- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2007

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.

Just the right time

Why, of all the places in the world, have these three been chosen?

“This is a seminal time for Northern Ireland,” says Nancy Groce, curator for the Northern Ireland portion of the festival.

“The peace process has been going on for the past 20 years, but the Stormont Parliament — Northern Ireland’s own legislature — was reconvened about a month ago, and there’s a lot of momentum now. We want to show Americans than it’s not just a war zone.”

Indeed it’s not. In May, once-warring Unionists and Republicans assumed joint governance in Belfast, bringing to a close the more than 30 years of bloody sectarian strife known understatedly as the Troubles.

It’s also a good time to focus on Virginia, according to Betty Belanus, curator of “The Roots of Virginia.”

“Now that it’s the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, people are looking back at the three cultures that came together there in the 1600s — the Native Americans, the English and the West Africans,” she explains.

“We’re bringing in 40 people from England — mainly from Kent County, which had close associations with Jamestown — and 13 people from Senegal, as well as representatives of eight Virginia Indian tribes.”

To Mr. Kennedy, the Mekong region is also one whose time has come.

“For Americans, the word ‘Mekong’ means the Mekong Delta and the Vietnam War and maybe Pol Pot, ” he says. “We have 2 million people from the Mekong region now living in the United States, some of them third generation.”

Five countries are included in the Mekong watershed, Mr. Kennedy explains — Yunnan province in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

“Every one of those countries has some problem with the others. The people in the region, and at the festival, speak 23 different languages,” he says. “We focus on the river as a connector. We want to extend peoples’ view of the region. We want people to connect with each other and with Americans.”

For example, the festival will put Mekong area weavers from different cultures together in the weaving tent, and bring together fish-trap makers from diverse areas of the region.

Connecting

Is there also a link among the three regions featured in the festival?

“There’s not always a connection between the three regions, but the participants always make connections,” says Ms. Groce. “For example, the people from Northern Ireland are interested in meeting the Scots from Virginia.”

Other connections are soon found: Both Yunnan province and Virginia have air-dried ham, and the Northern Ireland and Roots of Virginia sections will feature “car culture.”

“The whole point is to look at contemporary culture,” explains Ms. Groce, who is bringing rally car drivers from Northern Ireland to the festival.

“We’ll have car detailers from Southside Virginia. They do what’s called ‘pinstriping’ — painting intricate designs on cars,” says Ms. Belanus, adding to Ms. Groce: “We should have your guys meet them.”

Building the festival

Nearby, a man swings a sledgehammer to frame the first of three gardens in the Virginia section. One, explains Ms. Belanus, will become a formal garden, such as those found at large estates in Kent, England, and at Virginia mansions such as Mount Vernon. Half will be filled with English plants, while the other will focus on Virginia plants.

Another garden will be a school garden, such as those planted at black schools in the U.S. schools at the turn of the 20th century, while a third will be a kitchen garden containing plants grown by small landowners and African slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries.

“This stage will be used by the Mummers,” says Ms. Groce, pointing to a small wooden platform in the Northern Ireland section.

“Mummers are costumed men who go from house to house and perform little plays during the darkest times of the year. They started as part of pre-Christian fertility rituals. … Culturally, Northern Ireland goes back about 8,000 years. It was first settled by people who probably came from the Iberian peninsula and who built Newgrange, something like Stonehenge. The Celts showed up about 500 B.C., then the Normans, then the Scots.”

Peopling the festival

How do the curators find the performers, artisans and crafts people they bring to the Mall?

Through persistence, according to Ms. Groce.

“When we went to companies like Bushmills and Belleek, the porcelain manufacturer, we told them we didn’t want official company spokespersons, we wanted the people who actually do the work. We found farm families through the farmers’ unions,” she says.

“The first time you call, sometimes the person has never heard of the Smithsonian. Then they look it up on the Internet, and the second time you call they really want to talk to you.”

Mr. Kennedy faced a more daunting job, finding participants in the five countries of the Mekong watershed where most people don’t have computers. To meet the challenge, the Smithsonian set up research training programs, with grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, to help identify potential participants.

The logistics of bringing participants and their regalia and equipment to Washington are also formidable.

“Most of the people from Senegal have never been out of their country,” says Ms. Belanus.

“Some of the people from Northern Ireland have never been on a plane,” adds Ms. Groce.

“A few years ago, we found some of the Tibetan monks, who were staying at the Key Bridge Marriott, going up and down on the elevator, giggling. They had never been on an elevator before.”

The symbolic mural

Meanwhile, carpenter Josh Herndon and assistants Molly Ryan and Will Straub have built a brick house on the Mall in the festival’s Northern Ireland section. Once lace curtains are placed in the windows, the structure will look very much like a typical rowhouse found in Northern Irish cities such as Belfast and Derry, says Ms. Groce.

But it’s only when Ms. Ryan and Mr. Straub start to mount large white plywood boards to both ends of the house that its significance becomes clear.

The boards will serve as a “canvas” for two murals, a reminder that during the Troubles, and even before, this form of street art — prideful, threatening and bitterly hostile toward the “other side” — was for both Catholics and Protestants a primary form of political expression, propaganda and storytelling in cities and towns or wherever a good-sized wall could be found.

Now two different groups of muralists from Northern Ireland — one Catholic, one Protestant — will embellish those large white boards to reflect the country’s new beginning.

The Bogside Artists, painters from a Nationalist (Catholic) neighborhood in Derry who have even published a book about their work, will reproduce a well-known “peace” mural on one gable end of the row house — while the East Belfast Muralists, from a Unionist (Protestant) area of Belfast, will create a mural reflecting the industrial heritage of their city.

Ms. Groce suggests that even the idea of these two newly hopeful murals has helped to bridge a gap.

“The groups told us they would try to meet before they came. They said it wouldn’t do to meet for the first time here since they came from the same country,” she says.

That, in a nutshell, seems to be story of the Folklife Festival year in, year out: making connections and binding them well.

“The house is just a prop. What’s really important is the story the mural has to tell, to show Americans that the people of Northern Ireland can work together,” Ms. Groce says.

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