When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers. Though we’re living in a moment in which group celebrations are either being called off or adapting to extreme social distancing, in many ways these pre-quarantine parties are just the escape we need right now.
Here, we spoke with Katrina and Samson Debela, a couple so dedicated to “the comfort of community and good vibrations” that they created a performance series, the 565 Sessions, for artists, by artists. For their own nuptials, they plotted what might be called a wedding series: a cultural extravaganza celebrating their Nigerian and Ethiopian roots, and a blowout for friends in Mexico City.
Katrina: I’m a first-generation Nigerian-American, and he’s a first-generation Ethiopian-American. I grew up in Maryland; he grew up in L.A. But we had similar backgrounds and experiences, in the sense that within the four walls of our houses we were in either Ethiopia or Nigeria, and then out in the world we related as Americans.
Samson: There were vibes right away when we first met.
Katrina: It was on Valentine’s Day 2015 at a party on the Lower East Side. My group of friends and his group of friends were leaving at the same time, and they followed us to a pizza shop.
Samson: I proposed on a trip we took to South Africa for her birthday in 2018. For the wedding, we knew we wanted both of our very rich cultures to be celebrated. We both have big communities — there were so many nonnegotiables we had to consider.
Katrina: There were a lot of familial, obligatory things that our parents respectively wanted done. The Nigerian and Ethiopian cultures have completely separate wedding-ceremony traditions. We started thinking maybe we could have two different events: One day would be cultural, and one day would be the American walk-down-the-aisle, white-dress day.
Samson: We decided to have a cultural celebration in Virginia in September 2019, mostly for our families, with our parents giving their two cents on everything. And then we had another wedding that was completely our own — for us, by us — in Mexico City in February 2020.
Katrina: It was definitely two completely separate events with completely different guest lists. The guest list for the African wedding was more family centric and then Mexico City was heavily attended by our friends from all different phases of our lives and immediate family.
Samson: The first venue was Foxchase Manor in Manassas, Virginia ($19,000), which is about a 45-minute drive from her parents’ house. We chose that spot because of the capacity — it was 350 people — and they wouldn’t charge for catering. That wedding was for the culture, right? So we wanted to make sure our food was there. And a lot of these halls were kind of like cookie-cutter, just white walls, but this actually had impressive architecture: pillars at the grand entrance, chandeliers …
Katrina: The day started at 9 a.m., with the Ethiopian tradition of the groom’s parents and the groom pulling up to the bride’s family’s house loudly and clapping.
Samson: You sing songs basically stating why you’re there — that you want the girl’s hand in marriage. There’s a “fight” at the door, and they’re singing songs like, “Get out of here — you can’t provide for her.” It’s funny. I had to bring perfume and flowers, and her bridesmaids were supposed to block her from me, and then I sprayed the perfume, and they said, “Oh, okay. This guy is here to offer something nice.” Then we danced, we ate, and we prayed. We catered breakfast for 100 guests in Katrina’s parents’ house.
Katrina: Then we went to the venue to get ready for the evening, which started out with the traditional Nigerian ceremony. I’ve been to some that are four hours long, but we were able to do it in two. My parents entered to the tune of traditional music with their whole tribe of close friends and family. It’s supposed to speak to the community that I have behind me as the bridge. Then Samson’s parents danced in with their village. Our traditional Nigerian clothes were made in Nigeria with fabric by a company called Fabrics by Rantimi; the dress and Samson’s agbada were made by a woman named Reine Roi. I can’t say I did it on my own. I had a WhatsApp thread with my mom and my aunt in Nigeria, and my aunt would send me fabrics, and we looked at styles we liked and took my measurements. The tailors in Nigeria are amazing. It was just a matter of communication — approaching things from a project-management standpoint. Samson’s dad had the Ethiopian clothing made in Ethiopia while he was there last year. Again, that was just a matter of getting measurements and picking out an embroidery that we liked for our clothing. Our parents really did a lot of that work.
Samson: My groomsmen wore Ethiopian clothes, and her bridesmaids wore Nigerian clothes. After the Nigerian ceremony, we did a shortened version of an Ethiopian ceremony, the melse, which is like a post-wedding party. We had family and friends wait for us on the dance floor, and they danced around us in a circle. For food, we taste-tested a couple of spots, and we went with Dama for the catering of the Ethiopian food ($2,500), and Divine Kitchen and Flourish Palm for Nigerian food ($3,000). We had two buffet lines, and guests were able to try both. We worried the older guests might stick to what they know, but the older Ethiopians were trying the Nigerian food and vice versa.
