In a society where racial and ethnic strife have made headlines the past year, Columbus’ annual international festival puts a world of emphasis on harmony and togetherness amid shared food, entertainment and cultural activities.

Coordinator Ali Crimmins sees the free, outdoor Ethnic Expo as important, if not more so, as it has ever been in her 12 years of organizing it.

She understands that a song occasionally can melt a heart, if not change it. And she knows that a specialty dish can give those with very different backgrounds a bridge for sharing common tastes. Which explains why 30 food booths figure to be as popular as ever.

I hope it (Ethnic Expo) is very important to all individuals,” Crimmins said of the gathering that draws thousands to First and Washington streets downtown. “It’s definitely still a good way to celebrate our diversity and all our different cultures. And it’s still a great way just to bring everyone together.”

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Ethnic Expo’s fun was born from that very serious backdrop in 1984, when Columbus first lady Barbara Stewart became concerned about a welcoming environment for international residents who moved to Columbus to work for Fortune 500 companies such as then-Cummins Engine Co. and Arvin Industries.

To help build community unity, Stewart aimed for something with a transcendent and literal universal appeal, such as music to help residents get past misconceptions about others. For several years, she even used an international kite fly as a fun, down-to-earth way for people to come together.

This year’s Ethnic Expo calls on a fun and down-to-earth quintet to headline its ample musical entertainment. Velvet Caravan, a lighthearted group of serious musicians from Savannah, Georgia, labels its Gyspy-style jazz as “European redneck music.” Some members also have tagged the group as a “Southern-Gypsy-Tonk-Latin-Swing Band.”

“None of these styles are intentional,” said the group’s co-founder, classically trained Venezuelan-born violinist Ricardo Ochoa. “They’re simply a reflection of who we are individually.”

But the host country this year is Germany. Adding to the authentic host flavor will be Bernd Poggemoeller, mayor of Loehne, Germany, Columbus’ sister city. He will serve as grand marshal of Ethnic Expo parade at 11 a.m. Saturday, beginning on Eighth Street and heading to Washington Street.

And to highlight the Bavarian background are groups such as the Seymour-based Schulhaus 4+3, which last played Ethnic Expo just a few years ago. The nine-member group will present a 45-minute set Oct. 14. Members expect to perform the concert set it normally plays at Seymour’s Oktoberfest, according to leader and clarinetist Steve McGrew.

“We’ll never run out of ammunition,” McGrew said of the band’s 381-tune repertoire.

The set list is expected to include crowd-pleasers such as “Beer Barrel Polka,” and the sing-along, “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

The schedule also will feature the Jay Fox Band (also known as the Jammin’ Germans), and even Indy Polkamotion.

The festival also includes a new twist: the Cummins Diversity Choir, fueling its push for a we-are-the-world warmth. The 30-member group, formed in May, represents people from six countries, according to organizers. The ensemble will perform the opening evening, though its members were uncertain of song selections at press time.

Gustavo (Gus) Viano, Cummins’ director of diversity and inclusion, also is the choir’s sponsor.

“Diversity and inclusion at Cummins means genuinely valuing the perspectives and experiences of all people — not regardless of their differences but because of their differences,” Viano said. “It is an excellent way to promote an inclusive work environment for our employees.”

He added that the arts are “a wonderful way to bring together different voices to create a unifying experience for both performers and the audience.”

Ethnic Expo schedule

OCT. 13

11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. – Indy Polkamotion, strolling the streets of the festival with polkas, waltzes and more.

5:45 to 6 p.m. – Cummins Diversity Choir, City Hall Plaza.

6 to 7 p.m. – Il Troubadore world music with Dancer Emily Nowels, First Street Stage.

7 to 8 p.m. – Celtica with progressive Celtic and Irish tunes,  City Hall Plaza.

8 to 9 p.m. – Jay Fox Band with German and other tunes, First Street Stage.

9 to 11 p.m. – Violinist Colin Matthews with pop, reggae, and other styles in the biergarten.

OCT. 14

11 a.m. – Parade beginning on Eighth Street.

Noon to 12:30 p.m. – Southern Indiana Pipes & Drums with Scottish music, City Hall steps.

12:30 to 1:15 p.m. – Kaia, an a cappella group performing everything from Finnish folk songs to African-American gospel, First Street Stage.

1:15 to 1:45 p.m. – Ballet Folklorico of Columbus, with artistic expression from Latino/Hispanic roots, City Hall Plaza.

1:45 to 2:30 p.m. – Schulhaus 4 + 3 Bavarian band, First Street Stage.

2:30 p.m. – Polka demo/lesson, First and Washington streets.

2:15 to 2:45 p.m. – Southern Indiana Taiko of Columbus (drumming), City Hall Plaza.

3 to 4 p.m. – Emily Ann Thompson Duo (Irish, Scottish and Canadian tunes on guitar and violin), First Street Stage.

3:30 to 4:30 p.m. – Columbus Got Talent winners Shiveka Trivedi and Neha Divekar presenting a mix of Indian dance, City Hall Plaza.

4:30 to 6 p.m. – Indy Polkamotion with polkas, waltzes and more – First Street Stage.

6 to 7:30 p.m. – Velvet Caravan with what it calls Gypsy jazz, City Hall Plaza.

7:30 to 10 p.m. – Violinist Colin Matthews, in the biergarten.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.