Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Native Hawaiian basket weaver Sabra Kauka, from Lihu'e, Kaua'i, weaves a basket.
Native Hawaiian basket weaver Sabra Kauka, from Lihu'e, Kaua'i, weaves a basket. (Anne E. O'Malley)
Richard Kurin
Director, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Thursday, June 29, 2006; 11:00 AM

Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, was online Thursday, June 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss this year's programs, which take place on the National Mall.

This year's festival explores four topics: "Alberta at the Smithsonian," "Nuestra Musica: Latino Chicago," "Carriers of Culture: Living Native Basket Traditions" and "Been in the Storm So Long," a special evening concert series that honors African American musical traditions from New Orleans.

The festival begins Friday, June 30 and runs through Tuesday, July 11.

The transcript follows.


Silver Spring, Md.: Will the recent rains affect the schedule and events of the Folklife Festival?? We have been especially excited to attend the New Orleans evening concerts. Thank you!

Richard Kurin: The recent deluge slowed down some of our preparations and given the failure of some telephone and computer lines caused some communications problems. The Mall has largely dried out -- though we are still filling some wet spots. But we are certainly ready to open tomorrow!


Richmond, Va.: Where can I find a schedule of events?

Richard Kurin: You can find the latest up to date schedule on our Web site --

Also the Washington Post will publish schedules daily.


Annapolis, Md.: Good morning Dr. Kurin, is it possible to buy some examples of the beautiful basketry we will be seeing this weekend? Can we buy anything? Or is this more like a museum where we can only look? Wanting to kill two birds with one trip.

Richard Kurin: Yes, you can buy some of the absolutely wonderful basketry being exhibited by some of the finest Native Basket weavers in America. They will be for sale in our Festival Marketplace located next to the Festival on the front lawn of the Freer Gallery of Art.


Frederick, Md.: Dr. Kurin, thank you for this chat. Why is Latino music being featured four years in a row? I am also sad to see that no nations outside of the U.S. are being featured. How are the cultures selected for the festivals? Thank you.

Richard Kurin: Latino Music is part of a larger initiative to feature the music and culture of Latinos. Since our collections are lacking, we felt we needed several years of research and activity to build up our representation of these traditions. In addition to the Festival, we have published a slew of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings from the program--many nominated for Grammys and other awards. As for "other nations," we do have a program this year on Alberta -- part of Canada -- which while similar to the U.S. in many ways, does have its own distinctive history and traditions.

As for the selection of programs at the Festival -- they develop from our own curatorial and research work, as well as various folks coming to us at the Smithsonian seeking to mark particular anniversaries or highlight important cultural issues.


Arlington, Va.: What are the best attractions at the Folklife Festive for kids? I've got a four-year-old and a two-year-old.

Richard Kurin: We have a great set of activities in the Native Basketry section of the Festival this year. Children can really explore a variety of traditions and meet very interesting people from around the country.


Baltimore, Md.: Just a "thank you" for bringing the great Alberta cowboy songwriter Ian Tyson to this year's Folklife Festival. He is in his 70s now, but he's still a magnetic performer and considered a national treasure up in Canada. This is an opportunity for festival goers to hear songs that truly capture life in the rural West as it is today, on both sides of the border.

Richard Kurin: I agree. And last night at an Alberta-U.S. event, a whole bunch of folks sang along to one of his songs. He will be performing at the Festival on July 9.


Arlington, Va.: What is the food going to be like year? Last year was YUMMY!

Richard Kurin: Alberta features great beef and bison and a delicious Saskatoon berry dessert. Native American tacos and wild rice is a favorite of mine. The Latino food concession has some tasty grilled steak. From New Orleans you can get a sausage combo and of course fried fish and bread pudding.


Washington, D.C.: I've heard the musicians in New Orleans are scattered throughout the country. How did you find performers for the New Orleans-themed evening concerts?

Richard Kurin: Not easily. We worked with Dr. Michael White, a musicologist, performer and professor at Xavier University in New Orleans. His house was devastated, his collection of musical instruments and recordings destroyed, and he had to relocate his ill mom to Houston. But he and others persevered because they, and we, and Lonnie Bunch -- the director of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture -- felt it was very important to show the country the vitality of and people behind the culture of New Orleans.


