When Patrick Woodtor went home to Liberia in 1979–with a new American wife and stepson and a master’s degree from Northwestern University in transportation planning–he thought he was leaving the Chicago area for good. But the next year the West African nation was rocked by a violent military coup; the family waited two years for things to stabilize and then decided they couldn’t wait any longer. In 1982 the Woodtors reluctantly packed their bags and returned to Evanston. “I thought it would be temporary,” Woodtor says.

Two decades on, he’s never stopped thinking about going back, but he’s got plenty on his mind here in Chicago: this weekend he presents his 14th annual African Festival of the Arts, a showcase for the music, visual art, and food of Africa and its diaspora. Overshadowed every year by the free Chicago Jazz Festival, it’s quietly become one of the most important and exciting events in the city. The music programming reflects the breadth of Africa’s influence around the globe; over the years there’s been an impressive array of acts from Africa (Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Mahotella Queens, Baaba Maal) and Brazil (Daniela Mercury, Margareth Menezes), Afro-Caribbean music (Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sanchez), jazz (Billy Bang, Hamiet Bluiett, Archie Shepp), contemporary soul and R & B (Amel Larrieux, Fertile Ground), old-school funk and soul (George Clinton, Bobby Womack, Ohio Players), blues (Bobby “Blue” Bland), and reggae (Black Uhuru). Not bad for a festival run by a guy who’s just killing time till he can go home.

On coming back to Evanston Woodtor had a hard time finding work. Things were so tough that he and his wife, historian and author Dee Parmer Woodtor, were forced to begin selling off their collection of African arts and crafts, which she’d become very interested in during her years in Liberia. During that time he’d had a job with the Trans-Africa Highway network, and it took him all over the continent. “I’d travel throughout Africa, and everywhere I went I would bring things back to her,” Woodtor says. He realized now that there was an untapped market for such folk art in Chicago. “It was new, and I was basically the only African selling stuff like that here–masks, clothing, beads, instruments, jewelry, baskets, ceramics–some of everything.”

In 1983 Woodtor rented a 100-square-foot concession stand in a Zayre’s store at 76th and Stony Island; within three years the business had grown enough for him to open his own shop, called Window to Africa, at 55th and Hyde Park. To maintain his inventory he’d make regular trips back to West Africa. In 1987 he moved the shop to an even larger space in the Harper Court shopping center at 52nd and Harper. As part of his lease agreement he was to organize some outdoor events for the pedestrian mall there, so that first year Woodtor presented a fashion show and an African crafts exhibition. In 1989 he brought in other arts dealers, and the popularity of the event forced him to relocate to the Harper Court parking lot the next year–also the year the fest took its current name. He began including local musicians and food vendors. After researching the schedules of other African-oriented festivals around the country, he concluded that holding his event regularly on Labor Day weekend would be best.

Woodtor says he never had a master plan for all this. “I’ve always done things according to the direction of the spirits of the ancestors,” he says. “When I opened the shop I had no idea it would grow into what it did.”

After two years in the parking lot and another two in nearby Cornell Park, Woodtor felt that the next step was to attract corporate sponsorship. So in 1994 he moved the festival to the grounds of the Field Museum. “In Chicago things aren’t really accepted until white people put their stamp on it,” he says. That year his wife Dee–who was the music programmer for the fest–brought in international acts for the first time: South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Nigerian highlife star Sonny Okosuns. Although the cost of the talent and prime Park District space caused the festival to lose money for the first time, Woodtor says it was a wise investment: he got the sponsorship he was looking for (from institutions like the Tribune, the CTA, and Bank One), new attention from the media, and a broader audience.

In 1995 the festival returned to the south side, taking up residence in Washington Park–first at the DuSable Museum, then at a nearby site. Attendance has grown every year; in 2002 an estimated 210,000 people showed up, twice the turnout from the Field Museum days.

Less than a month before last year’s festival Dee died of stomach cancer. She’d been sick for over a year, and Woodtor–the only person who works on the festival full-time–was forced to close Window to Africa to take care of her. He’s had to absorb her festival responsibilities too, but he says he never considered quitting. “We have to keep going,” he says. “It’s part of her legacy.”

Highlights of this year’s musical lineup include Friday’s showcase of new soul featuring Donnie, jazz crossover vocalist Lizz Wright, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s funk-and-hip-hop-oriented RH Project; Saturday features a nostalgic blast of old-school funk from the Dazz Band, the Bar-Kays, and Con Funk Shun. On Sunday multistylistic trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran plays with his sons’ brass band, Hypnotic; and on Monday there’s a return engagement by the electrifying Brazilian pop singer Daniela Mercury. See Fairs & Festivals listings for the full schedule. Daily tickets are $10, $5 for senior citizens and children, and a weekend pass costs $25. For more info go to www.africainternationalhouse.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.