The PANAFEST Festival was inspired by and takes its source from a paper written in 1980 entitled “Proposal for a Historical Drama Festival in Cape Coast” by Dr. Mrs. Efua Sutherland, who was a distinguished Ghanaian Dramatist and Pan-Africanist. In 1991 the idea gained root and took shape in an expanded form as the Pan-African Historical Theater Festival (PANAFEST).
Since its inception in 1992, PANAFEST has become a movement after 14 editions over the past 30 years (1992-2022) to not just Ghana’s cultural heritage tourism industry and also to people of African Descent throughout Africa and its diaspora, especially the Americas, with the shared historical past and reconciling the future through Arts and Culture as well as workshops, seminars, and specialized programing.
In October of 1992, PANAFEST was officially launched and in December of the same year, the national phase of the festival was held in Cape Coast, Ghana after a series of activities which included a national playwriting competition, organized seminars and workshops on Pan-Africanism across the country.
The first Pan-African Historical Theater Festival was held in Cape Coast, Elmina and Accra, Ghana from the 12th to the 19th December, 1992 under the theme “The Re-emergence of African Civilization”. PANAFEST 1992 was officially opened by Flt. Lt. J.J Rawlings, President of Ghana. In his welcome address he indicated that the festival marked the beginning of a festival movement with its “great source of cultural enrichment for all Africans at home and abroad.”
Here are some of the personalities and a few of the highlights that show the diversity and broad scope of PANAFEST contribution as a showcase for literature and the performing arts:
The 1994 edition of PANAFEST adopted the sub-theme of “Uniting the African Family for Development” and witnessed the participation of over 4,000 international participants from 32 countries. Celebrities such as Dionne Warrick and Rita Marley graced the PANAFEST with their presence.
The world-renowned musician, Stevie Wonder was the leading artist at the 1994 festival. Stevie Wonder, who maintains a home in Ghana, was co-chairman of PANAFEST ’94.
When he inaugurated the Festival in Accra, he said, “We must take anything we have and everything we can offer, to make for a united Africa. Even though Africans are a diversified people with different languages and live in different places, Africans are originally one people and must not allow differences to affect their unification.”
Fulbright scholar Francis Kofi, former master drummer of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, is an emerging star in the world of African music and dance. In 1994 he debuted his opera music collage “Chains” at PANAFEST. Drawing from his knowledge of music, dance and spiritual traditions, Francis created a thought-evoking performance with the collaboration of New York based artist Andruid Kerne, fusing drum language to an experimental form of percussive poetry.
“Chains” examines the legacy of slavery using the coded messages of drums. The drum language calls for the ancestors’ support and speaks with proverbs in order to transmit a message with urgency.
In keeping with its tradition of showcasing the literary arts, PANAFEST ’94 invited Ms. NourbeSe Philip who is a lawyer, poet and writer. Born in Tobago, she now makes her home in Toronto Canada. The experiences of Black women and girls are foremost in NourbeSe’s works, as are issues of belonging, language, place and location.
In her own words, “For the many like me, black and female, it is imperative that our writing begin to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as integrate that most painful of experiences – loss of our history and our word. Reacquisition of power to create in one’s own image is vital to this process; it reaffirms for us that which we have always known, even in those darkest of times which are still with us – when everything conspired to prove otherwise – that we belong most certainly to the race of humans.”
The PANAFEST Colloquium was one of the jewels of the festival that attracted scholars of international renown from Africa, the Americas and Europe.
Following a 3-year hiatus, PANAFEST returned in 1997, consolidating venues in Accra and Cape Coast and extending its reach to other parts of Ghana. New forms of expression were added. 1997 saw the participation of such powerhouses as James Cannings – international recording artist and businessman, accomplished guitarist, keyboardist, composer, arranger, songwriter, producer and studio engineer. Born in Guyana, Cannings is known worldwide for his volunteer work at hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges, libraries, and international festivals where he regularly shares his reggae / world beat renditions. One of the headliners at PANAFEST 1997, he returned to Ghana to perform again at both 1999 and 2001 PANAFEST.
Mac Tontoh and his group “Kete Warriors” received accolades for their performances at PANAFEST in Ghana in both 1997 and 1999, at the 1998 National Festival of Arts and Culture in Bolgatanga, and at the 2000 Emancipation Day commemoration at Cape Coast – attended by Africans from all corners of the Diaspora, including delegations from the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.
