- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

Beginning in early June, the Mall around the Smithsonian Castle starts to sprout tents, stages and other structures less easily identified — a Malian adobe gate one year, a Japanese rice paddy another.

Whatever the assemblage, it signals an important rite of summer: the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Since 1967, the festival has given tourists and residents a chance to experience some of the best music, crafts and cultural lessons from the United States and around the world, up close and personal in this nation’s own front yard.

“We want to allow people to meet who probably would not in their everyday lives,” says festival Director Diana Parker.

This year, the festival features three areas: “Alberta at the Smithsonian,” “Nuestra Musica: Latino Chicago,” and “Carriers of Culture: Living Native Basket Traditions.” A series of evening performances, “Been in the Storm So Long,” will highlight the variety and diversity of New Orleans musical culture.

Showcasing different areas and disparate cultures is a model that has worked since the festival’s early days.

“A lot has stayed the same since the beginning,” says Ms. Parker, who notes that the festival plays host to about a million visitors a year. “It’s a real tribute to the founders of the festival.”

Visual cues this year include modest front porch stages, a narrow urban thoroughfare and a massive wooden ranch gate. They are all expected to lead to a broader understanding of culture, while placing festival participants practically alongside those who have come to watch and learn.

That was something very important to S. Dillon Ripley, who as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1967 decided that he needed to move the sense and spirit of exhibition from the museums to the Mall.

“We have dulcimers in museums, but not many people have heard one or had the chance to see them being made,” the late Mr. Ripley once famously remarked.

Crafts and tradition

Since then, visitors have seen and heard a whole lot more. Over the years, stone carvers, lace makers, cooks and storytellers have all shared their expertise. The emphasis is on letting the bearers of such traditions tell their story without interpretation from the so-called experts.

“As curators we decided not to say what we think Chicago is for Latinos,” says Olivia Cadaval, co-curator of “Nuestra Musica: Latino Chicago.” “We wanted to let the artists speak for themselves.”

The process has resulted in some pretty legendary programs, such as 1981’s focus on deaf culture or 2002’s showcase of the Silk Road. The emphasis on featuring programs from different cultures at the same time can also make for some legendary juxtapositions, like the time in 1986 when a Tennessee whiskey barrel maker hooked up with a Japanese sake cask expert. The two ended up working together later.

Volunteers form an important part of the mix, says volunteer coordinator Judy Luis-Watson, often lending a hand to make things go more smoothly for both participants and visitors.

“We’ve had thousands of volunteers over the years,” says Ms. Luis-Watson, who says they use about 300 over the two-week period of the festival. “It’s unbelievable how many people want to volunteer for this.”

People like Melvin Asterken, who has been manning the information kiosk by the Metro for the last five festivals. It’s one of the busiest points on the entire site, but Mr. Asterken likes the interaction — and the rush.

“Some people just stumble out of the Metro and have no idea where they are,” says Mr. Asterken, a retired federal employee with a long interest in cultural studies. “They’re really not prepared for what they’re going to see.”

And don’t forget what happens between participants and festival staff members themselves.

“I learned 99 percent of timber framing techniques from the participants in the Building Arts program a few years back,” says Rob Schneider, the festival’s technical director, who is responsible for constructing that massive wooden gate as part of the Alberta program. “I hung out with those guys all the time.”

Alberta, eh?

The Alberta program, the first to feature a Canadian province, is designed to give festival goers a sampling of the cultural and geographical diversity of this great swath of western Canada.

“It’s a lot like America,” says curator Nancy Groce. “But it’s got some different sensibilities.”

The program, with more than 150 participants, highlights some of the skills necessary to work in Alberta’s vast oil and natural gas industries. A 17-foot-high haul truck, with 12-foot tires, now sits on the Mall as testament to that accomplishment. Retired grain elevator operators will be on hand to talk about life in the small towns that grew up around the grain elevator.

And through SuperNet, Alberta’s interactive education network, festival goers will have a chance to interact directly with youngsters in their classrooms in Alberta.

“We’ll have mikes set up so kids in our audience can question kids in Alberta,” Ms. Groce says.

The Albertans will be grilling out on the Mall this summer — salmon, not beef. In addition, coaches and others will weigh in on not just the importance of ice hockey, but on various ethnic and First Nations crafts. And an entire ranching family has come to talk about life on the ranch, along with some of their horses and cattle to set the scene.

“It’s a chance to meet very interesting people who believe passionately in what they do,” Ms. Groce says.

Meanwhile, Albertan musicians, from tribal a cappella groups to singer-songwriters like Ian Tyson, will help provide a musical grounding for the experience. Franco-Albertan, Ukrainian and Blackfoot dancers will be featured in the dance program, and members of regional theater companies will trade barbs during competitive theater performances.

Latino Chicago

Music is also important over in the “Nuestro Musica” area, which highlights the importance of music to Latino culture in Chicago.

“We use music as a lens of Latino culture,” says Ms. Cadaval. “It’s rooted in place, but brings together a variety of traditions.”

The program explores the way Latino culture has helped to shape contemporary society, while underscoring the ways that Latinos, often from a variety of different areas themselves, use culture to both create community and confirm identity.

“I do believe that the term ‘Latino’ as used today originated in Chicago,” says Ms. Cadaval. The importance of that term — as opposed to the census term “Hispanic” — is that it’s a “self-identifier,” Ms. Cadaval says; that is, it’s what people call themselves.

“It’s not someone else telling you what you are called,” she says.

