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Local Group Celebrates Kwanzaa With Music, Ritual

John Amis

Inside the former Holy Rosary School, the Ibeji Drum Ensemble and Sankofa Village group have been playing djembe drums and shakere instruments, providing a backdrop to traditional African dancing. The  performers have been practicing for the Dec. 29 celebration of Kwanzaa.

That’s the spirit of Kwanzaa, said Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the Community Empowerment Association, which is commemorating the holiday in Pittsburgh from 3 to 9 p.m. The event takes place at 7120 Kelly Street in Homewood. 

“Ritual is part of our culture, so a lot of ritual things come out of this celebration,” he said. “We all know that the drum is the spirit, the rhythm of black people.”

Kwanzaa is the celebration of African heritage in African-American culture. It’s observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and each day recognizes a differnt core principle:

  • Umoja (unity)
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination)
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  • Nia (purpose)
  • Kuumba (creativity)
  • Imani (faith)

Byrdsong, who is a former member of the Black Panther Party, said he remembers when Kwanzaa was founded in the 1960s.
The holiday “was rooted in the Pan-African struggle, a struggle to identify with ourselves after being brought here during slavery and having our culture taken from us,” he said. “It was one way for us to associate with one another in addition to celebrating our African descent.”

Byrdsong said African Americans need to have more celebrations in Pittsburgh, because the events bring the whole community together.

“When you have cities like Atlanta, Cleveland, Washington D.C. and Baltimore that have a lot of black folks, Kwanzaa and celebrations like this are prevalent,” he said. "But when you’re a city like [Pittsburgh] then it’s something that’s not all that familiar with people. Whenever you can have anything that can bring the whole community together, it’s a good thing. It’s a secular holiday so you don’t have to get caught up in religious difference.”

This is the CEA’s 24th year celebrating Kwanzaa. Organizers ask that visitors bring non-pork food dishes, gifts -- specifically toys for children -- or family members to learn more about the holiday.

“We do a unity circle, we call a libation and call on our ancestors," Byrdsong said. "It’s a time of reflection, meditation, feasting and fellowship."