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Folklife Festival Hits Home

Virginia Among Highlighted Cultures

Banjo players, American Indian tribal dancers, peanut growers, tobacco farmers, Irish whiskey distillers, shadow puppeteers, boat makers and a flower lantern troupe all will descend on the National Mall in the coming days — and around a million people will stop by to see them.

It’s all part of the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Folklife Festival, which will take place Wednesday through July 1 and July 4-8. This year the festival, which is one of the largest — if not the largest — events of its kind in the world, will zero in on the cultures of Virginia, the Mekong River area and Northern Ireland through live and often interactive demonstrations from people who live in these regions.

The focus on the first of these cultures will hit particularly close to home and will coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding in Jamestown, Va., of the first British settlement in what would become the United States.

To commemorate this anniversary, programming will illuminate the roots of Virginia culture by drawing together more than 300 participants from the state’s American Indian tribes; from Kent County, England; and from West Africa (specifically Senegal).

The latter two regions are involved because many Jamestown settlers came from Kent County and a lot of the slave laborers were brought from West Africa.

While these are three very distinct groups, there will be an emphasis on how they coalesced to form a distinct blend in Jamestown, and by extension the rest of Virginia and even the United States.

“The same root groups — the indigenous people, the people who came from Europe and the people who came from Africa sort of are the base cultures across the United States,” festival director Diana Parker said.

In Virginia, this blending of cultures has left a lasting mark, festival organizers say. One of the many manifestations of this that will be featured on the Mall is the enduring popularity of the banjo, according to Jon Lohman, the state’s official folklorist.

Developed in colonial America, the banjo represents the fusion of the styles of European settlers and African slaves. Over the years, the use of the banjo has changed from when it was strummed clawhammer style as “more of a background rhythm instrument” in old-time music to its widespread current employment as a featured instrument in bluegrass music, but all the time it has remained a staple of Virginia culture, Lohman said.

Both the old-time and bluegrass strains of banjo music will be highlighted at the festival during performances by Kinney Rorrer, and by the groups Whitetop Mountain Band and No Speed Limit.

While cultural ingredients such as the banjo came around only after European settlement, those that existed beforehand will certainly not be forgotten during the Virginia portion of the festival, as representatives from eight American Indian tribes from the state will be present to showcase a variety of traditions.

One example, according to Lohman, will be the Pamunkey tribe’s demonstration of pottery making. “It’s one of the Virginia Indian traditions that has a continuous line to pre-European contact,” he said.

This continuity in Virginia culture also will be a theme throughout other parts of the programming, as time-worn traditions such as peanut and tobacco farming in the state will be honored. These professions are certainly on the decline, but overall, “My sense has been that tradition in Virginia has been very resilient,” Lohman said.

But parts of it also are constantly changing, and an exploration of Latino music in the state will be a testament to this during the festival.

Explorations of the other two regions — the Mekong River area and Northern Ireland — will have similar goals in mind.

According to Parker, the Northern Ireland portion came about after people from there approached the Smithsonian looking to showcase the area. The Mekong River portion, which will feature representatives from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and the Yunnan province of China, is the culmination of a four-year study of this region.

A Vietnamese Hat Boi opera, a Bahnar gong and drum ensemble and a Yunnan flower lantern troupe will be featured, and those involved in Gaelic sports, Irish whiskey distilling and bagpipe-making will be present during these two portions with an eye toward increasing understanding through firsthand experiences.

“It’s not like reading a book or going to an exhibit where it can be static. This is very dynamic,” Smithsonian spokeswoman Becky Haberacker said. “I think that’s one of the best parts of the festival.”

To draw together the resources to create this firsthand experience has been a massive project for all those involved. “It’s been a huge, multicontinental undertaking,” said Betty Belanus, the Smithsonian curator for the Virginia part of the festival.

Planning for all three portions has been going on for years, and the initial proposal to include Virginia in this year’s festival came as far back as 2001, when a representative from Jamestown 2007, an organization developed to commemorate the 400th anniversary, approached the Smithsonian.

According to Belanus, planning for the Virginia programming began in 2005 and has been going “full-out ever since.”

While exhaustive, this process also has been rewarding. Though on a smaller level, what they have been planning for in the Virginia sector of the festival is “really the same kind of thing that happened 400 years ago in Jamestown when different cultures came together,” Belanus said.

And though the festival may be a high point in this process of cultural blending in Virginia, it is certainly not the end of it, according to Jamestown 2007 spokesperson Kevin Crossett. “This is a continuing story. It will continue long after the 400th anniversary is over,” he said.

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