Every June for six centuries, Quechua communities along the Apurimac River in the southern Andes Mountains of Peru have rebuilt the sacred Q’eswachaka Bridge. But they’ve never attempted it on the National Mall in Washington — a town not known for taking the best care of Mother Earth, nor for possessing the requisite humility to appease the mountain spirits.
The bridge of woven mountain grasses relies on Inca engineering technology. Earlier this month, after the annual rebuilding, the bridge-builders packed for their first airplane ride. Their construction of a replica of the bridge to span the width of the Mall along Fourth Street will be a central feature of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Elaborate preparations were made. An extra crop of mountain grass was harvested and shipped. Before work on a new bridge can begin, an offering must be made to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and permission must be sought from the Apus, or mountain spirits. The opening ritual to make offerings and seek permission is set for 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Planners are a little worried that some ingredients necessary for the ceremony might give pause to a customs inspector.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the coca leaves,” said Olivia Cadaval, the Smithsonian’s co-curator of the festival.
Coca can be refined into cocaine, although the leaves have no narcotic significance in the ceremony.
“Part of the offering is a dried llama fetus,” Cadaval added.
Also, the ritual requires a small fire to be set on the Mall.
What to do? Could a festival care package be tucked inside a diplomatic pouch to the Peruvian Embassy? Could some kind of electronic-cigarette equivalent of a burnt offering be vaped a few hundred yards from the Capitol?
“I haven’t been requested to make any calls to the Department of State or anybody yet,” said Peruvian Ambassador Luis Miguel Castilla. “I’ll be glad to do anything I can do to get all the ingredients that we need to have a true ceremony. We need the blessing of the Apus, of the mountains, for this to be successful. We hope we’ll achieve that, or otherwise maybe my position will be at stake.”
Something like the bother over coca leaves pops up at nearly every Smithsonian Folklife Festival. How such issues get negotiated and compromised is part of the uncanny cultural exchange that materializes for two weeks every year amid the monuments. There would never be a hiccup if the Smithsonian and, in this case, Peru, didn’t aspire to a level of cultural authenticity that pushes boundaries.
The beneficiaries of the exchange at this transitory crossroads on the Mall are not just the 400,000 visitors to the free festival, but also the 150 artists and artisans from the guest country who are afforded such a platform for their concerns and traditions.
Cadaval says she got permission for a small fire to be lit for the ceremony. The dried llama fetus was separated from the bulk shipment of more innocuous items, for fear that it might slow inspection of everything else at customs. It may not arrive.
As for the handful of coca leaves, stay tuned. A ritual specialist may approve substitute ingredients. Or, as a precaution, the bridge-builders may seek permission from the deities with a remote ceremony before they leave Peru. If so, that reverent extra step taken thousands of miles from Washington so that something unprecedented might come to pass in this nation’s capital will itself be part of the story that is told and handed down from the festival.
The creation of an ancient rope suspension bridge in downtown Washington is a good metaphor both for what the festivals have been about since the first one, in 1967, and also for the inner themes of this year’s edition.
It’s called “Peru: Pachamama,” and it runs June 24-28 and July 1-5. You’ll find it under the trees between Third and Fourth streets SW, adjacent to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. More activities will take place on the other side of the Mall, between Third and Fourth streets NW, by the National Gallery of Art.
This year the festival must keep off the grass of the center strip of the Mall, following extensive turf restoration work completed by the National Park Service. The public can still walk on that grass, however, and everyone is welcome to pull up a blanket or a camp chair there to watch a series of evening concerts by prominent Peruvian artists over the course of the festival. To protect the turf, the stage will be set up on the hardscape parallel to Third Street.
This year’s festival is much reduced in acreage. Recent festivals have stretched from Seventh to 14th streets, including the center strip, where turf work is ongoing.
