20 years of building cross cultural understanding on Whidbey

The International Food and Music Festival will be headlined by Thione Diop Drum Ensemble. Diop is a descendant from a ancestral line of Senegalese drummers.

For Director Josette Hendrix and the people at the Northwest Language and Cultural Center, language is more than a useful tool to keep in a back pocket; it’s rather a window to a deeper understanding to the rest of the world.

The center has believed in bringing language classes and cultural experiences to South Whidbey since its conception two decades ago, and it’s in that spirit that the center will celebrate its 20th birthday by throwing a multi-cultural night of music, food and activities.

The first International Food and Music Festival is one of the largest events the center has planned in the past 20 years, and organizers have planned a bazaar as a part of the celebrations. A beer and wine garden, or the cantina as they’re calling it, will be on site for the adults, but the event is equally as geared towards kids. Activities like international arts and crafts with some of the center’s teachers will go on throughout the evening while musicians and dancers with styles from around the globe will perform.

The festival is from 4 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20 at Whidstock Ranch at 971 Sandy Point Road in Langley. Presale tickets cost $20, with day-of tickets $30. Children under 12 get in for free.

Various languages have been an integral and necessary part of Hendrix’s life from a young age. Born to a French mother and Bulgarian father, she escaped from the Bulgarian communist regime with her family in the mid 1960s when she was nine years old. She vividly recalls escaping. They managed to get their hands on false papers to make their way into the looser Yugoslavia before crossing the border into Italy. While living there for three years she picked up Italian, before her family was sponsored to come to the United States by the International Refugee Committee. She has been here ever since and currently speaks five languages.

“I was about 15 when I came to the U.S., and back then there weren’t any organizations to help foreigners assimilate and learn English,” Hendrix said.

When Hendrix found herself needing a way to support herself on Whidbey in the mid 1990s, she began using her multi-lingual skills and education degree to run language camps in her backyard. It caught the eye of locals, and a sponsor stepped up to fully fund a facility to hold Hendrix’s language camps. The Northwest Language and Cultural Center was born, and still stands in the former bed and breakfast on Langley Road.

“When this door opened, it was really amazing,” said Hendrix. “At the core we believe in nurturing diversity and not judging it, so we try to do whatever we can to nurture that diversity.”

That was 20 years ago, and to celebrate the anniversary the center is bringing back a few old faces from past performances and plenty of new musicians and dancers. The International Food and Music Festival lineup pulls traditions from every corner of the globe. Senegalese percussion and dancing will headline the festival with Thione Diop Drum Ensemble with Sumayya Diop performing dance and drumming. The performance will drip with culture as Thione Diop is a descendant of an ancestral line of drummers in Senegal, who are masters of West African drums such as the djembe, sabar, tama and djun djun. People from the center expect a high energy performance with a lot of dancing.

The festival will also include a performance by the Anadolu Turkish Folk Dancers, the Japanese Sound Signers, the Bollyworks Dancers from India and Melody Xie Chinese Dancers.

“This festival is about having a good party but also honoring the various expressions around the world that celebrate finding common ground across cultures,” Carol Heywood, event coordinator at the language center said. “We’re hoping to expose Whidbey to a lot of different cultures at once.”

Those at the festival may feel like they’re at a street party on the other end of the world. A bazaar will be on site at the festival, where people will be able to purchase various items, toys and miscellaneous objects from numerous cultures. World food vendors will dish out tastes from Venezuela, the Philippines and Africa, as well as baklava and spanakopita offered by the language center.

Proceeds go toward the language center’s collaborative youth education program with the South Whidbey School District, the Global Cultures Youth programs for kindergarten to middle schoolers. The programs seek to fill the hole left behind by cuts to language and arts programs in the school district, and aim to expose South Whidbey kids to different cultures.

The youth program, the festival and the culture and language classes offered at the center are all in line with the center’s mission of encouraging a two-way cultural exchange for those in the programs as well as the teachers and performers from various parts of the world. For the center, it’s just another step toward encouraging better relationships and world peace.

“The ultimate goal is global peace, that’s really it,” said Heywood. “It’s what we’re really dedicated to, and this is a good vehicle in that direction.”