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Posted at 10:49 AM ET, 06/28/2007

Folk Culture on the Front Lawn

By Julia Beizer

It's that time of year again. Beginning yesterday and continuing Wednesdays-Saturdays through July 8, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival transforms the National Mall's wide-open green space into a bustling village full of crafts, foods and cultural traditions from faraway lands.

This year's themes are "Mekong River: Connecting Cultures," "Northern Ireland at the Smithsonian" and "The Roots of Virginia Culture." With so many performers, craftspeople and cultural luminaries scheduled to perform, present and speak, it's hard to know where to begin. To help you with your planning, we've put together a guide to the events on the Mall, but read on after the jump for some of this year's highlights.

Cultural Kiddos: The festival is full of kid-friendly activities, but the Family Activities Sala in the the Mekong River section offers some of the best. I strolled through yesterday afternoon and saw kids drawing, clapping and following along in a lion dance.

Food: The Mekong River section's crispy spring rolls with pork and mushrooms were the perfect snack to get me through my afternoon trip, but I was tempted by the pad thai and sweet basil chicken dish at another Mekong River concession stand. The Virginia section serves barbecue chicken, Virginia ham sandwiches and traditional English fish and chips (a nod to Virginia's British heritage). Through no fault of its own, Northern Ireland's food -- shepherd's pie, sausage rolls -- seemed better suited to a cold winter evening than to a hot, swampy Washington summer.

Music: Virginia's program is easily the most diverse, combining homegrown styles like Piedmont Blues, Tidewater gospel and bluegrass with music from Kent County, England, and West Africa. Latino and Iranian bands are also on the bill -- paying tribute to the state's more recent immigrants. Bands from the Ireland section are more interested in traditional techniques and instruments than that fun bar-band sound, but still, it's hard to resist the infectious fiddle jig. The Mekong River section's music ranges from solemn religious chants to celebratory wedding dances.

For more information on the music, check out our audio interviews with the curators. They discuss festival performers and play samples of different musical styles. Working Washingtonians should peruse the evening concert schedule, one of the best ways to enjoy the Folklife Festival without the overbearing heat.

Conversation: A Folklife Festival visit isn't complete without chatting up a craftsperson. Yesterday, I had a lovely chat with a beltmaker in the Virginia section. A colleague from the newspaper spent the afternoon with Bahnar boat crasftsmen. Quilters, basket weavers and Irish Whiskey distillers are also on hand.


By Julia Beizer  | June 28, 2007; 10:49 AM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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Why do they shut down activities in the middle of the festival (e.g., July 2 and 3 this year)?

Posted by: folklife fan | June 29, 2007 3:05 PM | Report abuse

In yesterday's chat, Richard Kurin, one of the festival directors, said that the break gave the participants a few days of rest and a chance to see some of the sights around D.C.

Posted by: Julia | June 29, 2007 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I volunteered all weekend down at the Virgina Mountain Laurel Stage. Absolutely spectacular music -

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins - Piedmont blues and harmonica

White Top Mountain Band - 6 piece string bluegrass band

The Traveliers - gospel (includes drums and electric guitars and bass) - the joint was crazy

I recommend the Irish food. Better value for your dollar than the Virginia section (I haven't made it to the Mekong food section yet - I'm voluteering in that section next weekend so I'll try it then.
The Shepherd's pie was excellent. I didn't try the Irish sausage but heard it was excellent.

It's the best DC Festival of the year.

Posted by: Tim Rhodes | July 2, 2007 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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