Cicadas aren’t all that’s taking over the National Mall this summer. For 10 days, musicians, artists and storytellers will flood the nation’s capital during the 38th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, taking place today through June 27 and June 30-July 4.
Produced by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the research-based festival will spotlight music in Latino culture, Haitian craft traditions and the history of Mid-Atlantic maritime communities.
Personalities from each of this year’s three cultural themes — salsa dancers, stone carvers and river pilots, to name a few — will entertain visitors to the free outdoor festival, which will take place on the Mall between Seventh and 14th streets Northwest. About 1 million people are expected to attend the celebration, regarded by organizers as the largest annual cultural event in the city.
The festival’s Latino music program, “Nuestra Música,” meaning “Our Music,” will highlight several historical traditions such as New Mexican “conjunto,” as well as modern music from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Columbia. In addition to salsa, dance workshops on the “El Salón de Baile” stage will offer lessons on a New Mexican couple’s dance called the “varsoviana” and a dance involving rigorous footwork known as the “zapateado jarocho” from Veracruz, Mexico.
“This year we’re looking to have a diversity of cultures represented — certainly a diversity of Latino musical styles — and at the same time, tell some of the social history and cultural story of Latino heritage in the United States,” program co-curator Daniel Sheehy said. This year’s program will be the first in a four-year commitment to highlighting the role of music in preserving Latino identities, he added.
Sheehy described the program as “an opportunity to bring to the Mall the Latino culture and really give people the chance to connect to something close to their own heritage. At the same time, we expect this to be a pretty special opportunity for people who don’t know anything about Latino music or Latino culture to engage with music, which is a pretty powerful communicator.”
The festival’s second cultural showcase, “Haiti: Freedom and Creativity from the Mountains to the Sea,” will focus on Haitian traditions in architecture, crafts, cuisine and storytelling. Farmers, potters and mask makers will join stone carvers working on the restoration of the country’s 19th century mountaintop fortress, the Citadel, to discuss their trades. Festival volunteers will also brief audiences on the country’s practice of voodoo as well as Haitian cuisines such as pumpkin soup.
“People from the Haitian-American community came to us about two years ago and said 2004 would be the bicentennial of Haitian independence,” Smithsonian spokeswoman Vicki Moeser said. Due to the country’s recent political upheaval, she added, “it’s certainly been a challenge” for the five or six program curators working in Haiti.
The last theme, titled “Water Ways: Charting a Future for Mid-Atlantic Maritime Communities,” will feature 75 commercial fishermen, boat builders, waterfowl hunting guides and net makers who have worked the coastal regions from New York’s Long Island through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. An exhibition area will be set up geographically to tell the stories of 14 mid-Atlantic communities. The program’s “Waterfowl Weekend,” set for June 26-27, will include a duck and goose calling contest, storytelling and duck decoy judging. In addition, a “Keeping the Waters Safe” area will enable visitors to read a nautical chart or identify a signal flag, see how the Coast Guard rescues stranded boaters and learn the historical importance of lighthouses.
Maritime curator Betty Belanus said the idea for the nautical theme had been in the works on and off for four years, conceived from various Smithsonian research projects.
“It was both a combination of seeing that their research fit together nicely into a regional program, and I think personally that it’s good for us at the festival to feature some areas that are closer to home,” she said, noting that festival attendees are more likely to have visited mid-Atlantic fishing communities than exotic locations like Haiti.
Belanus said the program will focus on how changes to the coastal areas and developments such as pollution, environmental regulations and reduced fish populations have affected the fishing trade. “Even if people don’t know each other or aren’t related, the issues are the same for fishermen who fish in the Great South Bay in Long Island and the Outer Banks of North Carolina,” she said.
The festival will also provide a number of activities for children. A “Nature Navigator” activity booklet invites younger visitors to search the maritime program area for clues to identify mystery creatures. In one tent, audience members can learn about ancient Indian pottery using river clay from Virginia’s Pamunkey River, while other tents will include lessons on tying nautical knots and hoisting sails.
“It’s a very kid-friendly program,” Belanus said, adding that children as well as adults will have an opportunity to see, hear, touch and try new things.
Food from each program will be sold at concession stands on the Mall, while a festival marketplace will offer related books and recordings as well as crafts and merchandise produced by festival artisans.
Festival hours are from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with some concerts and special performances continuing until 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.folklife.si.edu.