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A group of anthropologists, bureaucrats, and researchers get set to put D.C. on center stage at this summer’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
L’Enfant Plaza’s underground shopping mall, complete with Jazzercise neon lights touting pizza and cheap-chic fashion outlets, is a fitting introduction to the building where the people who interpret American folkways work. “People identify blue jeans, Hollywood, Coca-Cola, and pop music as American culture,” says Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “A Big Mac is culture.”
These days, you might also hear Kurin say, “D.C. is culture.”
Come late June, he and the staff at the center hope to kick the District upstairs, into the cultural pantheon alongside such giants as Estonia, Burkina Faso, and the Galapagos Islands. D.C. will go native, so to speak, and become the latest demonstration subject for the cultural anthropologists who put on the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
Over its three-decade history, the Folklife Festival has featured ordinary folks doing ordinary things: Ukrainian egg painters, Puerto Rican bomba players, portly Wisconsin oompah musicians, and taro farmers from Hawai’i (their spelling). D.C.’s inhabitants have never been featured as the star attraction. It may have something to do with the city’s dearth of palm-leaf-basket-weavers and lobster fisherman—or, rather, with the definition of the term in question.
“I don’t like the word ‘folklife,’” says Dr. Brett Williams, a professor of anthropology at American University, who oversees the researchers trying to determine that definition. “I like ‘memory.’ The festival covers people’s memories of life.” Williams’ take underscores the difficulty inherent in any attempt to present folk culture. Especially if that attempt centers around Washington.
“Folklife is what the folk do,” says District Arts Commissioner Tony Gittens. Gittens and the crew at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities—the local agency in charge of telling the Smithsonian how to represent the city in its exhibits—intend to engage in a bit of double-dipping this summer.
The Smithsonian’s two-week festival is a national event, so local bureaucrats and art boosters are salivating at the prospect of exposing millions of earnest tourists to Washington life beyond the downtown attractions. In addition to helping the Smithsonian people put on the show in the three-ring tents that will be mounted along the Mall, the city will showcase its own events, commercially sponsored and scattered around the city.
“Our culture is overshadowed by the Mall,” says Gittens. “The people who live here or migrated here—their culture is not as prominent as the federal culture. We’ll get to talk about that.”
Highlights of the local celebration will include “Caliente: An Evening of Latin Music and Jazz,” “DC Swings!,” an outdoor swing concert, and “Hello, Hello!,” communication ports stationed around the city that will allow visitors to “learn first-hand from District residents about everyday life in the District,” according to a promotional handout.
“It’s not our intent to define D.C. but to present it,” says Michael McBride, program manager at the arts commission. “How it is interpreted will be left up to the individuals.”
“Folklife” evokes the image of peasants toiling in the fields, taking occasional breaks to strum four-stringed instruments while singing about the autumn harvest. For the last 30 years, the Smithsonian’s been pretty good at bringing wood carvers, dancers, and field hands from remote parts of the world onto the Mall to give the public a chance to observe them in re-created settings.
The evidence sits inside the offices of the Center for Folklife: The space is cluttered with African masks, Cape Verdean wood figures, Romanian peasant statues, bongos, Andean pipes, and Native American pottery. You half-expect Margaret Mead to greet visitors at the door.
Kurin and John Franklin, who is in charge of the D.C. part of the festival (Tibet and the Southwest’s Rio Bravo Basin are also featured this year), share desk space with stacks of festival programs, anthropology texts, and academic papers on topics like “Pahiyas: A Philippine Harvest.”
Over the past several months, they’ve sent out 50 researchers to comb the city’s neighborhoods to bring back stories, artifacts, and potential performers to display indigenous customs. “We have taken a vernacular, cultural approach to the whole thing,” says Kurin. “The people who we’re dealing with control their own culture.”
The whole process, however, raises the question: What defines culture in D.C.?
“Look at barbecue traditions, for example,” Franklin explains. “People brought these traditions to Washington. People brought plants here. People grow their own herbs to make Ethiopian or Vietnamese foods.”
“[Appalachian] people came to the mid-Atlantic, and this area became a center for bluegrass,” adds Kurin.
“Fugazi is from here,” adds Franklin. “Go-go is a D.C. creation.”
“When Ethiopians first came to the area, they used Martha Washington self-rising flour to make Ethiopian bread!” says Kurin.
“We are highlighting the local history,” continues Franklin. “People will talk about the struggle of desegregation.” He points out the window toward the wild traffic patterns of L’Enfant Plaza. “People will talk about how some neighborhoods are no longer neighborhoods—like this one. There will be an area for sacred and secular musical traditions, an area for food. We will look at life along the river. We’ll look at media and political people who live here and the people who come here to represent their state or country.”
