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Aztec dances, Ghanaian clothing, Kurdish instruments showcased at Harrisonburg festival

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Randi B. Hagi
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Members of the Ollinpapalotl Mexica Dance Troupe performing a traditional Aztec dance on Saturday.

Harrisonburg celebrated its annual International Festival on Saturday. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

At the opening ceremony on Saturday afternoon, the scent of incense mingled with that of kebabs, pupusas, and fried noodles. A troupe in feathered regalia took center stage in the lawn outside of the courthouse, dancing to a deep drumbeat. This dance, called the Aguilar Real, told the story of a young eagle flying for the first time.

[sounds of drum, dancers]

I caught up with Miguel Muñiz afterwards.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Miguel Muñiz plays the drum for one of the dances.

MIGUEL MUÑIZ: So we're a traditional Aztec dance family. We live here in Harrisonburg, but I'm from Mexico City. I was born and raised there. So there, on the streets, you can feel and smell and hear the story of our country. There are a lot of groups of dance, and you can join for free – there's a lot of people teaching. So that's where I started learning traditional Aztec dance.

They wore ankle wraps covered in large, wood-like seeds, which rattled with their footsteps.

[seeds rattling]

MUÑIZ: We call them coyoleras, coyoles, but basically they're seeds … so we clean the inside and the outside of the seed, and we put, sometimes, little metal beads to make them sound louder. And we use them to keep the rhythm of our dances.

Like the eagle dance, all of their ceremonies revere nature.

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Randi B. Hagi
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The coyoleras add percussion to their steps.

MUÑIZ: Just a few days ago, we celebrated the beginning of autumn. … So, for us, it's a big event, right? We wait for the sun in the morning, and we do our dance, our ceremony for many hours, just to say, "thanks for this new beginning."

On the other side of the courthouse, vendors had stands set up with everything from hats to fine china.

ELIZABETH: I'm selling clothes from West Africa, Ghana. Clothes and necklaces and jolomi and tie-dye.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Elizabeth's wares included the jolomi, a type of long African tunic.

I got to talking with Elizabeth and forgot to ask her last name. She's lived here for about 25 years now.

REPORTER: How have sales been today?

ELIZABETH: Oh, today? [laughs, makes a face] Just, we have fun talking to people, so I love it. This is 12 years [since] I started this.

She held up a brightly patterned piece of clothing with intricate, black-and-silver stitching around the collar.

ELIZABETH: This one, we call it jolomi. … I just sell it to send it, to support people back home. So every year I go, then this one [was] made by a woman – she has five kids, her husband passed away, so when I went this year, she was sewing, so I bought like five to sell it.

There were also vendors and entertainment at other locations throughout downtown. Inside the cool of Court Square Theater, JMU student Caitlin Fernandez – originally from Texas – played guitar and sang country music.

[Caitlin Fernandez playing "Geraldene" by Miranda Lambert]

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Randi B. Hagi
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Elsy Nolasco holds an elote, a seasoned corn cob, at the food stand.

One of several cuisines on display was Salvadoran food. Elsy Nolasco was forming balls of masa dough around beans and cheese, and patting them out.

ELSY NOLASCO: [sound of pupusas cooking on flat top grill] We make pupusas. It's like a tortilla, with meat in the middle. We have pork and cheese, beans and cheese, and cheese. … We have a coleslaw and salsa.

Behind her, in the courtyard beside First Presbyterian Church, a young Ukrainian girl played violin while her father accompanied on accordion.

[violin music]

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Randi B. Hagi
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George Mustafa was working the Kurdish stand in the Global Village.

In the "Global Village" area of the festival, there were booths set up for people to learn more about specific cultures – including Congolese, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Indian. At the Kurdish booth, George Mustafa showed me a few of their musical instruments.

GEORGE MUSTAFA: [speaking in Kurdish, then switches to English] You can listen to it – this one, they call it "daf." [sound of drum rhythm, flute] That one, they call "şimşal."… We have a Kurdish dance at 5:30. … We will be in a circle, and people altogether. Doesn't matter what age. … So people can be part of it and enjoy everyone!

The International Festival has been bringing people of all ages, languages, and cultures together since 1997.

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Several attendees took photos with their native country's flag.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.