A Story to Tell: Funda Fest celebrates storytelling in its 22nd year

Funda Fest, the annual celebration of black storytelling presented by Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS), will take place throughout the state from January 25 through February 2. The Festival is in its 22nd year. “‘Funda’ means ‘to teach and to learn’ in Zulu and Kiswahili,” explained RIBS co-founder and executive director Valerie Tutson. “We got started
many years ago when the Rhode Island Foundation was doing some black arts programming in support of a project that was called I’ll Make Me A World, so they were really trying to celebrate black arts and artists and community. That year we did one weekend — I think we did four school
performances. Now we average about 40 all across the state.”

This year’s festival will kick off with a free family storytelling concert on Saturday, January 25 from 1 – 3pm at the North Kingstown Free Library. That evening, RIBS will be at The Universalist Unitarian Congregation of South County for another storytelling concert (doors at 6:30, 7pm show). The next day the festival will move to Providence, with a
performance of their program Words and Music at the South Side Cultural Center from 4 – 6pm.

“This year, we’ve got a new-to-town artist who we’re going to be featuring, Sharrief Muhammad, who is a spoken word artist and musician,” said Tutson. “He’s teamed up with some other local musicians, and they’re going to do a musical and spoken word set, along with some of the poets who are being sponsored in partnership with the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading.” Those include South African poet Kwezie Becker and New York based poet Gentile Ramirez.


From January 27 to 31, RIBS will bring Funda Fest to students across the state as part of their Storytellers in the Schools program. “One thing that’s new this year is we’re going to be at the Providence Performing Arts Center as part of their school series, which we’re excited about,” said Tutson. That performance will reach more than 2,000 middle school students from across the region.

The second weekend of the festival will begin with another free family storytelling concert at the YWCA in Woonsocket on January 30 at 6:30pm. Then, on January 31, the festival’s annual Liar’s Contest and Awful Awful Singing Contest will be held at the American Legion in Providence (7 doors, 8pm contest). On February 1, at the Southside Cultural Center in PVD, the festival will hold a free family fun day, with a storytelling workshop from 10am – noon, lunch and marketplace at noon and a family storytelling concert from 1 – 3pm. That night, at the Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA), RIBS will present Storytelling for Grown Folk (7 doors, music, and marketplace, 8pm show). The festival will conclude with the 25th annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry reading, also at the PTCA (1pm).

This year, Funda Fest is proud to host internationally acclaimed South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe. “It’s a big thrill to have her here at Funda,” said Tutson, who met Mhlophe in South Africa and has stayed friends with her for many years. Mhlophe’s distinguished career spans more than three decades of work as a storyteller, freedom fighter, activist, actress, poet, playwright, director and author. Recently, she was featured in the award-winning documentary Liyana. In the film, she guides a number of Swazi children, orphaned by the AIDS crisis, in creating a story based on their own experiences. She has traveled extensively since 1988, telling stories in four of South Africa’s languages (English, Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa). Mhlophe has called storytelling “the basis of all cultures and the
mother of all art forms,” and “a way to keep history alive.”

Funda Fest’s enduring presence in Rhode Island is a testament to that fundamental importance of storytelling, and its capacity to shape experience. “We always want people to come away from the festival feeling like they experienced the power of storytelling,” explains Tutson. “In black tradition, storytelling is not just a sit back and listen kind of thing, it’s really a community experience. So we want people to feel engaged. And we always want to celebrate the diversity of black voices, and to provide an alternative experience to the stories that many of us see and hear about black folks every day on the news. It’s always our hope that black people feel good about themselves and their culture because of something that they heard, and we hope that all people learn something.”

For a complete schedule, go to or