Editors' pick

Smithsonian Folklife Festival


Editorial Review

43rd Folklife Festival Puts African American Stories in Context

By Kate Kilpatrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

The mere memory of grandmothers raking combs through their young heads caused some of the storytellers' faces to wince in pain during "Hair Stories," the well-attended series at the mock barbershop/beauty salon that helped kick off the 43rd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall yesterday. Women shared stories of spiritual relief they received from their stylists, while the men fessed up to talking about sports, politics and women for hours on end.

"Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture" was organized and curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is to open on the Mall in 2015. The museum-to-be re-created a radio station, stoop, kitchen and unisex barbershop/beauty salon (complete with checkered floors and vintage barbershop chairs) as venues for the comedians, poets, wordsmiths and storytellers to perform.

But are barbershops and beauty salons really the center of black American life, or are they just neighborhood fixtures that have been turned into a cultural cliche, a predictable place to dispatch reporters and researchers covering the black political vote or any number of race issues?

"In art and television and film it is overused, and it is a cliche and it can be construed as an insult," says storyteller and schoolteacher Branice McKenzie. But in the context of a folk festival, she says, the venue makes perfect sense. "Our life as African American folk in this country takes place majorly in the venues they created here -- the kitchen, the barbershop/beauty salon, the stoop -- even if the stoop is someone's patio because they have enough money to buy a house."

The Folklife Festival, which attracts more than a million visitors each year to the Mall, runs through Sunday and continues July 1-5. The festival is known for its unusual pairings. This year: African American oral traditions meets Wales meets Latin American music.

At the opening ceremony yesterday morning, festivalgoers heard songs by Son de Madera, a group from Veracruz, Mexico, that studies and plays traditional sounds from that region. And later visitors wandered among the many Welsh tents, watching demonstrators chisel slate, weave traditional tapestries, carve clogs and play rugby. Not to be missed are the small buckets of leeches in the plants-and-medicine tent. Leeches are used in traditional medicine in Wales to, among other things, treat the aforementioned rugby players who might be afflicted with a bad case of cauliflower ear.

Back at the barbershop exhibit, visitors learned about Bergamot and Murray's (brands of hair grease and pomade) and "kitchen" (the area at the nape where the delicate and unruly baby hairs grow).

The barbershop "is literally part of our world," says comedian James Hannah, one of the barbershop speakers. "The reason it's repeated so much is it's the one place we can be and talk about white folks and say what we really think," he (sort of) jokes, adding, "But it's the truth."

Church is another gathering place says Hannah, "but not all black folks go to church. At the barbershop you'll see black Muslims, black Christians, black atheists. All walks of life from the politician to the pimp are going to be there."

James Alexander Robinson of the National Museum of African American History and Culture curated the "Giving Voice" program. He says the black church is "a given place where you would go to find African American oral traditions," but he wanted to keep the settings secular for the festival.

Onstage, comedian Dylan Pritchett, another voice of the barbershop, says all African Americans have a hair story. And if they don't, he says, they're just not thinking hard enough, encouraging listeners to come up with one.

When asked for her hair story, festival volunteer Winsome Eustace, who watched two hours of "Hair Stories," has a ready answer.

After straightening her long hair for years, she recently cut it all to let it grow naturally. "With straight hair, people had mistaken me for Filipino or Hispanic," Eustace says, adding that Filipinos would regularly speak to her in Tagalog. "But when you have an Afro, there's not really any question."

Schedule Highlights
For a full schedule, visit the Folklife Festival Web site.

Friday, June 26
Noon WPFW-FM Live Broadcast: Don't Forget the Blues at the Radio Station
1 p.m. Paraguayan Harp: Marcelo Rojas & Alvaro Marazzi at the Folkways Salon
5 p.m. Teatime Favorites at Taste of Wales
Evening concert: The Heritage Signature Chorale at the Baird Auditorium and Catrin Ashton, Ceri Ashton, Christine Cooper, Linda Griffiths, Sille Ilves and Martin Leamon at the Welsh Dragon

Saturday, June 27
1 p.m. Wales Trivia at the Rugby Club
3 p.m. Puppet Theater with Schroeder Cherry at Young Wordsmiths
4 p.m. Dance Party: Merengue Tpico La India Canela at Salon de Baile
Evening concert: Ella Jenkins, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer at 5:30 p.m. followed by Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris and BeauSoleil at the Welsh Dragon.