Katrina: There was a buna ceremony — buna is what Ethiopians call coffee — followed by a dabo ceremony, which involves cutting bread, passing it around, and having everyone in attendance make a suggestion to give the new bride a new nickname.
Samson: Then there was a lot of dancing; the DJ was called Mo Yasin. At some point, we switched from traditional to more contemporary music, so we were just having fun with our friends.
Katrina: So, yeah, it was a long day. I was more stressed out because the African wedding was more logistics, more people, more involvement with our parents, and more tedious with more cooks in the kitchen. It was intense. The Mexico wedding did not stress us out at all. We had two planners, by the way. In Maryland, our planner was DeeDee George at TUM Socials, and she does a lot of traditional African weddings. For Mexico City, we researched local planners, came across Eventos Lum, and decided to work with their head planner, Mariana Nosti. Samson and I have a really similar aesthetic eye, so planning just flowed.
Samson: On Instagram, we found Proyecto Publico Prim, an estate from the early 1900s that had been a cigar-rolling factory at one point ($9,000). We visited in April 2019, and it was just breathtaking. We had 160 guests, friends and close-knit family. We didn’t think we’d get so many acceptances since it was a destination wedding, but we were surprised by how many people wanted to come and had to adjust the budget accordingly.
Katrina: My first Mexico City dress was by Viero Bridal ($2,000 for sample, ordinarily $3,500). I first saw it in a promotion on Instagram! I literally made an appointment there the next day. For me to end up in a ball gown was not what I thought would happen at all, but I loved it. I wore sneakers — a pair of custom pink Nike Cortez sneakers — underneath. My mentor and former boss, Erika Rose Santoro, officiated. She was in the music industry, but she’s also a yoga teacher, a certified Reiki master, and just a really calming and wonderful spirit.
Samson: The ceremony started off with a breathing exercise for everyone. We wanted her to put everyone in … I don’t want to say a trance, but get everyone grounded and calm and open. Then we had a couple of readings, and we wrote our own vows.
Katrina: It was just raw emotion hearing them for the first time. I would suggest it to anyone who is open to it — to try to write their own vows. It was probably one of my favorite things we did.
Samson: The cocktail hour was a lot of fun. We had a mariachi band and drinks on the top floor of the venue. I grew up in L.A., we both went to school in Pittsburgh, I have friends in Boston and we live in New York, and it was so cool to mesh these worlds and see them all hitting it off without forcing it. We had an area where they were making tortillas and quesadillas on the spot, and then we had some seafood hors d’oeuvre. A mix of Mexican and New American food is how I’d describe it (Kuchen Catering, $7,800).
Katrina: The bridesmaids danced into the reception, the groomsmen danced in, and then Samson and I made our entrance to “Father Stretch My Hands,” by Kanye West. We had a fairly large bridal party of 20 people, including us.
Samson: Then, we had a traditional first dance together to “Get You,” by Daniel Caesar.
Katrina: And we both danced with both of our parents. We wanted to honor both sets of parents; it takes two people to raise a human being.
Samson: We had long, rectangular tables and started off with a really incredible poblano soup …
Katrina: … with corn chips and Oaxaca cheese. For the appetizers, we had pumpkin ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and served with avocado sauce and an orzo pasta with roasted vegetables. Then, for the main dish, there was the option of beef with hibiscus and guajillo pepper sauce with esquite purée or a branzino that came with rice pasta.
Samson: We had a DJ. I throw a lot of parties, so some of my friends are DJs. We had Kitty Say Word, a good DJ out here in New York, early on in the night, and one of my groomsmen, YellowTech, later on in the night. They played a range of hip-hop, R&B, Afrobeat, some traditional Ethiopian music, oldies, and a mix of things throughout the night.
Katrina: Samson and I are actually not dessert people, so instead of doing a cake, we just did an assortment of desserts — a sea-salt caramel brownie, a banana tart, and a dark-chocolate tart that had hazelnuts in it. I sampled all of them when we did our tasting, and they all were great.
Samson: The mariachi band came out again at 1 a.m., along with some churros.