Folklife Festival Returns to Mall Today

Wales, African-American Oral History, Latin Music in the Spotlight

Posted June 23, 2009 at 4:25pm

Many museum visits turn on observation alone: Visitors wander through hushed chambers and gaze at artifacts or artwork that they are forbidden to touch.

The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which opens today on the National Mall, takes a more interactive approach to educating visitors on the various ways in which culture manifests itself around the world.

“What we are looking to do is to bring different traditions and cultures alive to people on the Mall,— festival spokeswoman Becky Haberacker said. “The great thing about this festival is that it’s a dialogue.—

Each year, the Folklife Festival chooses specific regions or cultures to feature and then enlists the help of native practitioners who lend the exhibitions an authoritative element of realism.

This year’s exhibitions focus on Wales, Latin American music and oral expression in African-American culture. The music exhibition is called “Las Américas,— while the oral history exhibition is called “Giving Voice.—

Betty Belanus, curator of the Wales program, said her interest in Wales stemmed from a search for a foreign culture with “interesting history and traditions.— The public awareness generated by the Folklife Festival dovetails with the efforts of Welsh preservationists, many of whom are wary of their ancient culture’s assimilation into the broader British consciousness, she said.

“It’s a great place for people to find out how cultures are being retained and preserved from people around the world,— Belanus said.

While the three different areas of focus were researched and organized separately, she said the curators found unexpected overlap.

“It’s really just happenstance that Giving Voice’ is happening, too, because the spoken word culture is very strong in Wales,— Belanus said. “Poets are like folk heroes there.—

The history of oral expression in African-American culture contains less of a romantic connotation, as it was partly born of necessity, “Giving Voice— curator James Alexander Robinson said.

“One of the things about African-American culture is that enslaved Africans were often denied the ability to speak in their own languages,— Robinson said.

However, a strong oral tradition in West Africa preceded slavery, notably in the case of oral historians known as griots. Robinson pointed to a “strong sacred tradition— of African-American gospel music and noted that newer incarnations of vocal music, including R&B and contemporary hip-hop, continue to offer an outlet for expression.

“There are several periods of dramatic change in African-American oral expression, but there is a continuity as well,— Robinson said.

“Giving Voice— will draw on a range of participants in oral culture, from master storytellers to comedians to radio disc jockeys. Some have won wide acclaim for their work, while others — such as a retired university administrator who “has found a new life— as a storyteller — are relative unknowns, Robinson said.

Similarly, “Las Américas— will offer a balance of Grammy-winning recording artists alongside musicians who are not professionals but serve as “keepers of cultural knowledge,— curator Dan Sheehy said.

“Las Américas— is a continuation of the “Nuestra Música— project, which focuses on grass-roots Latin American music. “Nuestra Música,— which began in 2001, has expanded to include a Web site, a series of festivals and more than 30 recordings.

“It explores really how music is more than music, how music connects to people and their communities,— Sheehy said.

In organizing “Las Américas,— Sheehy said he was particularly interested in music that ties into Latin American communities in the U.S. Latin Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the country.

“We see what we do as the work of the national museum of the United States,— Sheehy said. “The first mandate for us is to build a collection with relevance to the roots of the Latino population in the United States.—

Referring to the National Mall as the “front yard of the country,— Sheehy said the Folklife Festival should reveal to visitors that the cultures on display are not just remote curiosities, but something to which visitors should feel inextricably connected.

“This music is part of our national heritage,— Sheehy said. “These are tributaries to our great river of national heritage. We hope people will come and get a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American.—