Where the gospel choirs, go-go bands, and Fugazi play

People come to D.C. to see America. The stately home of presidents both loved and loathed, the sacred relics of the space program, the shrines to the founding fathers and fallen soldiers. For those visitors who are even aware of the vernacular Washington, it’s a place of mystery. A friend once remarked that, when he tells people he lives in Washington, they usually respond, “Where? Maryland or Virginia?”

For two weeks beginning Friday, however, tourists who arrive at the center of the monumental district will find themselves in D.C. This year, the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival, which usually features the folkways of an American state among its themes, will present the culture of the Last Colony. The program, assembled over the last 18 months by a team of more than 50 researchers, is titled “Washington, D.C.: It’s Our Home,” and will feature chefs and tailors, Hebrew cantors and Koranic chanters, poets and political commentators, African dance and Japanese koto music.

Michael McBride, who coordinated the program for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities with fellow folklorists and anthropologists John Franklin, Brett Williams, and Marianna Blagburn, is not promising the definitive mosaic portrait of inside-the-diamond culture. “What a lot of people expected us to do was sort of codify and define the city: This is what Washington, D.C., is,” he says. “We didn’t want to take that approach. We simply wanted to present D.C. as a place where people work, live, and celebrate. The festivalgoers will determine what D.C. is culturally. We didn’t want to give them the answer. We wanted to provide a place where they can discover what D.C. is.”

The programs will be divided among five performance and demonstration spaces: secular music and dance, sacred music and dance, foodways, the cafe, and the front porch, where participants will sit on an actual porch salvaged from a D.C. house. Subjects for discussion on the porch include U Street, neighborhood activism, the immigrant experience, the Potomac and the Anacostia, and that perpetual favorite, “The Last Colony? The Federal Government and Home Rule in D.C.” Over at the cafe, people will be talking about fashion, go-go, labor issues, DJ culture, and “D.C. Journalists and the Politics of Persuasion.” As if to prove that people really do grow up here, the lineup also includes mass reunions for ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s graduates of D.C. high schools.

“We are actually the first city to be featured at the Folklife Festival,” notes McBride, although, of course, D.C. is not exactly like any other American metropolis. New York City, which has plenty of culture and is part of a state with representation in Congress, will be in the spotlight in 2001. This year’s other themes are surprisingly compatible with the case of the captive capital: “El Rio,” focusing on cultural interaction along the Rio Grande, and “Tibetan Culture Beyond the Land of Snows.” Perhaps Mark Plotkin will take time from the “Last Colony” panel to say a few words in favor of home rule in Lhasa.

The program comes at a time when the demographics of the city, which has had an African-American majority since the ’50s, are rapidly changing. An influx of Latinos, primarily Central American, has transformed some neighborhoods, while many African-Americans have migrated to the suburbs. Boom times and a tax break for first-time residential-property buyers has led to real estate delirium in both established and gentrifying neighborhoods that appeal to upscale newcomers. Asked if the program’s researchers discovered a city in transition, McBride replies simply, “Oh, yeah.”

The city’s Vietnamese presence, although quite recent, is well enough established that Vietnamese culinary and religious traditions are featured in the Folklife Festival program. So are those of Washington’s long-since dispersed and assimilated Italian communities and another recent war zone, Ethiopia. “Washington has the largest population of Ethiopians outside Ethiopia,” says McBride. But the recent arrival of refugees from the former Yugoslavia barely registered with the festival’s researchers.

Also featured are the traditions of the Piscataway Indians, who were run out of what was to become Washington several centuries ago.

As the presence of the Piscataways indicates, not all the festival participants will be city residents. “The core is definitely D.C.,” McBride certifies. “But as you know, for artists, living in D.C. can be very expensive. So people live around the periphery of the city as well. But what we try to do is make sure that people have a long history of being in D.C. in terms of their employment or culture or art.”

That would include Fugazi, some of whose members live in the city and some in the suburbs. One of the most influential and popular underground rock bands in the world, and certainly the best-selling musical act in the festival’s lineup, the post-hardcore quartet nonetheless falls outside the expertise of most urban folklorists. “We had a wonderful researcher who brought Fugazi to our attention. To be honest, I didn’t really know much about them,” admits McBride, who has since discussed the band’s work with singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye. “[MacKaye’s] commitment to social issues is quite remarkable, and I think people in the city need to know that. Their music, obviously, but also their commitment to social issues. That was an education for a lot of people.”

On the preliminary schedule, Fugazi seems the only representative of Washington’s lively alternative-boho scene, musical or otherwise. Other musical acts scheduled for the Mall include go-go veterans Chuck Brown and Rare Essence, a “D.C. Divas” program with Bernice Johnson Reagon and Julia Nixon, the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Washington, and such Adams Morgan Day-style acts as the Image Band, Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, Memphis Gold, the Blueshounds, and the East of the River Youth Steel Band, plus a lot of religious music.

The festival’s programmers hope that music will even draw people off the Mall. For the first time in its history, the Folklife Festival will link to events in D.C. neighborhoods, including a Southwest “Jazz Jam”; a swing jazz show at Washington Harbor; a gospel music concert at the Lincoln Theatre; an outdoor Latin music performance, dubbed “Caliente!,” in Adams Morgan; and D.C. Citypiece: Monuments at the Millennium, a composition for the National Symphony Orchestra, percussionist Tom Teasley, and rapper Donell Washington, to be performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Also planned are 91 “mini-concerts” at area Metro stations.

“Historically, people come to the Mall, spend a day there, and go back to their hotel rooms,” says McBride. “We wanted people to go beyond the Mall. We wanted people to experience D.C.’s neighborhoods.”

And will out-of-towners really make the trek out of the marble cocoon and into the mystery? “We’ve got some pretty attractive programming,” McBride says, “so if they don’t, it’s their loss.” CP