The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is the annual event in which America feigns interest in cultural traditions that are not her own, typically from countries we consider to be our pals. But not this year. Throwing caution to the five winds, organizers decided to fulfill the most paranoid delusions of the Tea Party faithful – that Obama is a Muslim, Kenyan-born, kowtowing Commie – by bucking tradition and featuring the cultural folklore of Kenya and China. (Congratulations, China, on surpassing Iran this year as our No. 1 enemy!)
Launched during the Summer of Love in 1967, the free-of-charge Folklife Festival is the largest cultural event in DC, drawing more than 1 million visitors to sweat together under tents each year.
Held outdoors on the National Mall for two weeks every summer, Folklife over the years has brought more than 23,000 artists, musicians, performers, craftspeople, cooks, workers, storytellers and others to the Mall to demonstrate their creative traditions. To help us remember America’s still No. 1, though, the festival always overlaps the Fourth of July. (NOTE: Our tradition of eating BBQ, drinking beer, wearing the American flag and blowing sh*t up will always trump your quaint costumed dances and soapstone hippo carvings.)
Folklife has featured tradition bearers from more than 90 countries and is “an international exposition of living cultural heritage,” according to its producer, the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. It’s a chance for Americans to see other cultures without having to leave America, like visiting Chinatown or going to the Bronx.
Programs at Folklife are usually divided into a nation, region, state or theme. Some are more exotic than others. Topics have included Workers at the White House, King Island Eskimo Dancers, Streetplay, Portuguese-American Fado Musicians, Iroquois Confederacy, American Trial Lawyers, Meat Cutters and Butchers, Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon, Gateways to Romania, Organ Builders and Iowa: Community Style.
To bring these programs to life, the Festival has built an array of cultural re-creations, including an Indian village with 40-foot-high bamboo and paper statues, a Japanese rice paddy, a New Mexican adobe plaza and a horse racetrack that stretched from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building.
This year, Folklife constructed the enormous Tian Tian Xiang Shang Gateway at the western entrance to the festival, to remind festivalgoers that China has a lighter side, one that it plans to employ when it crushes America with its growing economic power. Rather than showing off its more recent traditions of cultural repression and citizen intimidation, China instead featured such cultural customs as clay sculpture, traditional Inner Mongolian music and kite-making. If you want a taste of real Chinese economic influence, visit DC’s new Walmart at 1st and H Street NW.
The video below features Inner Mongolian ensemble Ih Tsetsn performing at the Moonrise Pavilion on July 5. The band’s name means “broad, inclusive and wise” in the Mongolian language, and their music was just that – showcasing the morin khuur (horse-head fiddle), topshuur (two-stringed plucked instrument), long song and khoomei throat-singing. We dare you not to belch along.
The Kenya programs at Folklife featured natives dressed like Marion Barry during his African-garb phase, wild booty-shaking percussion music and fantastic huts made of recycled bottles, tin, bottle caps, broken tiles and glass.
The video below features Makadem, a Kenyan artist specializing in Benga music, performing with his band at the Ngoma Stage on June 29.
Check out the photos below for more highlights of the Folklife Festival 2014.