The Smithsonian Folklife Festival returned to the National Mall on Wednesday for its 49th year, with this year’s themes being “Basque: Innovation by Culture” and “Sounds of California.” The festival, which runs through July 4th, and then resumes from July 7th through the 10th will not be offering Kendrick Lamar or The Beach Boys, but it will include a Basque rock band called Gatibu that sounds a bit like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, San Francisco-based Ethiopian singer Meklit Hadero who’s a Joni Mitchell fan, Chinese-American hip-hop DJ Phatrick, plus Basque corn cob racers, large stone lifters, a Basque whaling ship, and a handball court called a frontoia. Not to mention Basque cider and fixings, plus Californian Hispanic and Thai food.
Not familiar with the Basque? The Basque region is in parts of Spain and France and there are Basque people in the U.S., including communities in Rhode Island, Idaho, California, and D.C. Smithsonian Folklife Festival director Sabrina Motley says that the Festival will include Basques from all of these areas. There have been various Basque nationalist movements over the years but Motley says “if that comes up at all it will be because of the participants who are here to tell their story. We can never script what happens. We obviously are a cultural heritage festival and that’s part of their culture and if they choose to talk about that on the narrative stage that’s what they will do. Most of the focus though will be on the art and crafts and traditional music and dance.”
The festival will include a number of Basque traditional dance companies as well as musicians. A handful of the bands will include musicians playing a Basque accordion, known as a “trikitixa.” Motley says “the idea or hope is that lots of people dance, on the grass or on one of our stages. We also will have a space we’re calling the studio where people can come learn how to dance. It will be very participatory.”
Basque group Klaperttarŕak won’t be on a stage, though. Motley says this combo led by a trikitixa-playing bar owner will be wandering the grounds playing “celebratory strolling music.” Two Basque groups will add some additional percussive rhythms to that folkier sound. The kettle drum and tambourine using Kalakan, best-known for touring with Madonna, will do an evening concert on July 8th, while Korrontzi will do various appearances between the 7th and 10th with a hybrid sound using modern and traditional instruments.
Motley, who calls herself “an annoyingly proud Californian,” is thrilled with the range of music from the Golden State that the festival will offer. Participants include Banda Brillo de San Miguel Cuevas, a San Joaquin Valley brass band that is often accompanied by the Grupo Nuu Yuku dancers wearing horned devil masks, as well as FandangObon, a Southern Californian joint effort with drummers, string players, and vocalists of Japanese and Mexican descent who find common bonds between fandango son jarocho of Veracruz, Mexico, and the Japanese Buddhist ritual of obon. The varied left coast spectrum will also include Filipino rapper Bambu, Afghan rubab player Homayoun Sakhi, and Filipino musician Low Leaf, who melds harp and electronic sounds.