Hot weather: What is the rationale behind the decision to hold the Festival in the summer? Is it due to kids being out of school? It'd be nice to walk around without feeling like I'm ready to drop from heat exhaustion!

Richard Kurin: I too hate the heat and humidity. But having the Festival around the Fourth of July helps bring attention to the vision of America as a tolerant society, composed of people from all over the world, and respectful of their cultural traditions. Its also the height of the tourist season -- since kids are out of school, and so we get a national audience for the Festival.


Arlington, Va.: It seems there are always lots of baskets and basket-making activities featured at the Folklife Festival. What's the deal?

Richard Kurin: Well certainly this year with the Native American Basketry Program. But I think we've had many more musicians, singers, dancers, and as artisans go, as many potters, metal workers and the like. This year the concentration on Native Basketry comes as a result of many of these traditions being endangered.


Silver Spring, Md.: What day of the festival offers the most activities/attractions for school-age children?

Richard Kurin: Every day, but given the crowds on the 4th of July and the weekends, I think weekdays are best for children to get the most out of the Festival. My wife, a third grade teacher, agrees.


Washington, D.C.: Can you explain the SuperNet? I saw mention of that on your site and I'm still a little confused.

Richard Kurin: The SuperNet is a very high-speed interactive Internet system that links educational institutions throughout Alberta. At the Festival, we will be linking through video screen and sound to various schools throughout the Province -- from cities to quite remote small towns, so that students here in DC can hear from, see and share with their peers in Alberta.


Washington, D.C.: I have to say that I'm a little mystified by this year's choices of themes. With apologies to my one very-excited Canadian friend, none of the selected topics really grab my interest. And wasn't Nuestra Musica on the agenda last year?

Oman, Mali, Romania, the Silk Road... the themes of years past have had a much more exotic flavor.

Richard Kurin: Nuestra Musica -- Latino music is part of a multi-year project, and this year we are focusing on Chicago, which many people don't know much about. Exoticism raises an interesting question about how we present cultures on the Mall. We tend to try to show how seemingly exotic cultures are understandable -- that is we try to make them familiar -- and I think we usually succeed. Now sometimes when we have cultures that are similar to ours the challenge is to show how they are unique, different or particular in how they approach or express something. Its challenging.


Washington, D.C.: When did you decide to do the New Orleans concerts? I thought the Folklife Festival line-up was usually scheduled years in advance.

Richard Kurin: We decided to do a concert series on New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. We have done many programs and projects on New Orleans over the years. Given the physical devastation of the city and the rebuilding that must take place, we felt it was appropriate to draw attention to the destruction of cultural resources -- the living cultural heritage of the people of that city -- and the efforts they were undertaking to preserve their culture. It coincided well with the mission of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and so we formed a partnership for the program.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a vegetarian; will there be things for me to munch on at the festival?

Richard Kurin: We have vegetarian tacos, pita pocket salad, squash soup, wild rice salad, a pan fried buckwheat dish and others for vegetarians. There are also beverages, and depending on how vegetarian, we do have mango lassis.


Rockville, Md.: Much like conventional museum exhibitions, the Folklife Festival has to contend with "the politics of display" you and the other curators find it difficult to maintain a balance between advocacy and neutrality?

Also, I've always wondered about the decision to confine all shopping to one little corner of the festival. Is it an effort to keep the interactions between visitors and the artisans more educational rather than economic? Aren't there some years where the economic interaction would rightly be part of the authentic experience? Or, is it simply an effort to simplify bookkeeping and tracking sales tax?

Finally, how is the job outlook for folklorists? Does the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage have any upcoming projects or openings that haven't posted to the SI's HR web site yet?

Richard Kurin: The Festival often has to contend with the politics of display, but we go about it rationally, and we've learned a lot over the years. I wrote a book about it -- Reflections of a Culture Broker -- a few years ago. As for the marketplace, we would rather be on the Mall, but given the regulations of the National Park Service, we can not sell crafts, recordings and most other things on the Mall. While as you point out, not having the transaction with artisans be an economic one does have advantages -- as people are more prone to ask about the tradition rather than the cost. On the other hand, again as you point out, in some places -- say the bazaar for example -- commercial haggling and interchange is the cultural tradition, and in such cases, that aspect is lost at the Festival.

