Folk Culture on the Front Lawn
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.
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