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Pauline Lerner

Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2006 Part 2

July 7, 2006 at 7:28 AM

One of the best things happening in Washington DC for two weeks every summer is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival ( and on the National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument (see my blog of July . The Festival is a celebration of music, dance, crafts, and folklore from various cultures with the US and elsewhere. Of course, I especially like the music. I do volunteer work at night in the hotel where the participants in the Festival stay, helping them enjoy partying. Besides putting out food and drink at a buffet table, I get to talk with some of the participants. Best of all, I get to watch and hear them jam. I always love jams, but these jams are really special. There are so many musicians from different cultures who play different instruments and different kinds of music, and they all connect through the music they play together. It is very exciting.

This year there are musicians of various ethnicities, including French and Ukrainian, from Alberta; Native Americans from the Cree tribe; Hispanics currently living in Chicago but coming from many Latin American countries; and African-American musicians from new Orleans. Sometimes they played music from their own traditions, and sometimes they ventured into anything else, including Celtic, bluegrass, and American square dance music. The people from the Smithsonian who scout and recruit the musicians do a very good job. All of the musicians are top notch.

The Festival includes a series of evening concerts called Been in the Storm So Long, with performances by African-American musicians from New Orleans. Before they played, several of them spoke briefly about their losses in Hurricane Katrina – homes, music studios, musical instruments, photographs, and music memorabilia – losses that can not be measured in dollars. I heard them play hot jazz (none of this smooth, cool, wimpy stuff), swing, and R&B music. There was a dance stage, and lots of people got up and did swing dance or any other kind of dance they felt like doing. For an encore, the band played When the Saints Go Marching In, and people on the dance floor did a Second Line dance, a new Orleans tradition. At funerals, the First Line of family members is followed by a Second Line of people doing a kind of snake dance, accented by waving handkerchiefs in the air. It was all great.

At one jam session I was treated to Celtic music played by a harper and a fiddler from Alberta and several Hispanic musicians who followed their lead. The harp was very modern. It’s frame was made of carbon fiber with a hinge in the middle. It can be folded up without removing the strings and carried on an airplane. I asked the harper whether she flew on Delta, and she said no.

Some of the Hispanic instruments were very interesting, too. There were many stringed instruments which were strummed or plucked. (I describe them as guitar-like because I don’t know their names.) There was one that I especially liked, so I asked the musician, who was from Puerto Rico, what it was called, and he said something that sounded like “quatro.” I doubt that I got that right because it has five pairs of strings. The sound is absolutely beautiful, a bit like a mandolin, but much more deep, rich, bright, and fluid. The musicians made incredibly beautiful music with it. It sounded like the heart and soul of Hispanic dance music. I asked another Puerto Rican musician about his percussion instrument. It was made from a Puerto Rican gourd. The outside of the gourd was scraped smooth and painted decoratively, and one part of it was scored with a series of finely spaced lines. The player brushed a metal tool across the lined part to make a percussive sound. (My crude explanation does not do it justice. It has a really pleasant sound.) One of the Hispanic fiddlers used a beautiful, brightly colored, woven material to cover his instrument in its case. He also used Dominant strings.

So far, the music has been fantastic, and there’s more to come.

Trumpet, New Orleans jazz

Swing dancers

Jirana from Veracruz, Mexico

Cuatro (Puerto Rican)

Gourd instrument from Puerto Rico

Fiddle in tapestry with Dominant strings