If you’re in Washington, D.C. during the two weeks bracketing the Fourth of July, you won’t want to miss the music, crafts, and food showcased at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Launched in 1967, the festival invites practitioners of folk traditions from across the country and around the world to the National Mall to demonstrate and discuss folk arts native to their regions. The festival is highly participatory–visitors are encouraged to dance, sing and interact with speakers–and has a loyal following among Washingtonians and tourists alike. More than one million people attend each year.
The festival is usually organized around a few regions or major themes. In 2009, for example, it offered programs on “Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture,” “Las Américas: Un mundo musical,” and “Wales Smithsonian Cymru.” Giving Voice, as its name suggests, included a variety of spoken performances—poetry, storytelling, comedy, theater, and radio. Las Américas gathered traditional musicians from across Latin America and the United States. Wales Smithsonian Cymru explored many aspects of traditional Welsh culture: music, building, language, cooking, weaving, woodcarving, pottery, and more.
Don’t miss the special concerts/dance parties offered at the end of each festival day; the Marketplace, inside the National Museum of the Native American Indian, where you can buy crafts and CDs by festival artisans; and the food concessions, which feature special dishes related to the festival’s themes.
The number and variety of programs offered in the course of one day at the festival can be dizzying. Visit www.festival.si.edu before you go and review the full schedule of events to plan your day (schedules are subject to change day-to-day). When you’re there, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Most of the festival participants are eager to talk about their folk traditions.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival Celebrates 50th Anniversary With Stories of the American Experience
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will host a series of programs exploring American identity and creativity. “Circus Arts” will take visitors behind the scenes to explore the cultural and artistic expressions of the ever-evolving circus. Program highlights will include daily performances in a Big Top circus tent, a full-scale circus school in the Arts and Industries Building and a series of hands-on activities for visitors. The “On the Move” program will bring together hip-hop artists, muralists and poetry slam performers, among others, to explore immigration and migration from new and diverse perspectives.
The Festival will be held Thursday, June 29, through Tuesday, July 4, and Thursday, July 6, through Sunday, July 9, on the National Mall between Seventh and 12th streets. Admission is free. Festival hours are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with evening dance parties at 5:30 p.m. and circus performances at 7 p.m.
Circus Arts Highlights
Circus Juventas, UniverSoul and More: Daily matinee performances in the Big Top will include “Wonderland,” a vibrant and dramatic circus adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” performed by Circus Juventas, a youth circus school in St. Paul, Minn. Afternoons will also feature performances by the Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus and Sarasota-based Sailor Circus. On Friday, July 7, and Saturday, July 8, visitors to the Big Top can also enjoy open rehearsals and performances by Cirque des Voix, which brings together Sarasota’s Key Chorale with acclaimed orchestral and circus artists.
Nightly circus performances in the Big Top will feature award-winning professional artists from around the world with pre-show showcases presented by major youth circus troupes from across the United States. Seating for all Big Top events is on a first-come, first-served basis, except for a ticketed evening performance Saturday, July 1. Visitors can pick up tickets at the information booth before the show. There are no exotic animals involved in the “Circus Arts” program.
Circus School: Visitors will also have the opportunity to view master-class demonstrations held daily at the Circus School inside of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. These will be led by circus legends, including the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellow and aerialist Dolly Jacobs, members of the world-famous Flying Wallenda family, trapeze artist Elena Panova, juggler Patrik Elmnert of Water on Mars and many others from leading circus arts schools across the United States and around the world. Each brings a unique perspective on the art form and the way in which it fosters a sense of belonging within disparate communities.
On the Move Highlights
Hip-Hop: Featured events include performances by Grammy-nominated progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon. As a performer, Bacon combines various instruments such as the West African djembe drum, acoustic guitar and the human beat-box (oral percussion), all while continuing the oral tradition of storytelling through his lyrics. At the Festival, he will collaborate with Nistha Raj and Shannon Dunne to present a conversation between the sounds and rhythms of his upbringing and Hindustani and Irish musical traditions.
Capoeira: The program will also feature Mestre João Grande and Mestre Jelon Vieira—two capoeira masters from New York City who, alongside a dozen of their students, will present a series of workshops, performances and discussions on capoeira Angola, an ancient Brazilian martial art of African origin. Recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, this country’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts, the two masters pioneered capoeira in the United States.
Poetry Slams: “On the Move” will also include a series of poetry slam performances and workshops. Regie Cabico, a three-time National Poetry Slam champion, will perform solo and lead writing workshops Friday, June 30, and Friday, July 7. An active force in the Washington slam scene, Cabico produces the annual festival Capturing Fire—International Queer Poetry Summit & Slam.
Mural Art: Washington, D.C.-based visual artists CHELOVE and MasPaz will design artwork for the Festival grounds and will engage visitors in discussions, demonstrations and art-making activities. These bi-cultural artists use their work to celebrate the natural world and examine cultural roots—drawing upon their American upbringing, their cultural heritage (Javanese and Colombian, respectively) and their involvement in the Washington street art scene. They have worked independently and collaboratively on private and public projects in Washington and around the world.
Soccer: Highlights of the program also include soccer activities led by Fugees Family Inc. Ten of the group’s players will demonstrate and invite the public to join soccer activities on the National Mall Saturday, July 1, and Sunday, July 2. The Fugees Family, located in Scottdale, Ga., is an organization devoted to working with child survivors of war. Founded by Coach Luma Mufleh in 2004 as a soccer team to provide refugee boys with free access to organized sports, it has since grown into a year-round co-ed school.
Naturalization Ceremonies: The program will also include two naturalization ceremonies for new young U.S. citizens at the Ralph Rinzler Stage on the National Mall Friday, June 30, and Friday, July 7.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Hours: 11 am to 5 pm, with special events taking place most evenings.
Parking: There is limited free, public, daylong parking available along Ohio Drive, SW, between the Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson Memorials. Metered parking on streets is restricted to two hours. You’ll find paid garages downtown, north of the Mall.
Metrorail: Blue and Orange Line to the Smithsonian stop or Green and Yellow Line to the Archives/Navy Memorial stop.