Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Last weekend I attended the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the fourth time since 2002. It's a great free festival, held annually on the mall in Washington, D.C., for two long weekends surrounding the Fourth of July. The festival picks up again tomorrow and runs through Sunday the 8th.
When I've told friends and colleagues about the festival most hadn't heard of it. That's a shame, because it's a great reason to visit the nation's capital, especially if you have a voracious appetite for music and performance traditions of the world. Each year they salute three geographical areas, one U.S. region or state, a foreign country or region, and a third drawn from one or the other. For my money (my tax money that is, which supports the festival), the 2002 and 2003 festivals have to have been among the cream of the crop. In 2002 they departed from the three area format and featured arts of the silk road solely, a tie-in with Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. It included a remarkable range of performers and craftspeople from that vast trade route. In 2003 they featured Mali, Appalachia, and Scotland. The geographical trio made sense, since the cultures of Africa and the Scots-Irish are at the core of Appalachian culture. The Appalachian theme was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Ralph Peer recording sessions that preserved the music of American musical treasures like Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. I was especially thrilled by the Mali focus, as I'm wild about Malian music. Among the performers that year were the Malian superstars Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, and Ali Farka Toure, as well as balafon master Neba Solo and the Touareg ensemble Tartit. There are cooking and crafts demonstrations in addition to the music, but I go solely for the music.
This year's features are the Mekong River, Virginia, and Northern Ireland. The Mekong River portion of the festival features artists from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Yunnan, China. Southeast Asian music is not especially accessible to western ears, but the festival provides a great way to get tastes of a number of performance traditions from the region. My favorite Mekong River performers were a blind Cambodian troubadour who looked like Ray Charles and had the gut-wrenching soul of a delta bluesman, and a Northeastern Thai Ensemble whose hypnotic music was reminiscent of the early minimalist compositions of Steve Reich and Terry Riley (only better). Two of the musicians played bamboo pipes that sounded like organs. Overall, however, my favorite performance came from Piedmont blues masters Cephas & Wiggins at one of the Virginia stages.
Though food concessions keep with the themes, they are run by local D.C. eateries and are generally forgettable. This time, however, I did have a pretty good larb gai (warm ground chicken salad) from the Thai stand.
The curators of the festival do an admirable job of putting together fun and comprehensive introductions to many foreign and domestic cultural traditions. You really should pay a visit some time.
Themes for the year are usually announced in the early spring.