Thiandenine Bindia smiled hesitantly as he pointed to a grainy, laminated photograph taken when he was initiated into manhood more than 30 years ago. Set in a Senegalese village, with thatched huts and a few gleeful faces in the background, he looks resplendent in a headdress, amulets and bead necklaces.
Tuesday evening Bindia brought that smudged black-and-white rectangle to the United States. As a harsh Senegal-like sun drenched the Mall, he sat on his haunches under the shade of a tree, stringing brightly colored beads and watching the tourists drink in the smells, the sights and the sounds of his native country at the Smithsonian's Annual Festival of American Folklife.
The festival, now in its 24th year, displays to the American public the checkered canvas of traditions and aesthetic forms of cultures here and abroad. This summer's festival, which runs through Sunday and again from July 4 through July 8, features programs and exhibits from Senegal and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as a special series of songs celebrating the "Music of Struggle."
The fare of Senegal is a visual salad: thatched huts, bamboo fences, glass-painters, storytellers, and basket-weavers with their nimble fingers and flowing robes. There are sounds too: the staccato beat of the sabar dancers and the high-pitched serer songs that seem to hang in the tent's heated air and then slowly float down to the rhythmic beat of drums. And to top it all, there is the strong, spicy smell of mafee, a traditional Senegalese dish of rice and broiled chicken.
"Till today, I saw these only on television or in movies," said Oscar Peyton, as he balanced a huge slice of watermelon in his left hand and reached for the napkin in his pocket with the other. Peyton, a computer specialist at the Department of Agriculture, said the festival provides an insight into "the ways in which our ancestors lived, and being black in America, that is a great satisfaction."
But for Grace Edwards, it is yet another example of the "racist" vaudeville shows and the minstrelsy of the late 19th century. "This festival is for tourists . . . the white man," she said. "What is American folklife? Let them come and see our houses, our lives, my part of the town and what a struggle it has been. They had to put some blacks in their shows but it is primarily a white thing."
Such rancor seemed incongruous in front of the music stage, where several people clapped to the lilting chants of the Freedom Singers, a group of four performers who had come together after many years to perform in the "Music of Struggle" program. They sang some of the songs they had sung during the U.S. civil rights movement. "These songs are relevant not only as history, but as a testimony to the continuing struggle by the African Americans for freedom," said Worth Long, the moderator of the show.
Later this week, the festival will feature musical expressions associated with the strugle for social and political reform among groups as diverse as the Quichua Indians of Ecuador, the Appalachian coal miners and Gallaudet University's "Deaf President Now" movement.
Delta Dorsch, a representative of the U.S. Virgin Islands, came to the festival with 70 others to provide a glimpse of the American territory in the Caribbean. "People here are the same except that they have to wear winter clothes and we don't," Dorsch said. On display under the Virgin Islands banner are vignettes expressing the unique confluence of African, French, British and Danish traditions, as shown in native arts, craft, food and music.
One of the crowd-pullers -- besides the lemonade stall -- was Milo and the Kings, a calypso band from the Virgin Islands, which enthralled audiences with its foot-stomping music, and even brought some of them from the cooler benches to the hot dance floor.
"We are trying to display the richness of our culture, to bring it to the forefront so that it does not get forgotten," said Dorsch, a Howard University graduate. She said that Americanization of the Virgin Islands may have raised living standards, but it had also diluted the Islands' traditional cultural moorings.