The new fusion of jazz and traditional Ashanti rhythms which emerged from this group confirmed Mac’s status at home as a truly vital force in contemporary Ghanaian music.
On hand to capture the sounds of PANAFEST ’97, Femi Lasode hails from Abeokuta, Nigeria. He is well-known as the music director behind the production company “Afrika ‘n Vogue” which has produced a number of successful musical works including Afrobeat Sketches 1996 and Afrikan Rythms 1998 – a musical project featuring such stars as King Sunny Ade, Sunny Neji, Francis Goldman, Yinka Davis, Alariwo of Africa, Peterson Agu, Prince Allam Bloo, and Princess Cheena Aboh. His studio took an active part in preserving the memories of PANAFEST ’97.
In 1999, Femi Lasode returned to PANAFEST to debut a production from his film company: Even-Ezra Nigeria Limited (the audio-visual arm of Afrika’n Vogue). The people’s movie, “Sango – the Legendary Afrikan King” was shown at Cape Coast, the main PANAFEST ’99 venue. The next day “Sango” played to large crowds when it was shown simultaneously in Accra, Takoradi, Kumasi and Koforidua. Nigeria’s most popular epic movie, “Sango” broke box office records at the National Theatre in Lagos as the first English-speaking film to attract a massive turnout.
With each passing year, PANAFEST continued to evolve and innovate, by t he integration of new and different forms of visual expression. Performing at PANAFEST ’99, the Kusun Ensemble is fast becoming one of the top performing groups in Ghana. Their traditional performances and workshops are just part of their repertoire. An extraordinary ensemble of traditional musicians and dancers based in Ghana, their electric combination of sensual and vibrant dances and the riveting power of master drummers brings the tropical passion of West African music to the world stage.
Founded by Nii Tettey Tetteh, the group includes past and present members of The National Ballet and The Pan African Orchestra. Musicians were chosen who understood the cultural importance of the music and who were passionate about sharing it with Ghanaians and the rest of the world.
Adopting the theme “The Agenda for a New Millennium”, PANAFEST 1999 hosted artists from across the African continent. One example of these gifted performers is Siyaya from Zimbabwe, a 15-member arts company that is involved in music, dance, theatre and poetry. To date they have produced more than ten plays, dance shows and musicals which have been performed in most parts of Zimbabwe, and at festivals in South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Zambia, Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales and Germany.
Click on the links to hear some of their music.
PANAFEST 2001 saw the integration of “Emancipation Day” into the program, a commemoration of the end of slavery in Ghana that was established in 1999.
As PANAFEST has grown in its popularity, it continues to attract record numbers of African Americans who combine attendance at the festivities with their thirst for knowledge about their heritage. 2001 also heralded the first “Slave Route Pilgrimage”, tracing the path that slaves took from northern Ghana as they were brought south to the waiting dungeons of Cape Coast and Elmina.
While PANAFEST 2001 did not see the anticipated attendance that was forecast, these programs will be continued in 2003. Despite some logistics problems and late arrivals due to delayed airline flights, PANAFEST 2001 enjoyed measures of success, including meaningful discussion about the burgeoning growth of Information Technology as discussed under the 2001 sub-theme of “Bridging the Digital Divide.”
Ghana’s Vice-President Alhaji Aliu Mahama opened the 2001 edition: “I am honoured to be invited here this morning to launch this year’s program of activities to mark the celebration of Panafest and Emancipation Day. I am informed this is the first time these celebrations have been brought together under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism.
The PANAFEST and Emancipation Day celebrations are to us a kind of homecoming, occasions that bring out our culture and arts for the whole world to see – because a people with no culture, are doomed to extinction. Given the status of Ghana as the motherland for all peoples of African descent, our government is assuring all Africans and peoples of African descent all over the world that we will continue to welcome them home.
PANAFEST 2003 was also different for its many other innovations. An expanded Crafts Bazaar gave Ghanaian craftsmen an opportunity to showcase their many artistic talents. And for the first time, Kumasi hosted a unique “Conference of African Traditional Rulers”, an event that attracted royals from neighbouring countries and from as far away as South Africa.
With the Ashanti king’s blessing, this conference was aligned with the activities in Elmina, Accra, Cape Coast and the far north, making PANAFEST 2003 a truly pan-national event for all Ghanaians – as well as our many visitors from abroad.
