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Festival celebrates Black Belt culture

There are certain events in the Black Belt that are synonymous with their counties. For Sumter, it is the Sucarnochee Folklife Festival.

Each year the festival brings a unique blend of people and events. Though the crowd is diverse, their purpose is usually the same. They all want to enjoy the unique culture and skills of the Black Belt.

This year’s festival director, Tina Jones, said the festival would be like those of the past. Only this year, Jones said, the emphasis and events are aimed at a specific group.

“We will have a lot of the same activities with an emphasis on the blues,” Jones said. “Throughout the entire month of April we will be celebrating the music of blues women.”

The first big event of the festival comes Monday night, when Visiting Fulbright Scholar and former Russian citizen Aimur Baisaklov takes the stage. Baisaklov is an expert on the blues who specializes in women who had a strong role in shaping this genre.

Baisaklov’s interest in the blues, Jones said, is proof of the awesome power of music.

“That shows that music is a way we can all speak to each other,” Jones said. “It is something that transcends language and cultural barriers.”

The presentation goes along with a display at the Webb Hall Gallery throughout the month of April called the Red, Hot, and Blue: Spotlight on Alabama blues women featuring Sumter County singer Vera Hall.

Tuesday, at 6 p.m., Frances Robb will present Black Belt Women photographers at the Calloway Schoolhouse and Wednesday, there will be a brown bag luncheon at the Bell Conference Center where people can come hear the blues performed.

Thursday, Henri’s Notions will present traditional Celtic and American music at 7:30 in the Bibb Graves Auditorium. Also, the University of West Alabama’s Symposium on the Literature of the Black Belt, sponsored by UWA’s department of Languages and Literature is scheduled. The symposium continues Friday.

Saturday, the week of events culminates into one of the biggest days of the year for Sumter County.

At 6 a.m. vendors can begin setting up their tents and at 7 a.m. registration begins for the Sucarnochee River 5k Run, which begins at 8 a.m.

At 9 a.m., the annual Cornbread Cook-off begins at the courthouse square. The contest includes awards for best traditional recipe, best special recipe and best recipe using cornbread. There is a $5 entry fee and judging begins at 9:30 a.m. First place gets a t-shirt and $25 and first runner up gets a t-shirt.

At 10 a.m., the festival officially kicks off with live music all day and demonstrations in arts such as ironwork, by Alabama Castings, weaving by Nancy Landrum, ceramics, by Kerry Kennedy, blacksmithing, by Benny Crevitt, broom-making, by Linda Crevitt, homemade baskets, by the Jackson family and 19th Century farm techniques by William Norwood.

At 10 a.m., one of the Black Belt’s most treasured citizens takes the stage when Kathryn Tucker Windham holds a storytelling session. Tucker will also hold a book signing from 10:30-11:30 a.m.

From noon until 4 p.m. all the hard work from the early morning activities will be rewarded when the winners of the Sucarnochee River Run and Cook-off are announced on the courthouse square.

There will also be a series of performances from Russell Gulley (noon), the Alabama River Project, Caroline Shines (1 p.m.), Debbie Bonds (2 p.m.) and local musicians (3:30-4:30 p.m.)

The festival will begin to wind down at 4 p.m. when vendors must begin dismantling booths.

The final event, a walking ghost tour of Livingston, will take place at 6 p.m. lead by Dr. Alan Brown.

Jones said there are several events for people to enjoy, and hopes they do just that.

“It is just a great day to bring out your quilts and lawn chairs and spend the day,” Jones said. “We want everyone to come out and have a really good time. Hopefully, people will have a good time and learn something.”