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Rain or Shine, Folklife Starts Today

Weather Has Put Damper on Preparations for Smithsonian’s Annual Festival

The sunlight and a clear weekend have provided a much-needed glimmer of hope for those who have been working on this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the past three years.

Just five days ago, the vast construction effort on the National Mall was still severely stalled after months of rainy days. As the day of reckoning was fast approaching, the rain was still pouring.

But the weekend saw tremendous progress and the loose ends have been tied up — all except one.

Festival Director Diana Parker must face the tough reality that her most prized project, a replica of a Malian adobe home, will not be finished. Designed and built on the National Mall by architects from Mali, the house and courtyard complex were only about 80 percent complete last week.

“The weather is killing us,” Parker said last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

But the 28-year festival veteran knows that the show must go on — failure “is not an option.”

“In that way the festival is like Broadway,” she said. “You just can’t not be ready opening night.”

The 10-day festival, which begins today, will run until Sunday and pick up again July 2-6. The event, which will likely host more than 1 million visitors, will showcase the sights and sounds of Appalachia, Scotland and Mali.

The three areas were selected independently, but it just so happened that the two foreign cultures predominately shape the American Appalachia. A conglomeration of immigrants from the British Isles and slaves from West Africa developed the mix of bluegrass, blues, gospel and occupational songs that characterize the region where Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee converge.

“It’s an icing on the cake that they turned out to be the two cultures that contributed the most to the development of the Appalachian culture,” Parker said.

The three cultures will feature events and exhibits highlighting native crafts, food and, above all, music.

“I can’t remember a year when the music at the festival has been any stronger than this,” the director said of the Smithsonian’s 37th Folklife Festival.

There will be tunes ranging from Appalachia’s award-winning Ralph Blizard and 18-year-old fiddler Jake Krack to some of the most famous entertainers ever to come from West Africa, including Oumou Sangare and Ali Farka Toure, to Scotland’s beloved Battlefield Band and Fiona Ritchie.

Concerts will run throughout the festival’s daily hours, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and some performances will last until 9 p.m.

Musicians from the three areas will also play together at several concerts. There is even a section in the Appalachia area — the pickin’ porch — where festival musicians and visitors can informally play music and dance together.

Aside from the music, each culture will feature performances and demonstrations by chefs and craftsmen.

Visitors to “Mali: From Timbuktu to Washington” can see how Malian textiles are created from raw cotton and wool, sample Malian rice-based dishes, try pounding millet into flour, learn how to tie a headscarf and many other cultural practices. There will be about 215 Malians flown in for the event by the Smithsonian, which produced the exhibit in partnership with the government of Mali.

The assistant director, Natalie Hisczak, said guests will also get a lesson in traditional building by four Malian masons because the adobe home was not finished in time.

The home, however, will likely compete for attention with what Parker called the “most striking element” of the “Scotland at the Smithsonian” area.

“We’ve created a golf hole in the middle of the National Mall,” the director said. An engineer from the St. Andrews golf course, widely known as the home of golf, “came over and designed the hole.”

In addition, the area will host more than 100 residents of Scotland, including fiddlers, “clarsach” or harp players, accordionists, pipers, “panto” or pantomime performers, kilt makers, knitters from Fair Isle and the Shetland Islands, weavers from Harris Tweed and Tartan, and bagpipe, curling stone and golf club makers.

Scottish cooks will divine shortbread, “stovies” or meat and potato pies and other local delicacies. The Scottish executive, as well as donations from the Scottish Arts Council and VisitScotland, helped produce the program.

The American exhibit, called “Appalachia: Heritage and Harmony,” will feature cooking demonstrations of chicken dishes, bean recipes, apple butter, fried pies and stack cakes. More than 100 Appalachians will attend. It is produced in cooperation with the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance and East Tennessee State University and with support from the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Funds and Norfolk Southern Railroad.

From start to finish, the festival will cost about $6 million, nearly half of which comes from the federal government and the Smithsonian trust fund. The organization had raised the rest by January.

The free outdoor event will take place on the Mall between Seventh and 14th streets. Around 125 staff members from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage make the festival happen, with the help of about 475 volunteers.

An Appalachian native, Parker said that this year’s festival is particularly close to her heart. “We’re very excited to have these people come.”

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