Striking colors, smiling faces and performances from around the world marked Keene’s first international festival Saturday.
The stage outside Jonathan Daniels School was graced with dancers and musicians celebrating their heritage at the Keene International Festival, showcasing traditions from places such as Japan, Nepal, Finland, Africa and Mexico.
Two Nepali teenagers traveled from Lynn, Mass., to dance in traditional garb to Nepalese/Bhutanese music. And journeying from Fitchburg, Mass., the Revontulet Dancers demonstrated Finnish folk dancing, a choreographed group activity with about a dozen performers.
Lining the walls inside the building, stations representing several countries offered games and demonstrations to learn more about each culture. There were activities aplenty: Write your name in Farsi, get Indian mehndi body art, meet members of a local French club, or listen to classical Spanish guitar — which is popular in Syria, according to guitarist Iyas Massoud.
Elizabeth Nieuwsma-Dell, a teacher at Franklin Elementary School and Keene High School, helped organize the festival and was pleased by the turnout.
“We really had no idea how many people would come because it’s the first time we’ve had it,” she said.
She explained the concept was born through conversations with two other organizers: Jennifer Alexander and Jack Timmons. All three taught English language classes and already had a foundation of students and parents who might be interested in an international festival.
From there, she said, it grew mostly by word of mouth, and the planning group expanded to encompass community leaders and volunteers, including some Keene State College students.
The goal of the event was to promote awareness of and appreciation for the many cultures represented in Keene, Nieuwsma-Dell explained.
But there was another benefit of the festival that wasn’t anticipated.
“It’s a great way for people from the international community to meet each other,” Nieuwsma-Dell said.
She heard from several attendees who had made connections and scheduled coffee dates with new friends. While that wasn’t necessarily the goal of the event, Nieuwsma-Dell said it was a perk.
She added that she hopes to see the event continue annually and grow in numbers.
Many people, like Benajil Rai, also enjoyed the opportunity to meet other people from outside of the United States. Born in Nepal, Rai attends Keene State College, and she and her friends taught festival attendees how to write in their native language, Nepali.
She called the festival a platform for diversity.
“When you organize such events, you see people from so many other countries,” Rai said, noting that she had never met people from some of the nations represented.
Ronald Smith, a performer at the festival, also said it served as a great space to expose area residents to varying cultures in the region.
Smith is the band director at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, and he and a few of his students traveled to the Keene festival to perform with traditional African drums. Smith first learned about the craft when he was in college and has been hand-drumming for more than 20 years, including collaborations with professional musicians from Ghana.
He and his students often travel for performances, and he commended Saturday’s event for gathering so many people with different backgrounds.
“People probably don’t even know this music or this culture exists in Keene,” Smith said.