Festival Sundiata

Festival Sundiata

Date Observed: Third weekend in February
Location: Seattle, Washington

Festival Sundiata is an African and African-American cultural arts festival held since 1981 in Seattle, Washington. Presented over the third weekend in February, the event brings together people of African descent in the Pacific Northwest as well as those of other cultural backgrounds.

Historical Background

The festival was named after a 13th-century king of the Mali Empire in west Africa, Sundiata Keita (1210-1260). He was known for reigning over a flourishing economic and cultural period of the kingdom.

Legends about the king have been passed on for centuries. According to the stories, Sundiata was the son of the Mandingo king Nare Fa Maghan and his second wife. Prophecy said that the second wife would produce a child who would become the greatest king of Mali. However, Sundiata's childhood did not bode well for someone who would be king. He was sickly and developed slowly; he still could not walk at the age of seven. Yet Maghan declared Sundiata heir to the throne, a decision that angered Maghan's first wife, mother of the king's first son. After Maghan died, the first son, a teenager, was placed on the throne.

The first wife berated Sundiata's mother for having a handicapped child. Then, in a miraculous effort Sundiata was able to stand and walk. By the time he was 10 years old, Sundiata appeared to be a threat to the teenage king, and the first wife hatched a plot to kill him. But Sundiata's mother fled with her son and two other children to another kingdom hundreds of miles away.

In exile, Sundiata developed in physical and mental strength and became a powerful fighter. He eventually assembled an army and marched on Mali, which was no longer controlled by his half-brother but had been conquered by another king. Sundiata and his army took back the territory and set up the foundation for an empire.

Creation of the Festival

In 1981 Terry Morgan of Modern Enterprises, a Seattle promotion company, and the Seattle Center created Festival Sundiata to gather African Americans in the Pacific Northwest for a celebration of African heritage. Unlike some other cities in the United States, Seattle's blacks are scattered throughout the city as well as surrounding areas and make up only three percent of the population. Thus, the festival provides an opportunity for African Americans and Africans to meet and participate in a shared culture.


Traditional African drumming and dance opens Festival Sundiata. During the weekend, attendees can visit a black art exhibition with paintings, sculptures, quilts, photographs, and multimedia works. They can hear tributes to black professionals and black pioneers; enjoy gospel music, hip hop, jazz, rap, rhythm and blues; and watch cooking demonstrations by the Smokin' Black Chefs of the Northwest, top barbecuers. Children's activities, such as mask making and storytelling, are part of the festival as well. An estimated 50,000 people attended the 2006 festival, the 26th annual event.

The 1990 festival was one of the most memorable. On February 11, the first day of the festival, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa. Mandela went on to negotiate the end of apartheid in South Africa and become the country's first black president. Attendees were ecstatic at the news, which occasioned a joyful beginning to the festival that year, according to founder Terry Morgan.

Contact and Web Site

Sundiata African American Cultural Association P.O. Box 24723 Seattle, WA 98124 206-329-8086

Further Reading

Banner, Ellen M. "Festival Sundiata Brings African-American Community Together." Seattle Times, February 20, 2006. . Holdcroft, Leslie. "Festival Sundiata: It's a Fun Time of African and African American Culture Appreciation." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 17, 2006. http://seattlepi .nwsource.com/lifestyle/259786_fam17.html.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Sundiata, Festival

Third weekend in February
Held each year since 1981, the Festival Sundiata is a celebration of African-American heritage, culture, arts, and history held at Seattle Center in Seattle, Wash., during the third weekend of February. Admission to the festival is free, and events are spread over four days, from Thursday through the Monday holiday celebrating Washington's Birthday. Festival Sundiata draws approximately 50,000 participants from the Pacific Northwest.
The fair is named in honor of Sundiata Keita, a historic king of the Mali Empire in West Africa, whose 13th-century reign is remembered as a time of great cultural and economic achievement. Organized by the Sundiata African American Cultural Association, the festival emphasizes entertainment, art, and education. Activities include music, percussion, and dance performances, lectures, storytelling, cooking demonstrations, and interactive craft exhibits, such as mask making. Festival Sundiata also features an art exhibition showcasing black artists in various media, including painting, sculpture, textiles, photography, and multimedia, which remains open to the public during the week following the festival.
Sundiata African American Cultural Association
P.O. Box 24723
Seattle, WA 98124
AAH-2007, p. 153
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Other cultural events planned for the Seattle area in February include the Chinese New Year celebration, Seattle's Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday celebration and the Festival Sundiata, a celebration of the Pacific Northwest's African American arts, history and culture.