State College

‘I picture a mini-Carnival.’ New festival to bring Caribbean culture, music, food to State College

‘Mini-Carnival’ is the hope for Havana Fest

Tony Ghaffari talks about Havana Fest, which will bring music, food, cigars and more to the MLK plaza in September.
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Tony Ghaffari talks about Havana Fest, which will bring music, food, cigars and more to the MLK plaza in September.

A new Caribbean-themed festival is coming to town this fall.

Havana Fest, the brainchild of event organizer Tony Ghaffari, will take place at Martin Luther King Plaza and South Fraser Street between College and Beaver avenues on Sept. 21. The ticketed event will feature home-cooked Cuban food, a DJ playing Latin music, a live band, dance performances, beer and wine, cigar rolling and more for special ticket holders.

“I picture a mini-Carnival,” Ghaffari said, evoking the huge street festival that marks the beginning of Lent in Brazil each year. “In Miami, in Calle Ocho, every year (for Carnival) they do like 16 blocks, closed off, and every other block there’s a band playing, and there’s foods from every one of the Caribbean countries ... they’re selling stuff, they’re dancing.”

Though his event will be on a smaller scale, he said he wants to keep the energy and spirit of the Miami celebration.

State College Borough Council approved the event with an exemption from the borough’s open container laws at its July 15 meeting, so that the festival can serve wine and beer.

Ghaffari, who owns Your Cigar Den on Fraser Street, said he had always wanted to throw an event celebrating the cultural heritage of Caribbean countries. Born in New York City to a Cuban mother and Iranian father, he grew up visiting Miami and experiencing its rich Cuban culture.

“I’ve lived in this town 20 years, going on 21 years, and we’ve never really had a strong ethnic showing from the Hispanic/Latin American community,” he said.

But recently, with Venezuelan arepas restaurant Juana’s and Mexican restaurant Lupita’s joining the State College restaurant scene, he’s seeing Latin American food and culture becoming more commonplace.

“There was a time where I was the only one that spoke Spanish here, and now, like everywhere I go, I hear people speaking Spanish,” he said.

Ghaffari has hosted Havana nights at Your Cigar Den and hosts a Christmas party complete with a full Cuban meal “with all the fixings,” but wanted to widen his scope.

Inspired by a growing Latin American community and the newly renovated Martin Luther King Plaza, he finally thought, “Why not do this like a community-wide event?”

The three tiers of tickets are general, aficionado and connoisseur — connoisseurs get bonus cigars, a Cuban cigar and rum, private catered lunch and early entry to the festival. For those who don’t want to splurge for a ticket, Ghaffari says all are welcome to come to MLK plaza and experience the music and dancing.

“I’m really excited. I can’t wait to see how it comes out,” he said. “I wonder if I’m gonna get any sleep the couple nights before that, but it’ll be fun.”

For more information on the festival and ticket sales, visit www.havanafestpa.com.

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