After a three-year hiatus, a free two days of entertainment known as Lakefest is returning to the annual Columbia Festival of the Arts, which gets underway June 18.

The events at Lake Kittamaqundi on June 25 and 26 will feature local artists displaying their wares, stilt walkers, balloon artists, musicians, costumed characters, a percussion ensemble and a world-renowned street painter, Michael Kirby. Participants also will have an opportunity to play in a jam session and to compete in the "Come as Art" costume contest.

"What we're focusing on this year is trying to bring back some of the favorite free events for families," said Betsy Brininger, executive director of the festival.

The lakefront activities will help cap the 10-day festival, which brings an eclectic mix of music, dance and theater to the area. In the past, the festival has featured several performers from the Washington-Baltimore region. But this year's lineup includes primarily national and international entertainers.

Grammy Award-winning talent such as crooner Harry Connick Jr. and the acoustic guitar duo Indigo Girls will perform separate concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion. South African guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, once described as the Bob Dylan of his country, takes the stage at the Jim Rouse Theatre for Performing Arts with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the voices behind Paul Simon's "Graceland" album. The Shangri-La Chinese Acrobats from Taiwan will perform for children and their families, also at the Jim Rouse Theatre.

Brininger said the festival has attracted well-established artists and lesser known ones, such as 27-year-old Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso. The Hawaiian native has played with pop performers such as Blues Traveler, Diana Krall and Bobby McFerrin.

"I never thought I would sit through an entire performance [of a ukulele player], but he's so charismatic. It's such a nice blend," Brininger said.

This year's theater performances include "An Evening With Groucho," starring Frank Ferrante as the legendary comedian Groucho Marx, and "Forbidden Broadway 20th Anniversary Tour," a parody of popular musicals and their actors.

Sol y Canto, an Afro-Latin music group, will perform a free concert at Centennial Park. It will be the first time the festival has expanded outside of Columbia.

Rhythmic beats heard along the sidewalks of Bourbon Street and celebrated during Mardi Gras will kick off the festival. The evening, "Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!" -- Let the Good Times Roll -- will feature BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, a group that mixes Cajun music with zydeco, jazz, country and blues, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, from the famed venue in the New Orleans's French Quarter.

"People who come to Preservation Hall and experience it know there's nothing like it in the world. It's truly unique and can't be duplicated," said Ben Jaffe, manager of Preservation Hall and bassist in the touring band. "What we try to do is bring that New Orleans experience wherever we go in the world. Most people who come to our shows are not specifically jazz fans. They are people who are in search of having a good time, and our music is a vehicle to bring everyone to that place."

The band spends six months a year touring the country and looks forward to festivals such as this one, Jaffe said.

"The festival circuit is just part of the American summer experience," he said.

During the festival, most of the artists will offer participants a behind-the-scenes look at their work with free workshops.

Planned in less than six months with a budget of $710,000, this year's events are expected to draw 25,000 to 30,000 people.

The festival is "one big jigsaw puzzle" designed to bring the community together, said Brininger, who has worked in arts administration for more than 20 years. "Most of us who enjoy the arts had some kind of [arts] experience as a kid. We're now trying to do that for [the next generation]," she said.