The sound of birds, a throbbing drumbeat, the trill of a homemade flute and a piercing African chant all set the stage for yesterday's beginning of Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday that celebates the heritage of African Americans.

Inside the darkened Carmichael Auditorium of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, Brother Ah and Imani were conjuring up the sounds of an Ashanti village in Ghana as a way of explaining Kwanzaa's symbols and ceremonies.

"Kwanzaa is not an African Christmas," said Imani, whose real name is Cynthia Hopkins. "It's not related to any European celebration."

Instead, she explained, the holiday's roots are African harvest festivities, and the symbols and ceremonies are meant to forge links to the past for African Americans.

As holidays go, Kwanzaa -- the Swahili word means first fruits -- is relatively young.

It was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a black nationalist and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, has been embraced by some religious organizations and is now celebrated by millions of black Americans.

Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle or attribute necessary for a successful harvest: unity (umoja) on the first day; then self-determination (kujichagulia); collective work and responsibility (ujima); cooperative economics (ujamaa); purpose (nia); creativity (kuumba); and finally, faith (imani).

For three years, Brother Ah, whose real name is Robert Northern, presented programs on Kwanzaa at the Anacostia Museum in Southeast Washington, but yesterday was his first at the Smithsonian's larger, downtown museum.

Addressing an attentive audience of about 75, which included parents and children, blacks, whites and Asians, Brother Ah emphasized that the creativity celebrated during Kwanzaa extended to making the small presents that are usually given each day and even the musical instruments used for the celebrations.

He explained how a short length of bamboo can be transformed into a homemade flute and showed how a conch shell can become a trumpet.

In another part of the museum, Julia Johnson also was demonstrating Kwanzaa's tenet of creativity as she showed how a long sock, a little fabric and yarn and only rudimentary sewing skills can produce a doll.

"You can use things you have around the house, scraps from old dresses or curtains and old beads or ones from a thrift shop," said Johnson as she deftly stuffed cotton into an old brown knee sock that was already taking on doll characteristics.

Back in the auditorium, Brother Ah and Imani had gathered children from the audience to join in the dancing and merrymaking on stage as he beat on the drum and Imani sang. He explained Kwanzaa's main symbols, the seven-branched candelabra with one black candle and three each of red and green, and the unity cup that is a link both to the past and between those attending a Kwanzaa celebration.

Brother Ah and Imani will appear at the museum every day from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. through Dec. 31, explaining the Kwanzaa principle for that day. There also are numerous public ceremonies planned here, including services at 7 p.m. daily through Tuesday at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, where Kwanzaa has been celebrated for the last 14 years.