The 16th annual Festival of American Folklife takes up this weekend and next and then some. The Smithsonian is returning the fair to the Mall, where it all started in 1967. Between then and now, it's been moved to beside the Reflecting Pool, and then to the Washington Monument grounds, and it's even been bounced into October. But the old tree-lined strip in summer seems best after all for displaying folkways -- for trick riding and barrel racing, not to mention masked dancing and making horsehair hats.
This year, most of the musicians and craftspeople come from Oklahoma (celebrating 75 years of statehood) and from Korea (100 years of U.S.-Korean diplomacy); also participating are about 20 Korean- Americans who maintain the folk arts of their homeland.
Earlier in the week the Oklahomans checked in at the desk of the Quality Inn in Arlington wearing ten-gallon hats, while downstairs in the Jefferson Room, the Koreans danced and sang some of the folk songs they will perform on the Mall.
"This is a village festival," the director of the Folklife Festival, Ralph Rinsler, instructed them through an interpreter. "So don't think of yourselves as performing in a theater or on a stage but in the middle of your village . . . Just be very natural. Don't put on any makeup, and don't act . . . As soon as you try to put on some gesture that is not normal, the people, they know."
Three Chindo Island farmers practiced their work songs. First there was the "Preparation for Rice Transplanting." A man and two women acted out pulling up the young shoots: pick and bend and put aside, pick and bend and put aside, was the rhythm. Then came the "Rice Transplanting" song. As one of the "rice planters" leaned over, a pack of cigarettes and a matchbook dropped from his pocket, and he laughed but didn't lose his place in sweeping over his head first one hand then the other.
The syncopated beat was catchy, as were most of the songs practiced, and the older woman had a wonderfully robust singing voice that turned soft in speaking. She does not speak English, but her name is Cho' Kong Rye and she is 58. Her brown, lined face frames a quick smile of teeth that are half gold. From under her long, printed skirt poked the tips of what they call Egyptian shoes, with turned-up toes, in Delft blue and white.
She said that she learned the field songs as a little girl. When she was 14, the "grandparents," as she called the village elders, discovered her voice. And so whenever there was a party they always invited her to come sing. After she sang, they offered her rice wine to drink.
She's not a professional singer, but in 1972 the Korean government, as part of its effort to preserve national folk heritage, made her a "human cultural treasure," and she gets a government subsidy. Her parents were rice farmers; she is a rice farmer. The woman who sang with her is her daughter, whom she is teaching the songs. What does she think of America? She screwed up her face, and complained about the food.
Saung Sook Yun, the cultural liaison with the Smithsonian who was interpreting, explained they usually eat meat once a year at a festival, and otherwise eat rice and kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage dish (preparation of which, by the way, is being taught at the Folk Festival). "So I have to take them to the oriental market," she said. They're doing a lot of their own cooking.
Kim Moo Kyung is one of the true professional musicians with the troupe; at 32, he plays on national television and radio in Seoul. Between acts he was plucking the komun'go, which is very like a guitar that has been carved from the side of a tree. It has six strings, which he bent as a rock guitarist does; but the bridge is movable under three of these strings.
The instrument is also known as the black-crane harp, according to the group's guide, Alan Heyman, an American who lives in Korea. He said it got this name when first made in the seventh century. When the musician first played it, suddenly two black cranes flew into the room and started dancing to the music, or so it's said. The bridges are shaped like cranes' feet -- like inverted golf tees, actually. "The crane has been the symbol of the aesthetic of Korean art," said Heyman. It symbolizes grace, strength and long life.
The rice farmers were joined by musicians for a "Song for the Road," which celebrates the harvest. With a horn that trumpets noisily and a gong that blasts like a foghorn, they appeared to be celebrating a New Year, following a Pied Piper. Heyman, who paraded around with them, told the Smithsonian people that a pony would be needed to trail behind in the road song. "Oh, I wish you had told me that earlier, man," said Kazadi wa Mukuna, a Smithsonian ethnomusicologist. "Now I'm going to have to think fast. A pony. How about a horse? We've got lots of horses."
A sparkly young woman, Kyung Hee Whang, pulled up a chair and said, "I want show you my mask." She is a masked dancer, she said, who plays a somu, or young girl, with whom all the men fall in love.
The dancer lives in a small province called Kyung Gi, where there are rice farms and "many, many cows." At 25, she teaches Korean history in the middle school; her students are 15 years old.
She pointed to the "grandfather" across the room who taught her masked dancing. She'd played in masked-dance dramas in college, but her interest came long before. When she was very young she decided that when she grew up, "I will mask-dance drama," she said, "and many, many show my playing." It seems likely she'll fulfill this wish at the Folklife Festival.
In Korea, explained Fredric Lieberman, who is director of the school of music at the University of Washington in Seattle and coordinator for the Korean-Americans, "You won't see these groups from the villages in the city. In the cities they have choreographed folk things." These people still actually have the skills that go with the work songs. It's like finding someone who still does 15 miles on the Erie Canal.
The women divers' rowing song is one of these work tunes: a "pulling song" to coordinate activities. Two women from Cheju Island sang it in counterpoint with an anticipation and harmony perhaps possible only between siblings who grew up singing together. The lead voice belonged to Kim Joo Ok. She teaches songs to young girl divers and she still dives when she has time, for red seaweed, octopus, sea conch and abalone. Her sister, Kim Joo San, with a deeper and softer voice like an echo, is a diver too.
On Cheju Island, women prepare rice as well: The sisters performed a threshing song, and then a song to pass the time while hulling rice. Sitting on the floor, they took turns grinding a big imaginary mortar.
No one seemed to understand what the two were singing because the words are in a Cheju dialect. "I guarantee you it's not about rice," said Lieberman. "It's not one, two, three, grind." Often, women's working songs bemoan the faults of men, the musicologist said.
"This is the sort of song that disappears quickly," he said. "The minute you use processed rice in the village, you have no use for the song any more." WHERE THE FOLKS ARE The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues on the National Mall this Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and July 1 through 5. Demonstrations of folk arts will be held from 11 to 5:30 in four areas: On the festival stage, performers will pay musical tribute -- in blues, Irish music and bluegrass, to name three -- to the National Heritage Fellowships Program winners. A related exhibit, of the works of the craft fellowship winners, will be in the Museum of American History.
In addition to the Korean crafts and music area, in the Oklahoma area some highlights are horse-grooming and horse-racing, clog dancing, shape-note singing and all-day demonstrations of drilling for oil.
There's a little bit of everywhere in the children's area. Then, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and July 1, 2 and 3, you can dance along to Cajun, hoedown and western swing on the Oklahoma stage from 5:30 to 6:45. Following the dance/concerts, evening concerts start on the festival stage at 7. Admission is free. For a recorded message of daily highlights, call 357-2020.