out the performances at the Kent International Festival.