Paradise of Samoa performs at the World Beat Festival on Friday and Saturday (Courtesy/Tasi Keener)

Tasi Keener remembers thinking, “I need to represent my island,” while watching performers at Salem's World Beat Festival 20 years ago.

The Samoan native had just moved to the area with her husband and kids.

“We didn’t know a single soul here,” she said.

A dancer from a young age, she wasn’t planning on having a dance troupe until she went to the festival.

The next year, in 2000, she taught herself and her sister’s kids Samoan dances and performed them at World Beat.

They performed again the following year and Keener started getting phone calls from people looking for a dance group for luaus.

“I was just laughing. I said, ‘Well I don’t have a group.’ It was just my kids and my sister’s kids,” she said.

But then she started thinking, “You know, why not?”

Now, Keener’s Polynesian dance group, Paradise of Samoa, is performing on Friday and Saturday during the festival.

The group is open to anyone and Keener said the dancers will have a potluck where they each bring a dish that represents their culture.

“It’s amazing and we eat together and we laugh. And sometimes we teach each other different languages,” she said.

Keener said she didn’t know how diverse Salem was until she started participating in the festival.

“People don’t know how many cultures are here in Salem,” she said. “The World Beat is bringing the best out of the community.”

Paradise of Samoa’s performance includes storytelling done through movement, Keener said.

The group performs at a lot of retirement homes and she said the highlight is seeing an elderly person clapping and smiling, forgetting about any pain or difficulty they may be going through.

“That they’re taking a trip with us,” she said.

Keener makes all the costumes the dancers wear. She said it took two weeks to make the outfits that will be on display this weekend.

After the performances, she said people will come up and say, "Oh my gosh I had no idea Samoan dancers were so graceful."

The festival marks 22 years this weekend.

It started with then-recent transplants Mona Hayes and Kathleen Fish.

“For me, it was culture shock coming from Washington DC,” Fish said. She was accustomed to experiencing a broader diversity of cultures in the nation’s capital.

In 2000, Salem was 83% white, according to census data. Now that number is 65%.

Hayes had been to a multicultural fair and told Fish, “Why don’t we do this, but for the whole town?”

Fish said there were several people in the early days who were really encouraging about the idea, like the late Senator Jackie Winters.

Each year the festival takes a survey.

“What we hear the most is 'I didn’t know there were that many different cultures in Salem,'" Fish said. “I just think it goes to show that we all get in our little silos, our little routines that we’re in every day.”

One of the goals of the festival is to create an atmosphere of openness and awareness to combat fear of the unknown, which Fish said drive a lot of discrimination.

“Salem’s really changed over the past couple of years with the refugee population being resettled in Salem instead of in Portland,” Fish said. “It’s more important than ever, because here we’ve got wonderful new community members who’ve gone through great trauma before coming here and having a population that’s ready to welcome them with open arms is great.”

On Saturday morning, 60 people will become citizens during a naturalization ceremony. Fish said she had wanted to do something like that for a while, and it’s happening for the first time this year.

The event relies on volunteers to keep things running – about 400 of them.

Each year the volunteer that “gives their all” at the festival is awarded a “Golden Ken,” a spray-painted Ken doll named in honor of a longtime volunteer.

“It’s the highest honor you can receive, it’s very prestigious because it’s in honor of Ken Chambers,” Fish said.

Previous winners have taken Ken all over the world, from the Great Wall to Machu Picchu.

Organizers recommend coming to the event hungry, as more than a dozen vendors will be serving up dishes ranging from Ethiopian dishes to empanadas

Each vendor will have a “Taste the World” option, which is a smaller sample for people who want to try multiple items.

There will also be goods for sale, like African baskets or Filipino fashions, and free crafts for kids.

Tickets are by donation Friday and $5 on Saturday and Sunday. Kids 14 and under are free. Those with an Oregon Trail card also get in free. More info and a full line up of events can be found at https://www.salemmulticultural.org/

Have an event coming up? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, saphara@salemreporter.com or @daisysaphara.

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