To stand in the middle of the venerable Glen Echo Park during the weekend with one's eyes closed was akin to having a short-radio picking up international signals. A movement of an Armenian folk-dance troupe. A turn and step to the right led to the old sod and Celtic Thunder's slip jigs and reels. Up ahead came sparkling percussive tones from Ghana. Two steps back and all time and boundaries disappeared in the magic luminescence of and Indonesian shadow puppet play.
For two days, about 14,000 people watched 450 festival participants dance in dozens of formal and informal movements, sing in 30 languages and play stringed instruments as varied as the Laotian saw, the Ukranian banduras, the Eritrean Krar, the Vietnamese dan trank, the Japanese koto, the Paraguayan harp and the more familiar guitar, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle and banjo. Almost half the participants represented the vast variety and diversity of traditional cultures in the Washington areas.
The Washington Folk Festival, now in its fourth year, is a true community festival. Though some of the participants are professional musicians, most come to the festival through a needle-in-a-haystack routine that has the Folklore Society of Greater Washington sponsors of the festival, eating at many of the Capital's ethnic restaurants and asking waiters and cooks and hostesses if they know anyone who sings or dances or plays an instrument. Amleset Abay, the first representative from Eritrea, was discovered when his car ran out of gas while carrying a Folklore staffer. While waiting for a pickup truck, they got to talking . . . and this year Eritrea joined Glen Echo's circle of nations.
"This is almost as good as going around the world," said Janine Parker of Falls Church as she shepherded her family around the festival's five stages. "It's fantastic that it should be free . . . and it takes a lot less than 80 days." She then turned her energies to convincing a reluctant husband that he really should try to learn just a few steps for the traditional Irish gathering called a ceili. As befits an international festival, the ceili was being held in the Spanish Ballroom.