Sunday, June 28
1 p.m. Welsh Lesson: Likes and Dislikes at the Story Circle
3 p.m. Hair Stories with Len Cabral and Sankofa at the Barbershop/Beauty Parlor
4 p.m. Accordion Workshop at La Pena
Evening concert: Gareth Bonello, Gwyneth Glyn, Linda Griffiths and Lisa Healy, Frank Hennessy and Gai Toms at the Welsh Dragon and Grupo Cimarrn, Las Cantadoras del Pacfico and Estrellas del Vallenato at the Folkways Salon.

Wednesday, July 1
Noon Bakestone and Cauldron Cooking at Taste of Wales
1 p.m. Nati Cano's Mariachi Los Camperos at Folkways Salon
4 p.m. Word Play Workshop with Kenny Carroll, Tonya Matthews, and Christylez at Young Wordsmiths
Evening concert: Circle of Love -- A Storytelling Session at the Oratorium

Thursday, July 2
Noon Marimba de Chonta Workshop at La Pena
2 p.m. The Persona of the Black Deejay at the Radio Station
4 p.m. Adapt, Reuse, Recycle: Wool at the Square Mile
Evening concert: Just Kidding: A Conversation with Dick Gregory at the Oratorium, Nati Cano's Mariachi los Camperos, Maestros de Joropo Oriental and Chanchona los Hermanos Lovo at the Folkways Salon and Only Men Aloud! and Parti Cut Lloi at the Welsh Dragon.

Friday, July 3
1 p.m. Traditional Music on the (Inter)National Stage at La Pena
2 p.m. Poetry about Welsh Identity at the Story Circle
3 p.m. ML King in a Hip Hop World: Asante Touring Company at the Stoop
Evening concert: Cathrin Finch and Grupo Cimarrn at the Folkways Salon

Saturday, July 411 a.m. Game and Wild Foods at Taste of Wales
1 p.m. A Poetic Dialogue with Toni Blackman, A. B. Spellman, and Sonia Sanchez at the Stoop
3 p.m. Currulao: Las Cantadoras del Pacfico at Salon de Baile

Sunday, July 53 p.m. Drumming Workshop at Salon de Baile
4 p.m. Wit and Wisdom with Kenny Carroll, Tejumola Ologboni, and Thomas Sayers Ellis at the Barbershop/Beauty Salon
5 p.m. Festival Experiences: Tell Your Story at The Square Mile
Evening concert: The Birmingham Sunlights at Baird Auditorium


Your journey around the world begins in Wales at the 43rd Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Don't worry, all those signs directing you to "Cymru" aren't leading you to another country's festival; Cymru (pronounced "come-ree") is the Welsh word for Wales. The language is a big part of Welsh culture, and with nearly 160 Welsh people making the trip to participate in the festival, you'll hear plenty of Welsh, along with traditional Welsh folk music and songs, and see cultural demonstrations and authentic crafts. The menu features staple Welsh foods, including Welsh stew and Glamorgan sausage, a vegetarian dish of bread, cheese, onion and egg. Wash it all down with a tasty Tomos Watkin's, an ale brewed in the Welsh city of Swansea.

Also at the Folklife Festival

There's more to do at the 43rd Smithsonian Folklife Festival than to experience Wales. The festival on the Mall also celebrates the musical traditions of Latin America and the oral traditions of the African American community with a full schedule of performances and readings.

The three programs might seem unrelated geographically, but topically, each illustrates how the communities learn from the past to affect the future. "In the end, each of the programs is about connecting," says Diana Parker, the Folklife Festival's director. "It's about connecting within a community and also about connecting across communities."

Highlighting the role of music in everyday Latino life, the "Las Amricas: Un Mundo Musical/Music in the Latino Culture" portion of the festival, near 12th Street, consists of performers representing a broad array of Central and South American countries, including Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and Venezuela.

At the other end of the festival, the "Giving Voice" area demonstrates the power of words in the African American community through performances, discussions, radio broadcasts, children's programming and community celebrations.

-- Alex Baldinger