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South Bend reimagines ethnic festival with Fusion Fest

| Monday, September 11, 2023

Howard Park was transformed into a world map with the newly reimagined Fusion Fest this weekend. Tents for Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, North America and South America shaded vendors and performers representing cultures around the globe.

The Fusion Fest marks the return of South Bend’s ethnic festival, which has not happened since 2004.

“[The ethnic festival] ran for 30 years, and it’s one of the most beloved events of South Bend,” said Hannah Francis, the special events manager for the city of South Bend’s venues, parks and arts department.

Kathryn Muchnick | The Observer
The South Bend Fusion Fest was a reimagining of the city’s ethnic festival, which has been dormant for almost two decades.

The ethnic festival was started by a group of volunteers in 1974, as part of the bicentennial celebration for South Bend. At its peak, the festival attracted more than 125,000 participants, according to the Fusion Fest website. Ethnic food from local vendors was the main attraction.

This year, 50 food vendors, 55 performances and demonstrations and 20 artisans populated the renamed Fusion Fest, according to Francis.

The goal of Fusion Fest is to “revive the favorite aspects of the old festival and … honor the diverse cultural heritage of our city, region and of the United States,” the website said.

Francis recruited the vendors, artisans and performers over the last several months, beginning with a call out for people to apply. In addition to local contributors, Francis reached out to the performers from the World Music Festival in Chicago, inviting cultural performers from around the region.

Andrea Natella, a vendor showcasing his mother’s sculptures, heard about Fusion Fest from a friend who recommended he apply. Dora Natella, his mother, passed away in April, and Andrea said he wanted to share her work with the community outside of a gallery space.

“My mom’s work totally fits the European tent because she was classically trained in Italy, and her work is figurative and inspired by the art of the Renaissance,” Natella said, while offering some modeling clay to children wanting to experiment.

He said that visitors to the Fest have been asking lots of questions about sculpture and his mother’s work.

“I’m usually not the one promoting her work, so this is kind of a first for me,” Natella said. “And I’ve brought out some clay to do a little bit of modeling myself to get people excited about sculpture.”

Francis said she was pleased with the energy at the festival.

“Really positive vibes, very family-friendly and family-focused,” she said. “It’s been an extremely diverse crowd and everyone’s trying something new.”

Kathryn Muchnick | The Observer
Different continents had their own tent, featuring food vendors, artisans and a stage with music and dance performances.

The city ended the ethnic festival due to unruly crowds, but increased security measures were implemented this year. However, last night’s canceled firework show was attributed to reports of fighting.

Several Notre Dame groups were represented among the performers, including K-pop dance group ASCEND, Dance Africa, Irish Ceili Band and more.

Shannon Dunne, assistant adjunct teaching professor in the Irish Literature and Language department and director of the Ceili band, said the band started as an Irish dance and tin whistle class after the pandemic.

The Center for Study of Language and Culture coordinated the performance of the Ceili band Fusion Fest, Dunne said.

Kathryn Muchnick | The Observer
The Notre Dame Céili Band performed at Fusion Fest Sunday.

“For me, the [South Bend and Notre Dame] communities are back and forth all the time, but I think it’s great to be able to bring students into that environment,” Dunne said.

The Ceili band, which performed traditional Irish music and taught dance for half an hour Sunday, recently traveled to Ireland. They visited Galway and Inisheer to perform and immerse themselves in Irish culture.

“The music that we’re doing is not music that we’ve learned from books,” Dunne said. “They’re tunes that I’ve gotten from people or that the band has gotten from people. So we’re very much participating in that tradition rather than studying Irish music in a vacuum.”

Kaitlin Mohlenkamp, a junior at Notre Dame, performed with Dance Africa Sunday. She joined the group last semester and now works as a choreographer.

“We got a positive response. People were learning our dances,” Mohlenkamp said. “It feels really nice to be able to come out and see the community that’s here.”

Francis said though the Fusion Fest’s return has not yet been confirmed, she hopes that it can become an annual event.

“There’s something for everybody here,” she said. “I hope that [attendees] learned something. I hope that they tried something new. And I hope that they … want to do it again.”

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