We are sitting on a huge log in an area of the Mall that will soon be occupied by colorfully dressed people from the Bahnar tribe of central Vietnam, some of the more than 500 participants who will converge on Washington for the 2007 edition of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which opens Wednesday.
This year’s festival, the 41st, spotlights the cultures of the Mekong River watershed, Northern Ireland, and the contributions to Virginia’s culture by American Indians, the English and West Africans.
And right away we see the depth of detail required to pull off this yearly celebration of cultural crosscurrents.
“This is not the wood they asked for,” says Rich Kennedy, curator of “Mekong River: Connecting Cultures,” as he strokes the barkless poplar log donated and transported to the festival by World of Hardwoods in Harmans, Md.
The Bahnar people, who have a major project in mind for the festival, had hoped for wood of the dipterocarpaceae family, hardwoods that grow in tropical rain forests — hardly the sort one might stumble upon in these parts.
“But it’s a hardwood,” Mr. Kennedy says, “and they’ll use it to make a dugout canoe.”
In fact, the Bahnar, he says, told him they can work with poplar. And when he told them the log seems to be drying out, they said that was even better.
It’s one little wrinkle, now ironed out.
No ordinary festival
The dugout project is just one of the unusual attractions of a festival that specializes in the offbeat.
Visitors this year will be able to chat up the Bahnar canoe-carvers — through interpreters — as well as workers from Northern Ireland’s Harland and Wolff, the heavy engineering company that built the ill-fated Titanic, and the crew of the replica of Capt. John Smith’s shallop, an open wooden sailing and row boat that is making a full circuit of the Chesapeake Bay this summer.
They’ll also have a chance to take a lesson in Cambodian ballet, turn up Roman artifacts in an archaeological dig, and learn the basics of rugby.
They’ll be entertained by traditional — and non-traditional — Irish music groups, gospel music from Virginia’s Tidewater, larger-than-life Cambodian puppets, African storytellers and many others.
They’ll watch cooks from Yunnan, China, turn out “over-the-bridge” noodles, learn about the varieties of Virginia apples, and gather around the still where workers from Bushmill’s distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, will transform barley and water into Irish whiskey — sorry, no samples.
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