PANAFEST 2003 was not without its trials however. As in other editions, the event suffered from lack of sponsorship, late payments of entry fees and some communication problems. It is hoped that sponsors will be more forthcoming for 2005 and that support for this unique African event will continue to grow. But for those who attended the 2003 edition, there were crowning moments, marked by superb performances and an abundance of sunshine – plus the traditional hospitality that has made Ghana famous throughout the world.
New Faces and New Places might be the best way to sum up the changes in evidence at PANAFEST 2005.
The Diasporan presence continued to expand with the addition of visitors from the Bahamas, Bermuda and other Caribbean countries. At a ceremony in Adisadel Park, school children carried the flags of many nations, demonstrating the international element that PANAFEST generates. As always, they provided an exciting and colorful display of pomp and pageantry. The Elders, Royals and Citizens of Cape Coast and Elmina once again demonstrated their enthusiastic welcome for visitors from far and wide. And Mother Nature smiled on the event, with an uninterrupted nine days of sunshine.
During each PANAFEST, it has been the usual practice to hold seminars and theme days at various academic and museum venues in Cape Coast, while the entertainment and craftsmen/artisans have been delegated to Adisadel Park.
In 2005 a bold new idea was tried out – why not have some of these symposiums in the Park too – out in the open air? The experiment was an astounding success. The larger space allowed more of the locals to partake in these dialogues and the park fostered a culture of belonging, bringing foreign guests and local residents together in an atmosphere of music, dance, local cuisine and an extraordinary selection of arts and crafts. This was a win-win situation for all, with the merchants doing a brisk business and delegates experiencing Ghana hospitality at its best.
PANAFEST 2005 also saw a return to theatrical, music and dance performances that more accurately reflect the true culture of Africans in Africa and the Diaspora. Pop music was scaled back and traditional drums and dance brought to the forefront with many West African and foreign troupes displaying their unique talents.
Capping off the 2005 Edition of PANAFEST was the Emancipation Day remembrance ceremonies held at Assin Manso, which was the last stop for slaves being brought from the North to the forts and prisons on the coast. The people of this community never fail to impress visitors with their dedication and warm welcome as they display their local culture and heritage in a magnificent durbar.
The Town Elders have also made great strides in putting Assin Manso on the tourist map. The Slave River Park has been expanded and a Memorial Wall added where Diasporan Pilgrims can add their names by purchasing a brick on the wall. New signage and an African Hall of heroes that pays homage to great Civil Libertarians is another new addition to what is quickly becoming one of Ghana’s premier visitor attractions.
PANAFEST 2007 saw the country celebrate its 50th Anniversary of being the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to attain independence. Ghana had numerous celebrations and ceremonies to celebrate this historic occasion. PANAFEST 2007 was one the jewel on the crown of these National events.
2007 saw another challenge with the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relations
Introducing the “Joseph Project” aimed at the same constituency based upon many of the same objectives as PANAFEST yet PANAFEST prevailed as the preferred choice of events promoting Pan Africanism and reuniting the African family.
PANAFEST 2019 was themed “Beyond 400 Years: Reaching Into the Future Across Continents.” In 2019, inspired by PANAFEST, Ghana announced the Year of Return. All throughout the year, the entire Pan African Family came together in in record breaking numbers and travelled to Ghana to participate in the ceremonies, rites, performances and conferences which PANAFEST and Emancipation had become known for.
Certainly, the commemoration by the U.S Congress passing the HR 1242 bill acknowledging the infamous milestone of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colony of Virginia along with the declaration of 2019 as The Year of Return in Ghana provided a poignant focus for these Festivals.
PANAFEST 2019 was the main event of the year was historical and Ghana saw celebrities, dignitaries, activists, religious and spiritual leaders, scholars, politicians from all over the Pan African world show their solidarity with Pan African ideals for reconciliation and liberation from all plagues of white supremacy.
PANAFEST 2021 was planned to build on 2019 and the launch of “Beyond the Return” to bring the African Family together to review the dynamics of The Return or the Sankofa Principle and explore it as an impetus for the future. However, the shattering unpredictability of the global outbreak of the Corona Virus Pandemic has unearthed some chilling truths about the Global African Reality.
Nevertheless, PANAFEST showed our African resilience and went on to continue the great tradition to theme PANAFEST 2021 “Securing the African Family: Our Soul, Our Health, Our Wealth.”