Oakland’s Enkutatash festival is cancelled, but Ethiopians celebrate in other ways

Teddy Shawl (left) and Mekdem Sebhatu(right), organizers of Saturday's Enkutatash concert in Oakland meet to discuss the event.

Teddy Shawl (left) and Mekdem Sebhatu(right), organizers of Saturday's Enkutatash concert in Oakland meet to discuss the event.

Ethiopians in the Bay Area will be ushering in the new year a little differently this year. Oakland’s longtime iconic Enkutatash festival has been cancelled due to lack of funds, according to a letter distributed by Ethiopian Community Services (ECS).

“For many years, this event has been graciously supported with a $25,000 grant from The Christensen Fund,” the ECS board of directors wrote in the letter. “Unfortunately the fund expired last year and is not available to ECS.” Tekeste Teclu, an accountant for the board, said in a phone interview that the organization is at this point “not sure whether the grant will be renewed next year.”

The Christensen Fund is a private organization based in San Francisco that supports programs that promote cultural and biological diversity. (Representatives from the fund did not return interview requests.) The expiration of the grant made it difficult for ECS to host this year’s festival. In the letter, the group’s board said they reached out to 55 organizations for sponsorship and donations but were only able to raise 25 percent of the required funds.

In Oakland, some families are now preparing to celebrate privately, while others have organized smaller concerts and dance performances that will be open to the public. Kasaye Woldegiorgis, an Oakland resident, has always taken her 7-year-old daughter to the festival so “she can know her culture.”

“It’s a big disappointment, especially for those kids who were born here and have no idea how we celebrate back home,” said Woldegiorgis. This year she and her family will be celebrating at home.

The Ethiopian calendar has 13 months, making it seven years behind the Gregorian calendar. Saturday, September 12, marks the beginning of the year 2008. New year celebrations in Ethiopia are characterized by family get-togethers, music and dance. Families share a meal of injera, traditional Ethiopian sour flatbread, and wat, a flavorful stew made with lamb or beef. Everyone dons his or her traditional clothes, typically made from white linen and detailed with intricate, colorful embroidery at the hem and neckline.

Enkutatash is Amharic for “gift of jewels.” It dates back to when the Queen of Sheba returned from her visit to King Solomon. Upon her arrival, the chiefs welcomed her by replenishing her enku (jewels). This period of festivities also signifies the end of the rainy season and the beginning of summer. “All the flowers come out at that time and we exchange adey ababa” or yellow daisies, Woldegiorgis said.

In response to the cancellation of the festival, various groups have come together to organize alternative events to usher in the new year. Mekdem Sebhatu, owner of Au Lounge, a bar that mainly caters to Ethiopians and other African expatriates, and Teddy Shawl, lead bass player of Selemta Band, which plays a fusion of contemporary and Ethiopian music, have organized a night of music and dance.

“There was nothing else going on so we figured we had to do something for our community,” Sebhatu said.

The event, hosted at the Starline Social Club in Oakland, will feature Teddy Tadesse, an Ethiopian artist popular for his soulful sound. The event will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday. Shawl describes Tadesse as the “Luther Vandross of Ethiopia” and is anticipating a big turnout on Saturday. “It should be a very good show,” he said.

Shawl said he felt compelled to organize an alternative event because Enkutatash is a symbolic holiday of unity within the Ethiopian community. The celebration is not affiliated with any religion in particular. “It’s an important event because it crosses political and religious lines. Everyone comes together to celebrate,” he said.

Ada Kassaye, an Ethiopian dance teacher at San Francisco’s Adama Dance, will also be hosting an afternoon of activities for families with children. The event will take place on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Lake Merritt. There will be dance and craft activities for the children. Some of Kassaye’s students will perform traditional dance routines that they’ve learned. “We are so far away from home but we want our kids to keep in touch with their culture,” she said. “We want to keep the connection alive.”

Kassaye said this event also caters to families that have adopted children from Ethiopia as way of ensuring that they “don’t forget who they are.”

Concerned about the cancellation of the usual ECS festival, some Ethiopian families in San Jose will celebrate together at Lake Cunningham Regional Park. The celebrations will be held on Sunday at 1 p.m.

As the organizers make the final arrangements for this year’s celebration, they are already planning for next year’s Enkutatash. The intention is to make sure that the annual festival does not become a thing of the past. “We have a bigger plan for next year. We plan to partner with other organizations and plan a daytime festival that goes into a night party,” Sebhatu said.

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