The popular Smithsonian Folklife Festival returns as an in-person ten-day event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this month after a long absence. This year’s festivities mark a significant return to normal after the 2019 government shutdown interrupted planning and prompted a shorter two-day program, followed by the 2020-21 pandemic, which forced organizers to move programs to an online format.
One of the event’s featured themes, celebrating the cultural traditions of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was likewise bumped twice before this year’s events. It will be featured alongside activities of the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism program, celebrating what’s working in conservation and sustainability. The programs will take place over two weekends, June 22 to 27 and June 30 to July 4.
The UAE is a relatively young country, having formed on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in 1971 from a federation of seven emirates, including Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. The best known of them are Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai, the modernistic city sporting the tallest building in the world.
And though the UAE has only been around for just half a century, the land has been a crossroad of trading for thousands of years. “Even as there’s massive skyscrapers and all of the technologies when we think of the UAE, there’s all these layers there,” says Folklife Festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley. “UAE is a young country, but it’s ancient. You have people living who remember a very different UAE, who talk about it and share photos. It’s unique to go to a place where it’s really a living memory.”
Hence the exhibition’s title “UAE: Living Landscape | Living Memory,” which will present many of the region’s traditions, the most striking may be falconry. The festival demonstration is highlighted by falconer Ayesha Al Mansoori, who will be sharing the skills of falconry along with her daughter and her students.
Her event is enhanced by the nearby exhibition “Falcons: The Art of the Hunt” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, reflecting the history of the practice across centuries and cultures.
“It’s something so associated with men,” Motley says of falconry. “Ayesha Al Mansoori’s relationship with these animals is just incredible. She says, you don’t pick the birds, the birds pick you. They become literally part of your own family. They fly on planes, in a seat. It’s very much a bond that’s quite extraordinary.”
A host of events associated with the UAE includes demonstrations in Arabic calligraphy, Bedouin cooking, perfumery, honey, henna, coffee and architecture.
The other festival exhibition, “Earth Optimism × Folklife,” grows out of a program first imagined by Ruth Anna Stolk, co-founder of the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism initiative, who calls the festival “a unique opportunity to share stories and learn from conservation successes. It’s an important distinction.”
“When the focus is on solutions rather than problems, we empower people to replicate and scale up these activities in their own communities,” she says.
In addition to hands-on activities, cooking and gardening demonstrations, there will be a special spotlight on the bee. In the film My Garden of a Thousand Bees, being screened June 24 at 6 p.m., wildlife filmmaker Martin Dohrn attempts to record all the bee species in his tiny urban garden in Bristol, England, during the lockdown (spoiler alert: he finds more than 60).
In addition, there will be beekeepers, demonstrating their work on site. “This is an opportunity to shine a light on how integral bees are to so many of our ecosystems,” Motley says.
Accompanying the buzzing will be music—starting with a kickoff concert June 22 hosted by no less than the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The event “The Gifts We Carry: Sounds of Migration and Memory” will combine musicians from several backgrounds and cultures. It will feature Homayoun Sakhi, a master on the Afghan stringed instrument the rubab; Salar Nader and Hamid Habibzada on tabla, Ahmad Fanoos on vocals, Elham Fanous on keyboards, Mehran Fanoos and Chelsey Green on violin, and Nazira Wali on cello, among others.
The special collaboration “speaks to who we are in this country in our ability to welcome the stranger. What we offer in terms of hospitality and understanding,” Motley says. “We titled the concert ‘The Gifts We Bring,’ [for the] many people who bring these incredible stories and poems and songs—the intangibles. It behooves us, it benefits us as a country when we’re able to lift those songs and stories up. It enriches the American story.”
NOON will also be part of a night of Dubai hip-hop, spoken word and independent music July 2 at 6:30 p.m., that will feature the performers Freek, Fafa, Soultrotter, Lana Ramadan, Jazzy Zilla and poets Maitha Al Suwaidi, Dorian “Paul D” Rogers and Jaysus Zain. The evening will also include the documentary on the UAE underground street dance scene, It Ain’t Where You From.
Among the Smithsonian Folkways performers are Alice Gerrard and Leyla McCalla, playing June 24; Los Texmaniacs featuring La Marisoul June 30; and Sunny Jain’s Wild Wild East and the Afro-Colombian musical ensemble Rebolu July 1. “To be able to have four concerts where a lot of the Folkways musicians are featured is pretty great,” says Motley.
Two special events this year look foward to the 2023 Folklife Festival, with “Ode to the Ozarks” June 26 at 4 p.m. and “Sounds from Multi-faith America” July 3. (Planning for future Folklife Festivals is ongoing; work has begun, for example, on the 2026 event that will coincide with the nation’s 250th birthday or Sestercentennial).
Most special events will also be streamed live worldwide for the first time. “This year we’re carrying a lot of our content live, that’s something we’re carrying forward from the time of Covid,” Motley says. “We have a really large audience online of a couple million a year.” Online visitors can experience can connect through the Smithsonian Folklife YouTube channel.
The addition of more films this year is a reflection of what the artists are offering. “We don’t want people to sit all day looking at screens, but it does provide context and it’s another portal in which they can engage the people that we bring to the National Mall,” Motley says. “After two years of living our lives on screens I can understand when people say, ‘That’s not why I’m here.’ But if our artisans and cooks are saying we do want to have that available, it’s going to be a little dance for a while.”
One proven online tie-in has been the Folklife Festival Marketplace, launched in December 2020. “We’ve been talking about it for years but [the pandemic] forced us. So that’s another way for us to connect with our artisans, continue to bring income to them, which is important, and for us to tell their stories,” says Motley.
To be sure, there will be a live, marketplace for the first time in two years as well, done in an Arab style. “We’re modeling after a souk,” she says. “It’s an outdoor market with stalls and really beautiful items from our participants, so there’s food, everything from honey to chocolate and fair bird-friendly coffee, to wines from Sonoma county and all of our beautiful garments from the UAE and jewelry.
“It’s a smaller space, tightly curated and with some really beautiful products in all price ranges,” Motley says. “And if someone sees something big and they don’t want to carry it home, they could go to our online store and have it shipped.”
Food concessions are always popular at the festival, and this year, UAE traditional flavors will be available, alongside sustainably-sourced products to tie in with the Earth Optimism program.
‘It’s global flavors, but a lot of the sourcing is local. That was the idea: to mirror our conservation and creativity message,” Motley says. “We have food from the UAE and Emirati dishes, so the food will be lovely—a lot of grilled things, wonderful gelatos. Lots of nice cool drinks you can have on the Mall when it’s hot.”
And what about the weather? While there are contingencies for moving some evening events if it rains, it can be reliably hot during Washington summers.
“Everybody complains about the weather, but everybody comes out in the weather,” Motley says. Annual attendance estimates were about 700,000 before the pandemic.
Clearly, summer doesn’t scare people away, she says.
“There’s something about that connection with the Fourth of July, and having this cultural moment on the National Mall that speaks to the American character, or what I hope is in our character.”
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be held June 22-27 and June 30-July 4, 2022 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It kicks off with an evening concert June 22. Daytime programming begins June 23. Hours are generally 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. with evening concerts and special presentations starting at 6:30 p.m. All events are free and open to the public. More information and schedules can be found here.