NEW ORLEANS — Music lovers danced under a hot bright sun Thursday — some with umbrellas in hand — to the rhythms of Corey Henry's Treme Funket brass band on the bank of the Mississippi River, as the 20th annual Essence Festival kicked off a holiday weekend of revelry.
"It's an American celebration," said Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., of the festival, which is held over the 4th of July holiday annually. "We love that. This is America at its best."
Fans who arrived early nabbed coveted shady spots under the canopy of oak and magnolia trees in the park fronting the river as music spilled from nearby stages.
"I love Essence," said New Orleans native Gwen Duplessis, 64, who said she's attended every festival since its inception in 1995. "I love the music, the food, the culture, and we get to hang out with family and friends. It's a party with a purpose. We party, but we get knowledge at the seminars, and we get to enjoy one of my favorite past times — shopping."
As Duplessis took in the music, breezes and atmosphere on the riverfront, she said she was most looking forward to performances by Prince, who's scheduled to close Friday night's concert at the Superdome, and Mary J. Bilge, who's scheduled on Saturday.
"I can't wait," she said.
Mimi Jones of New Orleans said the festival gets bigger every year. "Every year there's something new going on. I've never been to this part, in the park, but every year there's something new going on."
In addition to the music, festival-goers get a chance to experience Louisiana's cuisine. Aromas wafted throughout the riverfront tempting attendees to sample some traditional Southern comfort foods, including red beans and rice, fried okra, fried shrimp or chicken and barbecue ribs.
"It is a place to experience all of the cultural rituals, homecoming, music, and also to be inspired and informed by the greatest leaders in the country and entertained by the greatest artists around the world," Ebanks said of festival. "You get it all here."
Douglas Gordon of San Francisco was celebrating his birthday this weekend at Essence with his wife and two teenage daughters.
"It's our first time to New Orleans, our first Essence, and we're looking forward to just taking it all in," he said, adding that he will be 56 on Saturday.
The day also included musical performances by Cupid and gospel singer Erica Campbell.
R&B crooner Trey Songz and rapper Nas were among the performers who performed later Thursday inside the Superdome.
The festival runs through Sunday.