At Folklife Festival, a Few Modern Twists

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured Aztec dancing by Montserrat Alsina and her 13-year-old daughter, Celeste, of Chicago's Nahui Ollin dance company.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured Aztec dancing by Montserrat Alsina and her 13-year-old daughter, Celeste, of Chicago's Nahui Ollin dance company. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

On the Mall, folk life has officially gone 21st century.

Alongside handmade crafts at this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival are a 100-ton oil truck, baskets woven of nontraditional materials and music played on electronic instruments.

That posed a dilemma yesterday for the O'Donnell family of Manassas: Mom Carolyn wanted to head right to the stalls selling traditional baskets woven by Apache and Cherokee Indians. Son James, 12, voted for the ice hockey demonstration and giant oil truck.

"He doesn't care about the history," said Carolyn O'Donnell, who has been coming to the festival for eight years. "I want to learn about these ancient weaving techniques, but this new technological stuff is pretty cool for a kid."

The 40th annual Folklife Festival includes three display areas, each showcasing a different culture. In addition to Alberta, Canada, there are Native American basket weavers and Latin music from Chicago. There even is a touch of New Orleans each night.

A video screen allowed D.C. area children to talk to students in Alberta using the province's SuperNet system, which connects 4,200 schools and government facilities.

At the most traditional segment of the festival, Native American basket weavers spoke about how their craft has changed from their ancestors' generations to their own. Tony Stevens, 20, a weaver from the Wasco tribe in Warm Springs, Ore., said he makes baskets using cashmere and wool rather than the twine and cotton of past generations.

"It's a lot more forgiving on your hands," Stevens said.

Susanna Boynton, 6, who lives in Northwest Washington, said she thought the cashmere baskets were even prettier than the ones made out of bark and twine.

The festival continues through Tuesday. Festival exhibits resume Friday through July 11 from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Exhibits are followed each day by evening concerts featuring music from New Orleans. Details are available at http://folklife.si.edu/ .

Musicians from New Orleans said that their music hasn't changed since Hurricane Katrina, but the devastating storm forever changed the spirit of the city and its people.

"It's part of the healing and growing process to be playing music in the nation's capital," said Al Caston, a guitarist for the Friendly Travelers gospel band, which performed Friday night. "New Orleans is going to live on. It won't be the same, but it'll still be New Orleans."

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