Festival organizers say that portions of those larger grounds were underused in the past and that this year they are experimenting with more efficient and creative uses of space. They plan to return to presentations of more than one country in future festivals. The Park Service says that after restoration work, the previous location between Seventh and 14th streets will be open to the festival but that the strict new turf-preservation rules must be followed on the center strip.
Cadaval said she is somewhat concerned that the grassy gulf between the north and south sections of this year’s festival will create a disconnect between activities.
Fortunately, one structure will span that divide: the Q’eswachaka Bridge.
From the very beginning of research on “Peru: Pachamama” a couple of years ago, festival planners knew at least one truth they wanted to demonstrate:
“Peru is much more than Machu Picchu,” said Castilla, the ambassador.
That awesome high-altitude Incan citadel is what many people associate with Peru, along with pisco sour cocktails.
“We’re trying to stay away from the same old, same old,” Cadaval said. “We’re trying to look at the deeper picture of Peru.”
So don’t expect to find much about Machu Picchu at the festival.
However, fear not: There will be pisco sours, to wash down traditional Peruvian cuisine.
(Machu Picchu is touched on in the exhibit “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” opening Friday at the Museum of the American Indian, where a number of festival programs and craft sales also will take place. The Q’eswachaka Bridge was part of the Inca road.)
Planners also resolved that merely making a case for Peru’s cultural diversity — its mosaic of indigenous, Spanish, African and Asian influences — wasn’t ambitious enough.
“All of Latin America wants to say they’re diverse,” Cadaval said. “How is Peru differently diverse?”
Peru’s diversity is not simply the sum of the cultures carried there on foot, or by ship or airplane. A series of internal migrations over the centuries caused by war, civil strife and urbanization made Peru “kind of a puzzle of different peoples in different parts of the country,” said Rafael Varón Gabai, the Peru-based research coordinator of the festival.
The festival will put some of the puzzle pieces together. It will explore — colorfully, musically, artistically — how circumstances provoked and inspired connections to be forged between and within Peru’s various expressions of diversity.
Varón, Cadaval, Smithsonian co-curator Cristina Diaz-Carrera and a team of Peruvian and American field researchers traveled the mountains and valleys, visited the fishing towns and big cities, and journeyed down jungle rivers to assemble 12 “case studies” of diversity and connection that make up the festival.
The cases include fiestas and dances that are rooted in particular towns or regions but are practiced and performed by people who may have left those communities for opportunities elsewhere in Peru. The people return to participate in the periodic celebrations that serve to nurture communal bonds and preserve skills and traditions.
Another set of examples involves contemporary urban musicians who have found ways to maintain, yet reinvigorate, traditional styles by absorbing everything from Colombian cumbia to California surf guitar. The result is cumbia amazónica in rain forest cities and chicha music in Lima. One of the groups coming to play is Los Wembler’s, which took its name, with its random apostrophe, from Wembley Stadium in London, even though the group is based in Iquitos, on the Amazon River.
Radio is a connector. Producers from Radio Ucamara, based on a tributary of the Amazon, will share their work defending indigenous communities and advocating to clean up the rivers — and they will gather stories on the Mall to be broadcast back home.
Like the rope bridge, many of these connections span both geography and time. When a concrete highway finally bridged the Apurimac, the four Quechua communities responsible for the rope bridge kept rebuilding it every year anyway. The process binds them to one another and to their ancestors. The curators let the communities decide how to accomplish the project in Washington.
“They become part of shaping what is to come,” Cadaval said, referring to the autonomy granted to all the participants in the festival, not just the bridge-builders.
When the curators asked the builders for permission to cut the bridge in pieces after the festival for display at the American Indian museum and elsewhere, “they cracked up laughing,” Cadaval said. “That’s like cutting a sweater in half.”
A compromise was found. It will involve some culturally appropriate re-weaving, which will satisfy the builders and, hopefully, the mountain spirits.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 24-28 and July 1-5 on the Mall between Third and Fourth streets (Metro: Federal Center SW). Free. www.festival.si.edu.