MEMPHIS’ SPRING FESTIVAL SEASON IS HERE
You could go understated and say that Memphis embraces festival season. I say we wrap it up in a bear hug tight enough to lift you off the ground.
It’s a fitting visual considering the perennial festivals that kick off spring festival season in the city: Africa in April and Memphis in May. Sure, the fests promise food and music. But the cultural exchange fostered by both elevates them from your typical corndog-and-carnival affair. On one level, I’m describing the tens of thousands of global citizens you’ll rub elbows with at the festivals. On another, I’m describing their shared mission: To illuminate international cultures through multi-disciplinary events. (Read: There’s a good chance you’ll learn something, but you’ll have an amazing time doing so.)
Specifically, Africa in April selects a different African nation to spotlight each year; Memphis in May selects from countries the world over. Here’s how it all plays out – including those juicy festival tidbits you’re looking for (parades! barbecue! the Beale Street Music Festival lineup!) – to help you plan your festival season in Memphis:
When? April 17-21
Backstory: “We wanted to produce a festival to celebrate African-American culture and invite everybody,” Dr. David Acey tells me. (Acey, a University of Memphis professor, founded the festival with his wife, Yvonne, a Memphis City Schools teacher.) “We started in 1986 with five people walking down to Main Street in African clothes with a few drums,” he remembers. The festival now attracts some 25,000 attendees.
Up your awareness: The festival has developed such a reputation, Dr. Acey says that countries are now requesting to be honored – sometimes up to two years in advance. This year’s honoree is the Republic of Senegal, and events like April 17’s International Business and Economic Trade Luncheon (at the University of Memphis) will unite entrepreneurs from the U.S., Senegal and other African countries previously honored by the festival. Senegalese delegates from the country’s Minister of Tourism to one of its star fashion designers to Habib Faye, a Grammy-nominated producer and bassist, will attend select festival events, and some will join a tour arranged by Dr. Acey and state representative G.A. Hardaway (yes, like that Hardaway). The tour will include Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum and Ernest Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center in Henning, Tennessee and the State Capitol in Nashville.
Party down: Friday, April 19, the festival shifts to Robert Church Park, just off of Beale Street. Watch the International Diversity Parade at 10:30 a.m.; then browse the marketplace, filled with some-150 global vendors. Sat., April 20, listen to a Blues Showcase while you shop; Sun., April 21, get to the park to hear live jazz, gospel and reggae from Memphis and African musicians (the marketplace will remain open Sunday as well).
Festival: Memphis in May International Festival
When? All month long, but the biggies are: Beale Street Music Festival, May 3-5; International Week Salute to Sweden, May 6-12; World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, May 16-18; Sunset Symphony, May 25
Up your awareness: This year, Memphis in May will salute Sweden through a series of events happening all over town, all month long. Eye art glass by Swedish artisans at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; learn of native Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic Holocaust rescues at the Memphis Jewish Community Center; study the natives of Northern Sweden at Mud Island River Park; examine photos of the country’s iconic Icehotel at Memphis Botanic Garden; view a Nobel Prize exhibit arranged in collaboration with Stockholm’s Nobel Museum at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library Gallery; hear the story of a Swedish R&B crusader known as “Mr. R&B” at the STAX Museum of American Soul Music. May 9, settle into an evening at The Orpheum featuring Skaran, a traditional Swedish music group; STHLM, a folkloric dance troupe; and cuisine by Chef Fredrik Eriksson. Eriksson, named Sweden’s Chef of the Year, will also prepare dinner at The Peabody May 10 and 11. Tickets and/or reservations may be required – find details here.
Party down: Memphis in May’s signature events swirl around downtown’s Tom Lee Park, and some require strategic planning: Start by studying the line-up for Beale Street Music Festival (May 3-5) – and securing rain boots and a poncho. (Read my post from last year and scan these FAQs for more info.) As I’m writing this, only three-day festival passes remain (they’ll be available through April 21), but with a line-up that includes hometown favorites like Al Kapone, the River City Tanlines and Lucero; a Blues Tent that will showcase acts like Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition; and big stages set for big names from Patti Smith to ZZ Top, the Black Keys to the Black Crowes, Mavis Staples to Dwight Yoakam and the Smashing Pumpkins to Public Enemy, you’ll need all weekend to process the genre-bending awesomeness.
Next, shift your attention to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (May 16-18), where barbecue is king, but an enduring will to party is perhaps just as important. To get a feel for this only-in-Memphis throw-down, review my experience hanging out with one of last year’s teams – then sign up to be a judge in the Kingsford Tour of Champions.
Channel any energy you have left into Sunset Symphony, Memphis in May’s closing event (May 25). Anticipate crowd-friendly selections performed by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, followed by a fireworks display grand enough to bring a month of revelry to a close. Find ticketing info on Memphis in May’s signature events here.
Maybe, like me, you’re already planning which acts you’ll see at Beale Street Music Festival. Perhaps your curiosity is piqued about Senegal or Sweden. Whatever you’re anticipating, tell me your top reason for getting to Africa in April or Memphis in May in the comments section below.