On jobs -- well the budget is very tight these days, and I suggest you mail us a resume and letter and lets see if there is a match for anything coming along.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I'm guessing that it's easier and cheaper to bring in cultures from countries that are closer to the States. The logistics would be probably be easier. Is this true?

Richard Kurin: I think in general that may be true. But sometimes it is not. In 2004 we had Haiti at the Festival and though it is closer than many places, the unstable political situation and the lack of resources made it difficult -- but still very worthwhile educationally and socially. Getting visas for folks from some parts of the world is very difficult, and of course we have to raise funds for every person we bring, every airfare, etc.


Silk Road: I get what you are trying to do with the selected themes, but I also liked the Silk Road Festival -- in particular because it was a cohesive theme instead of three disparate topics. Are there any plans for similar festivals in the future?

Richard Kurin: The Silk Road was amazing! It took great effort and lots of money. It was probably unique.

That said, next year, in 2007, one of the programs will be on the Mekong River region, and we have participation from China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It will be Silk Road-like in that it will have a set of themes that we will explore. But other programs will include Virginia on account of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and Northern Ireland.


Falls Church, Va.: Dr. Kurin, I wonder if you could say more about the process of identifying the cultures that will be highlighted in the festival each year. You stated earlier that it develops from the research being conducted at SI. Since much this work seems to be "behind the scenes" is there a way to learn more about the ongoing research plans and activities?

Richard Kurin: Hmm. Several times in the past we have given presentations for the Smithsonian Associates describing some of the processes. We also publish a newsletter, Talk Story, that explains the why and what of future programs and progress on them. It is available in hard copy and on-line at


Washington, D.C.: Like most people I'm not too familiar with the performers at the festival. Which of the evening concerts do you think will be the best to attend?

Richard Kurin: I like the New Orleans evening concerts on June 30, July 7 and July 8 -- the latter with the Dixie Cups. There will be a great Canada Day Concert July 1 -- really good musicians and balladeers, and an Ian Tyson concert on July 9, and our Rinzler Concert will this year honor Joe Wilson with performances by Cephas and Wiggins, Linda Lay, and the Whitetop Mountain Band.


Cortez, Colo.: Will any of this be on C-Span or PBS?

Richard Kurin: Not on TV. CKUA out of Alberta will be broadcasting some of the performances and WAMU in Washington will be recording for a possible nationwide broadcast on July 4.


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Kurin,

I always enjoy the Folklife Festival, but this year I am perplexed by several things. First, why do most -- if not all -- exhibits focus on North America? Have we forgotten about other continents? With so little world news reaching a great cross-section of our country -- the cross section that does come to the Folklife Festival, it seems unfortunate that the geographic representation is so limited. Second, why are we celebrating tar/oil sands industry in front of our capitol building? This is an extremely inefficient method of fuel retrieval. Better to focus on fuel efficiency than to glorify monster trucks!!

Richard Kurin: Some years the Festival is more domestic, other years more international. Next year the programs feature the roots of Virginia (with participation from folks from West Africa and from England), Northern Ireland, and the countries of the Mekong --Yunan China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Cambodia. We always try to draw connections between cultures. As for the oil sands -- we are not taking a position on the industry nor debating it on the Mall -- that's for policy makers, Albertans, Canadians, environmentalists, scientists and others to do. At the Festival we have often and for 4 decades illustrated work culture--the knowledge and skills of working men and women. And that is what we will be showing with regard to the driving, use, repair of the giant truck. It quite parallel with what we have done with coal miners, stock brokers, taxi cab drivers, etc. etc.


Falls Church, Va.: Is there any funding so the festival may be offered for more days? I remember when it went on for weeks.

Richard Kurin: I first worked for the Festival in 1976 when it went on for three months. Currently, funding, issues of the use of the National Mall, and our structure would make it difficult to be open for more than the current two weeks. We have extended the Festival on the Web -- go to for videos, interviews and performances from previous Festivals. Some of our partners develop Festivals back home. And Smithsonian Folkways Recordings offers mini-exhibits from the Festival in the form of music CDs that are widely available.


