By Katy Anderson
New Orleans has a festival for almost everything. Some center on food or art, while others hold deeper meaning, acting as a connector for a particular sector of the community. That’s the case with Soul Fest at the Audubon Zoo, which attracts about 20,000 people with a two-day event that celebrates African-American heritage, food, music, crafts and culture, as well as healthy living and family time.
Soul Fest was created 10 years ago by Eileen Johnson, director of community relations for Audubon Zoo, who wanted to organize an event directly for the local African-American community. The motivation, she says, was to celebrate the “family values of the African-American community and to develop an event to further celebrate Black History Month with a crowning touch.”
Soul Fest is held the first weekend of March, offering an opportunity for African-American families to share music, food, and other activities inside the zoo. For many families, it has become an annual spring tradition, helping Soul Fest to grow into one of New Orleans’ biggest celebrations of African-American history and heritage.
Soul Fest also offers the opportunity to celebrate a segment of the New Orleans population that too often has felt abandoned. The event, according to Johnson, gives New Orleanians a unique chance to spotlight African-American life, strength and perseverance.
Soul Fest also promotes healthy living, with an annual wellness area dedicated to screenings for a variety of health issues. Visitors of all ages can receive free wellness information from local health organizations and the AARP, the main sponsor of Soul Fest. Attendees also can be tested for blood pressure, glucose problems, diabetes, cholesterol, body mass index and the like. There are talks on living a healthier life with diet and exercise.
Ultimately, however, Soul Fest is still a festival, and as such is jam-packed with fun things for families to do. There is a Children’s Global Playground, where kids can learn not only about African-American culture, but cultures around the world. Hands-on activities in the Children’s Tent include music, specifically drums, arts and crafts, and finger foods. Not to mention the zoo’s exotic animals.
Soul Fest, of course, boasts not only some of the best soul food of any festival around, but also traditional African and Caribbean cuisines as well as New Orleans favorites. Dishes range from gumbo, fried catfish, and BBQ ribs to authentic Jamaican beans and rice. Desserts include sweet potato pie, 7-Up pound cake, and bread pudding.
Musical offerings run the gamut, too, with genres from jazz and gospel to hip hop and R&B. This year’s big names include Zena Moses and Rue Fiya, Michael “Soulman” Baptiste, Gina Brown, Soul Train Line, and Grammy nominee and New Orleans native Luke James. Throughout the day there are also second lines, Greek steppers, and, this year, a special African American Tribute for the 10th anniversary celebration.
Soul Fest takes place at Audubon Zoo this weekend, Saturday, March 2, and Sunday, March 3, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The event is included in Audubon Zoo general admission. Take your lawn chairs and blankets and enjoy the beautiful weather forecast for the area.
For more information on Soul Fest, visit www.auduboninstitute.org/soul-fest or call (504) 581-4629.
This article by Katy Anderson is published as part of a service learning partnership between NolaVie and the students of Dr. Diane Grams’ Sociology of Organizations class at Tulane University.