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The 44th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival came to a close yesterday. As I noted earlier, due to financial reasons, this was the smallest Folklife Fest ever, but it remains a well-curated, exciting event. It could be publicized better, but for those who did attend, there were unique things worth seeing.
I spent much of the final hot day under the tents of the Mexico portion of the event. My main south-of-the-border highlight was the Son de Madera Trio, a son jarocho band from Veracruz whose speedy and rhythmic picking on their small guitarlike instruments——a guitara de son (a type of requinto) and a jarana—-sounded best when accompanying the group’s dancer, who tapped and slapped her shoes on top of a wood platform. Their high-pitched strumming immediately brought “La Bamba” to mind, and sure enough they later played it. The guys in the group were all over today—on two stages and in a tent, making new requintos, alongside others making instruments.
The Chinelos de Atlatlahucan (pictured up top) are a carnival-like troupe of costumed dancers and a marching band. While the drummers and horn section are lively and loud, live the music often lacked the funkiness of New Orleans brass bands and the groove of Brazilian samba outfits. With the dancers they were still fun, but the music was sometimes dissonant, stiff, and repetitive.
Los Verdaderos Caporales de Apatzingán feature a harp, two fiddles, a vihuela, and a jarana. They also chant and sing rural-feeling rancheras and mariachilike slow dance numbers.
The one YouTube video I had seen of Hamac Caziim suggested it wasan avante-garde Mexican rock band with artsy vocals and unusual time signatures. Yesterday they came across like a mid-’80s hardcore-meets-metal band with Central American Indian vocals. The group’s emphasis on power undoubtedly scared many festgoers; the tent quickly felt pretty empty. It could use more creative arrangements and varied tempos in its set.
Mariachi Tradicional Los Tios played yesterday without it guitarist and dancer(they were sick). Their polkas and waltzes weren’t bad, but they felt less than full without, well, the full group. Oh, and while the traditional food at the fest is always overpriced, the etote, Mexican corn-on-the cob with spices and mayo, sure was tasty.
My hat is off to the Smithsonian Folklife festival for booking Haitian band Boukman Ecksperyans last weekend, plus various Mexican outfits who rarely if ever play D.C. and lots of locally based Asian American music and dance groups who seldom perform before non-Asian local audiences. While I understand that financial restrictions prevent the fest from also incorporating a U.S. state as it did in years past, it’s a shame the Smithsonian does not market the event better to various local audiences. The Smithsonian likes to boast about how many thousands come to the fest each summer, but there were a lot of empty seats under some tents on this Monday government holiday. While a daily listing of events appeared in the Washington Post Style section each day, there did not appear to be any mention of the Festival on the websites Kesta and Eventoslatinos.us, which have Latino concert calendars, or in the Washington Hispanic newspaper. With Mexico as a theme, one would have expected a larger turnout from the local Latino community. Also, despite my efforts, the fest still appears to be viewed by many local Anglos as simply an event for tourists and aging hippie Peace Corps types. The Folklife Festival’s press team needs to work on that as well.