Smithsonian Perspectives

The Festival of American Folklife gives us a chance to understand who we are, and also to celebrate our humanity

I explored in this column in June the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I return to it now, having in the past few days participated as Secretary in my first Festival. Four cultures were featured: Cape Verdean; Czech; Russian "Old Believers"; and American Indian. It has been fascinating to speak with representative leaders of each contingent (including the President of Cape Verde). It has been even more fascinating to walk around the Mall unofficially (and largely unrecognized) to see and hear the offerings from the perspective of typical visitors to the annual event.

I have been struck with the importance of musical performance to folk culture, and the extent to which tradition seems to call for audience participation with artist-performers. This was especially noticeable in the case of Cape Verdeans. Cape Verde, a nation of islands off the coast of Africa, became independent of Portugal 20 years ago. Its population is about 375,000. In the United States some 400,000 people — most of them living in Massachusetts — trace their roots to Cape Verde. Many of the latter are here in Washington as volunteers helping to "translate" Cape Verdean culture and crafts for Festival visitors. The culture seems a mixture of African and Portuguese forms. Their music is rhythmical and vivid, and with both native and American Cape Verdeans, participation by clapping and singing is enthusiastic. That special audience is deeply involved (not unlike regional American audiences with folk music or larger youth audiences with forms like rap and rock). What stands out is the importance of music as an ingredient and expression of popular culture, the universality of the phenomenon, and the activism rather than passivity of the "listeners."

The experience with the Cape Verde presentation was true also of the other cultures: the most analogous was the Czech, whose polkas and other dances caught hold of the audiences. Primarily, of course, it was those of Czech ancestry who participated most vigorously, but there were many others, too, who got caught up in the spirit of the occasion.

Audiences were much less participative in musical presentations by the Russian "Old Believers" (largely chant-like) and by the American Indian women. The rapt attention of large groups of visitors, however, suggested their immersion in the sound and a communication that reverberated with meaning that transcended cultural frameworks.

As I walked around and joined others listening to, observing and enjoying the music, structures, crafts, explanatory texts, costumes and food, I better understood how powerful living examples transmit culture. This will no doubt also be the case next summer when the Festival plans to feature Iowa, the American South and the Smithsonian itself.

As I said at the opening ceremony, it is through the Festival of American Folklife that the Smithsonian shows that history does not stop, that the life of people cannot be reduced to an object in a case or a sign on a wall. It is through the Festival that people speak for themselves — about their lives and accomplishments, and about how they have turned everyday experience into beauty. Further, in a most direct way, the Festival gives us a chance to celebrate our humanity, learn from one another, and appreciate and understand who we are. These days that is no simple effort.

By I. Michael Heyman

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.