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The Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The Silk Road Festival Photo, Washington, D.C., United States

Only one thing coaxes me downtown during the heat and crowds of the summer, and that one thing is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Held in late June and early July, with a brief hiatus when preparations take place for the Fourth of July fireworks and flag-waving hoopla, the festival is now in its 39th year.

The first Folklife Festival I attended was about eighteen years ago, and I was instantly smitten. Each festival showcases different nations, regions of the U.S., and themes, and I remember that the first festival I attended featured Hawaii. It was my first exposure to authentic Hawaiian (versus the tourist version) culture and dance, and I was enraptured. Years later, when I travelled to Hawaii, I felt I’d already had a preview of what to expect.

That’s the best thing about living here near D.C., really. Just stay put and the world comes to you through amazingly varied immigrant communities, the embassies, and visiting foreign dignitaries, cultural alliances such as the Japan-America Society and Maison Française, and major institutions such as the Smithsonian. I soon discovered after moving here that having the Smithsonian more or less on my doorstep is especially rewarding as there is much more to the Smithsonian than its first-class museums. Their Resident Associates Program and free festivals, tours, concerts, and lecture series are all outstanding.

My favorite Smithsonian-sponsored event, by far, is the Folklife Festival. Immense tents are set up the length of the Mall, with multiple performance stages, storytelling tents, cooking demonstrations, arts and crafts displays, and all manner of cultural demonstrations, ranging from whisky distilling (that was the year the festival featured Scotland, naturally) to the creation of mud-dyed cloth, or bogolan, by artisans from Mali.

I could go on and on about the Folklife Festival, but I’ll confine myself to one particular year, which was surely the most outstanding to date. In addition to the Smithsonian, The Silk Road Festival of 2002 was sponsored by an impressive array of backers, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Aga Khan Trust. It was an all-out two-week extravaganza that attempted to bring to Washington the cultures and ambience of the traditional trade route that stretches from Venice, Italy to Nara, Japan. Rajeev Sethi, dubbed by one newspaper as the "high priest of design," transformed the Mall into a gigantic visual panorama of the Silk Road, with scaled-down versions of the Great Gate in Nara, Japan, at the eastern end near the Capitol, and St. Mark's Square in Venice at the western end near the Washington Monument. Between the two end points, festival visitors "travelled" through Eurasia, via Istanbul, Samarkand, and Xi'an.

Not content with merely erecting scale versions of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or Registan Square in Samarkand, the organizers brought hundreds upon hundreds of craftspeople, musicians, and "living cultural treasures" to the Mall. It’s not everyday you get to meet someone from Ulan Batur or watch the entire silk-making process from cocoon to woven garment, but the Silk Road Project made it possible. Sitting rapt listening to the Niazi Brothers play traditional Sufi music from Pakistan one afternoon, I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see a procession of camels – indeed, an entire caravan -- proceeding at a stately pace up the Mall. I was tempted to leave the performance and see what they were up to, but didn’t –- I had just discovered that I really really liked traditional Sufi devotional music.

Most intriguing to me were the nomadic musicians demonstrating traditional overtone or throat singing, playing bowed fiddles, and (through interpreters) relating songs and stories of the steppes. These Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Uyghur traditional people did an spectacular job of transporting the aura of the wide-open spaces of their homelands to downtown Washington; in fact, I’ve been hankering to visit someplace like Tuva ever since. If you haven’t heard traditional throat-singing performed live, it’s something of a shock to realize that the range of sounds and tones produced comes from one person’s throat.

Coming the year after September 11th, too, this festival provided a much-needed cultural exchange with people from the Middle East. It was reassuring to see how well received participants from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were. Suddenly, these parts of the world seemed more relevant to Americans, whereas we had been largely indifferent to and ignorant of them before. The festival provided an opportunity to see the faces and experience the cultures of places that had been mere names recited on the evening news. Many of these encounters defied the cultural stereotypes we've been conditioned to expect. For example, one fellow from Iran sang uproarious songs detailing scandalous romantic goings on, flying in the face of the notion of a monolithic, puritanical Islamic culture. No translation was needed… he acted both the male and female parts quite convincingly, practically bringing down the house as the audience doubled over with laughter.

Each day I visited the Silk Road Festival – I spent several days there and still didn’t manage to take it all in – I stopped to see what progress was being made on the Pakistani painted truck. Elaborately painted and decorated trucks are an art form in countries such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere, with truck owners vying to see who can create the most eye-catching design. The vehicles are always protected from the "evil eye" with large painted eyes and other talismans, such as an old shoe hanging from the bumper, while the trucks’ interiors feature beads, mirrors, bells, and every comfort imaginable, not to mention kick-ass sound systems that blast regional pop music as the trucks roll down the highway.

The Smithsonian brought two of the best truck painters from Pakistan to create a unique festival-themed vehicle, and this proved to be one of the biggest hits of the festival. The two young men spoke only Urdu, with barely a word of English between them -- indeed, when the festival organizers first visited Karachi and asked them to come to the festival, the two had thought the request was a joke. However, before long they found themselves on a jet plane headed for Washington, where they managed to communicate quite well with gestures and smiles alone. They set up "shop" on the Mall and began transforming a battered gray 1976 Bedford truck into a thing of beauty. They also spent a great deal of time posing for pictures and lapping up the attention their brightly colored and lavishly festooned truck was getting. The two men seemed absolutely dazed by the warm reception they received. And the truck? It held pride of place for months afterwards on the lawn in front of the Sackler Museum of Asian Art before eventually being moved to an indoor location.

Panels from the Pakistani painted truck

After attending this festival, I carried away a revived interest in the traditional music of Silk Road cultures. Before closing day, I visited the "bazaar" on the Mall to buy CDs to supplement my collection. I wish now that I’d snapped up more recordings of the music featured in the festival, such as the entrancing gypsy-influenced Manganiyar music of Rajasthan, as I’ve had trouble finding it since. But perhaps I’ll find it yet, as I recently read that the Smithsonian plans to make its entire collection of traditional folk music available online at its new Global Sounds website, charging 99 cents per downloadable track. Why, I could probably spend a small fortune on Sufi devotional music alone!

This upcoming year’s festival will feature music and culture from Oman, as well as showcasing the role of music in Latino cultures as part of an ongoing five-year Smithsonian project, "Nuestra Música." There will be many evening performances and dances, not to mention the usual array of wonderful daytime demonstrations and events. If you’re in Washington in late June or early July, vengan a gozar de la bella música y a bailar!

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