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Go to Boise for its arts scene? Yep! The booming city is undergoing a cultural renaissance

Brendan Kiley, The Seattle Times on

Published in Travel News

BOISE, Idaho -- "Boise is a badass," declared Jake Logue Salutregui, who, when he's onstage at the downtown Balcony Club, goes by the drag name Denimm Cain. "We have an underground culture that is underappreciated. We have great food, healthy and athletic people, educated people, people who are dreamers. It's a shame the nation doesn't know what Boise has to share with the rest of the world."

That sounds about right -- especially the "underappreciated" part. Boise, Idaho, is in the midst of a boom, which also means its cultural scene is having a kind of renaissance, even if some of us don't know it yet. When I told people I wanted to spend a few days in Boise, their reactions were succinctly encapsulated by a worldly, well-traveled friend who currently lives in Dakar, Senegal: "Boise? What the hell is in Boise?"

So cosmopolitan, my friend, yet so provincial.

Today, there's plenty in Boise. But it wasn't always that way. Dayo Ayodele, for example, moved to Boise in 2004 -- reluctantly.

Originally from Nigeria, he'd moved to Southern California to study and make film. Along the way, he fell in love, got married, and found himself about to become a father. "My ex, the mother of my child, decided California would not be the best place for a family, so she came to Idaho," Ayodele said. He stayed behind. "My friends from Seattle and Portland advised against coming here," he said. "That it was not really conducive for an African person, a black person."

Ayodele stalled for two years, until his father issued a commandment. "He said: 'Pack your stuff and go be with your family!' " Ayodele recalled, chuckling. "And in Africa, when your parents tell you to do something, you don't talk back!"


Parts of Boise seemed as racist as he'd feared. At the local park, when his biracial daughter would run toward the other kids, their parents kept shepherding them away. This happened several times. "I felt more angry than my daughter -- little kids, they don't know these things," Ayodele said. "It was a really hard time for me. But when I went to church, I met people who were not black and who were amazing! I thought: 'There's a disconnect here, a problem that needs to be fixed. Maybe these are not bad people -- they just don't get it.' "

After simmering for a while, Ayodele decided to try an experiment: drumming. He had been a drummer in Nigeria, so he took his instrument to the same park and just started playing. "It was like honey to a bee!" he said. "When I drummed, people became curious -- what I was doing, who I was, where I was from. Music tends to soothe the beast, as they say."

Ayodele took it a step further, approaching cafes about cultural programming by immigrants: music, presentations, question-and-answer sessions. That took off and grew into a nonprofit called Global Lounge, which Ayodele runs with longtime local Donna Kovaleski, and has become a kind of cultural liaison between Boise and its significant refugee population -- though Ayodele thinks the term "refugee" carries pejorative, disempowered connotations and prefers the term "new Americans." The U.S. State Department reports nearly 9,990 refugees, or "new Americans," have been placed in Idaho since 2008, the vast majority in Boise.

Global Lounge does school outreach (organizing people from eastern Nigeria, for example, to talk to students reading Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"), works with the local YMCA to bring young "new Americans" and local kids together for activities (Chinese calligraphy, American beatboxing, African drumming, basketball, swimming), and started the World Village Festival, a dayslong summer event (this year from June 21-23) with global music, storytelling, arts and cuisine. This year's headliners, who will play in front of the state Capitol, just a quick walk from downtown Boise: Jamaican superstars Sly and Robbie, plus Mykal Rose and Black Uhuru.


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