Like other great immigrant cities, Chicago served as a kind of musical incubator, as musicians from a variety of origins bumped up against existing musical traditions and those from other cultures. So you’ll see and hear musicians performing in a variety of traditions and styles, from Afro-Caribbean music to Peruvian criollo, and the popular Mexican-American dance style called pasito duranguense. You can even learn to do the cumbia and merengue.

“It’s very exciting,” says Ms. Cadaval. “We’ve engaged an incredible representation of artists.”

Meanwhile, muralists and graphic artists will provide a visual sense of Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods, while members of WRTE-Radio Arte, a non-profit community radio station in Chicago, will interview festival participants and visitors as part of a youth radio project.

Culture in a basket

Like a great city, a simple basket can also serve as a kind of incubator, says Marjorie Hunt, who is serving as curator for “Carriers of Culture: Living Native Basket Traditions.”

The program, produced in conjunction with the National Museum of the American Indian and Michigan State University, showcases a variety of basketry traditions from native cultures within the United States. This will be the largest gathering of weavers from the largest number of native groups ever.

“We’re featuring over 75 weavers,” says Ms. Hunt. “There is an incredible diversity and variety of styles, techniques and materials all across the U.S.”

The program features live demonstrations, dance performances, discussion sessions and a variety of hands-on activities. Festival organizers have taken pains to show how traditional techniques persist in the face of modern challenges as well as how the weavers have accommodated their craft to new realities.

A youth contingent sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation will be learning and demonstrating basket-making skills alongside their community elders, and three generations of one Navajo family will be present to showcase their skills.

“Today plastic and glass have replaced a lot of the functional uses for baskets,” says Ms. Hunt. “But they still embody a cultural identity.”

The program also features daily performances by basket dancers of the Tohono O’odham tribe of Arizona, who perform dances that illustrate their basketry.

“We’re anticipating a lot of wonderful exchanges,” says Ms. Hunt.

After the storm

In one of the festival’s more ambitious efforts to date, curators worked to unite members of the far-flung New Orleans diaspora for a celebration of New Orleans musical culture.

The evening concert series, produced in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, presents concerts tomorrow, July 7 and July 8. Between sets, performers will focus on the challenges of keeping their distinctive art form alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“In the aftermath of Katrina many of our traditions are in jeopardy,” says curator Michael White. “Music in New Orleans has always been part of an open communal expression that involves the whole neighborhood. It contributes so much to the sound and nature of the music.”

The Big Easy?s music has always involved different cultural elements, Mr. White says, and includes Spanish, French, African and black American influences. And if you’re looking to chart the roots of jazz, you need look no further than New Orleans.

“New Orleans jazz was the mother of all the other styles,” Mr. White says. “It was the voice of the people in the community.”

Performers at the festival include Big Chief Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, a centuries-old music and processional form that epitomizes the community nature of much of New Orleans music.

“We had a longstanding tradition throughout the 19th century of celebration music,” Mr. White says. “The dancing and chanting that they did then led to a legacy of rhythm that is very much West African.”

Also performing will be the Dixie Cups, a group that achieved a measure of commercial success in the 1960s with their performances of “Chapel of Love” and “Iko Iko.” The latter is actually an old Mardi Gras Indian song, Mr. White says.

Meanwhile, the bearers of the new tradition in brass band music will be represented by Hot 8, which has redefined the genre and made it more contemporary, mixing in modern influences like jazz and hip-hop with the traditional brass band style and sound.

“They are one of the more exciting and active young brass bands to come along,” says Mr. White, who will also be performing with his own group, Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band.

In a way, the festival is a lot like New Orleans music.

“It parallels what we do with food,” Mr. White says. “When you make a good gumbo, you take a lot of ingredients that don’t normally go together and make them work.”

WHAT: The 40th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival

WHERE: On the Mall between Seventh and 14th streets

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, June 30 to July 4, and July 7 to July 11. Concerts, special events and dance parties extend into most evenings.

TICKETS: Admission free

INFORMATION: 202/633-1000 or folklife.si.edu/festival/2006/index.html

Fun stufffor children

Displays, demonstrations and performances geared especially to children will give young visitors to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival plenty of opportunity to learn about the cultures spotlighted this year. Here is a sampler:

‘Alberta at the Smithsonian’

• Link to Alberta’s children: Alberta Education’s interactive SuperNet network will link students from all over Alberta to youngsters attending the festival. Children on the Mall can view these presentations and talk directly with their Albertan peers about their lives. 11 a.m. daily (noon June 30) on the Wild Rose Stage.

• Dinosaur dig: A dinosaur dig will introduce children to paleontology and its tools.

• Oil truck: A 17-foot-high “haul-truck,” used to haul oil sands, will be on display as part of the “Alberta Energy” section of the program.

• Alberta’s outdoors: Roping practice and knot-tying demonstrations, fly-fishing demonstrations, wilderness games and relay races organized by forest rangers, and a chance to try on the gear of the various professions.

‘Carriers of Culture: Living Native Basket Traditions’

• Family Activities Tent: Features a basket-weaving area, a scavenger hunt and a memory game. Children can learn about basketry symbols and designs and design and color their own baskets. A trove of basket materials will give youngsters the opportunity to touch and to learn about the raw plant materials used in baskets.

• Other activities: Storytelling and song-sharing, preparing acorns for acorn soup and making animal figures from black ash splints and lauhala leaves.

‘Nuestra Musica: Latino Chicago’

• Concerts and workshops: Performances to watch, as well as dance workshops geared specifically toward children.

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