Arlington, Va.: When will Morocco be selected? A country based on so many different folklores: food, music, people. And not to forget their Andulusian culture which is still strong now.

Richard Kurin: Someday. We have had talks with Moroccan colleagues over the years. Its a fascinating culture that does combine Arab, Berber, European traditions. We'd love to have Morocco on the Mall.


Curious: Who are the Smithsonian Associates? Are they contributors or employees?

Richard Kurin: The Smithsonian Associates is a Smithsonian membership organization offering lectures, films, performances, instructional programs, largely in the Washington area. Find out more via


Gaithersburg, Md.: Next year's festival sounds amazing! Are their plans in the near future to bring a South African theme to the festival? There is so much excellent music, food, dance, and positive history.

Richard Kurin: Look for Bhutan on the Mall in 2008.


Washington D.C.: Are there other festivals like this one that you know of? Has the Folklife Festival ever considered going on tour?

Richard Kurin: The Smithsonian Festival has spawned many others around the U.S. and around the world. The longest running continuous one is produced by the Michigan State University Museum in East Lansing. They've mounted a festival annually since they were on the Mall in 1987.


Festival Food: May I ask the rationale behind linking Saskatoon berries, from the province of Saskatchewan, with the featured Canadian province of Alberta?

Not that I mind, they're quite tasty.

Richard Kurin: Albertans have them too!


Right down the street from the festival!: Please answer this: Is any dance events more of a workshop so that people can join in and learn the moves and have some fun?! If so, which ones? I love to dance and am always fascinated by cultural dances!

Richard Kurin: Go to the Aragon Ballroom in the Latino Chicago program and bring your dancing shoes!


Washington, D.C.: This is more of a personal question than one pertaining to this year's festival, but if you could have any cultural presenters from any time period or location, who would you choose and why? Thanks!

Richard Kurin: I liked the India program in 1985, the Tibetan program in 2000, the Silk Road in 2002. As an anthropologist who has worked much in South Asia I am more familiar with that part of the world and more knowledgeable about the traditions. But I have learned so much from so many people from all around the planet at the Festival -- much more so than from books or from getting a University of Chicago PhD!


Rockville, Md.: Dr. Kurin,

I am told that traditionally, the Folklife Festival focuses on one U.S. state, along with the other topics and themes (such as the 400th anniversary of settlement in Virginia for next year). Are you doing that this year, also, or are you merely setting Louisiana and/or Illinois as the states receiving de facto coverage? Thanks.

Richard Kurin: It really varies year to year. Sometimes two countries. Sometimes four themes. or as with Silk Road in 2002, one big theme.


Washington, D.C.: Our family loves the Folklife Festival, and we happily bring the kids to several events each year. I have 2 questions, though:

1. With a whole world of cultures to choose from, why select 4 North American subcultures to focus on this year? We use the festival to introduce our kids to unfamiliar cultures (their fave was the year you featured musicians from Ghana), so this year's lineup, while certainly worthwhile, is disappointing in its breadth. What was behind your choice?

2. It is so hot every year in July down on the Mall. Our kids certainly suffer, and it must be hard on the performers. Any chance of holding the festival in May or late September instead?


Richard Kurin: I too hate the heat, but the Festival occurring as it does draws a broader audience and symbolically ties to the 4th of July. As for choices -- come down to the Mall these year and explore -- you might be surprised!


Washington, D.C.: The Essence sounds like a cool group. How did you find them? What other acts in the Nuestra Musica section are worth checking out?

Richard Kurin: These groups are real gems. Hang out with Chicago musicians!


Gaithersburg, MD: Dr. Kurin, thank you for answering our many, many questions today. You are incredible! See you at the Festival!

Richard Kurin: See you too. Thanks.

_______________________ Dr. Kurin must get back to the festival set-up! Thank you all for joining us. For information about the festival schedule and performers visit the festival Web site and sample some music from the festival on the Folklife site. See you on the Mall this weekend!


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