And then, perhaps tired from their alternating, rapid-fire responses, they both catch a breath.
Kurin and Franklin go to great lengths to point out that there is such a thing as organic culture in the city. It’s true. But their effort to explain it underlines the inferiority complex many District residents share when it comes to discussing local traditions. After all, how does a place with such a transient population define its identity?
“The festival will be an opportunity for people in the city to talk about their notion of what culture is,” says Franklin. “There is culture in the city and culture that has been brought to the city.”
So, whereas visitors can expect to see robed monks walking around the Tibetan exhibit (the Dalai Lama is scheduled to make an appearance) and guitar-strumming banditos singing border folk songs at the Rio Bravo pavilion, the D.C. area of the festival could include photos of people sucking down half-smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl or lonely hearts cruising the aisles of Politics and Prose on a Saturday evening.
“Our intention isn’t to turn these things into museum pieces,” says Gittens. The festival, he says, is a celebration of the things that happen in the city on a day-to-day basis.
While traipsing along the path in search of cultural currents, researchers at the folklife center and officials at the arts commission have found that some of the “folk” being observed are puzzled by the attention.
“We’re trying to deliver a very honest presentation of life here,” says McBride. “A lot of people are fascinated that we are fascinated by them. For them, the things they do might be ordinary, but [those same things are] fascinating to us. ‘Folklife’ here means the everyday activities and pursuits—the way people live.”
Research head Williams recalls a recent outing to an Ethiopian restaurant: “We were watching the activity, and there were some dancers. When we told them we were with the Smithsonian Institution, they left the room and re-emerged in traditional purple tunics carrying ritual swords. We’re not looking for that!” she says. “We want to represent the way certain groups have adapted their traditions to life here.”
Williams has a tough job. She knows that she can’t include everything in the festival. Some researchers have expressed concern that the issue of D.C. statehood may not be represented properly. Others oppose the representation of cultural trends that are more popular beyond the city’s borders, like zydeco dance and swing—forms associated more with Hyattsville and Glen Echo, respectively. There’s also the hallowed reputation of the Smithsonian hanging over the process.
“People at the Smithsonian are nervous about Congress looking over their shoulder,” she says. “There’s a tendency [at the Smithsonian] for things to become sanitized and bland. With all the urban renewal going on in the city, we don’t want to put on a show that says we’re all happy here on the plantation.”
Williams says that visitors can expect to hear “harDCore” punk bands like Fugazi and to see exhibits on local lesbian and gay culture. “We’re interested in dance trends you’ll find in gay male clubs. There’s something called ‘runway’ and ‘scuzzing out’—all the guys dress differently, and it’s political, and it’s a parody of beauty and gender roles.”
Go-go, she adds, qualifies as bona fide folklife: “Go-go is music that comes out of poverty. People call out their neighborhood names. It’s deeply urban and profoundly black-American.”
One of Williams’ researchers, Sherri Lawson-Clark, a doctoral candidate at American University, was assigned to look into the subcultures around both go-go music and beauty salons. She visited salons and barbershops around the city and spent some time interviewing the folks who run Dudley Beauty College. “Barbershops and beauty salons are a mainstay of cultural life in the African-American community,” she says. “A beauty salon is a social center—people can talk politics, fashion, gossip, [and] you have the separation of genders. If you look into African history, it’s always been an important part of who we are.”
Another researcher, Christopher Flores, focused on white urban culture. One of the first things he did was to interview Ian MacKaye, godfather of harDCore and founder of the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. “I was dubious about the whole thing from the start—as was MacKaye,” he says. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to make punk a museum piece.’ It took me some time to reconcile that sentiment with what I thought should be represented at the festival.”
Flores also chronicled the rise of local bands like Rites of Spring and Bad Brains. “The thing that differentiated D.C. punk was an unwillingness to compromise artistically. D.C. could’ve become another Seattle, but the people making music here weren’t willing to let that happen.”
The people putting on the Folklife Festival, similarly, aren’t willing to let others set the agenda. It’s a complicated process. “Nobody can legitimately tell us not to stage something that might be slightly controversial,” says Kurin. “It’s the National Mall, for God’s sake. I mean, how can you argue against free expression when it’s being staged there?”
But Kurin is quick to add one caveat: “It is a family event. It’s open to people of all ages. Our job isn’t to shock the public.”
“And besides,” adds Franklin, “something may be too profane or too sacred to show in public.”
“Yeah,” agrees Kurin. “We don’t want to put mikes in confessional boxes.” CP