Karim Salaam, one of dozens of vendors set up under pop-up canopies in the Durham County Stadium parking lot, kept an eye-catching stream of bubbles flowing out into the crowd. A young girl noticed and ran over.
“How much for the bubble gun?” she asked.
Seven dollars, Salaam told her.
“But I should be paying the children,” he said once the girl left, “to see the smiles on their faces.”
That’s the kind of interaction festival-goers said Saturday’s Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival is known for. The event, now in its 47th year, takes its name from a West African harvest celebration of gratitude and generosity. It was the sixth year that Salaam, who lives in South Carolina, brought his toy business, Carolina Rainbow Express, to the festival.
This year’s celebration was supposed to take place at nearby Rocky Quarry Park but was moved on short notice when rains left the field too muddy to handle the more than 10,000 people expected to attend.
In fact, the event has always been somewhat itinerant. Over the years it’s been in Duke Gardens, Hillside Park, on North Carolina Central’s campus, in the old Durham Bulls ballpark and around the city’s downtown.
But the sudden change in venue seemed to have had little bearing on the festival’s success, in part because the festival is more about history and community than a specific place.
Cynthia Booth, public affairs specialist for Durham’s department of parks, recreation and cultural resources, which organized the event, likened it to a family reunion. She’s been coming to the festival since she was a student at North Carolina Central.
“At festivals downtown you’ll have people come and go, but with this, you have people who come and stay the whole day,” Booth said. “At the end of the day it’ll be a huge crowd of people.”
That’s partly because the walk from the parking area to the festival grounds isn’t a short one. And the weather, at least through the early afternoon, was better than expected. Umbrellas brought to guard against rain were turned into sunshades.
As they have in years past, festivities began with an up-tempo performance from the African-American Dance Ensemble, a staple at Bimbé for decades.
“In Africa, where there’s music, there’s dance,” said Osei Appiajyei, a native of Ghana and the group’s musical director. “Each kind of music, every dance, represents a community.”
As the event’s longtime host, the Durham community was also in the spotlight Saturday. Alongside the festival’s broader focus on black culture is a celebration of the role that culture has played in the city’s history.
“I want people to leave the festival excited about Durham, having learned a little about what’s available here in the Durham community,” Booth said.
Pam Hopkins and Sherry Smith-Rogers were selling shirts commemorating the history of Black Wall Street, a four-block district of prosperous black businesses along Parrish Street that thrived in the early 20th century. But by the end of the 1960s, that district had mostly been redeveloped. It was then, in 1969, that students from North Carolina Central and Duke together founded the Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival. Hopkins and Smith-Rogers said the latest wave of growth, though, gave them reason for hope.
“This was a prominent city for African-Americans,” Smith-Rogers said. “Things started to turn bad, but now we’re bringing it all right back to where it started.”
Larry Richardson and his wife, Deborah, came to the festival this year for the first time. He eyed a colorful dashiki in one of the booths.
“Back in my day, I used to wear these all the time,” Richardson said.
Wearing a more reserved black button-up shirt Saturday, Richardson said the wide variety of black-owned businesses represented at the festival had been his favorite part of the day.
“It’s important,” he said. “We as a people need to support one another first of all, you know.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan