The theme of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the social power of music, conjures thoughts of politically charged protest songs such as “We Shall Overcome” or “Spirits of the Revolution.” These are the songs people sing as they’re fighting for their rights or standing up for what they believe in. And certainly they’re one example of the way music can influence society, says festival director Sabrina Motley, but there are far more dimensions to the festival theme.
“It could be anything from a lullaby, because families are part of the social fabric, to a song that touches your heart when you’re at a funeral — songs that heal you,” Motley says. “We’re really thinking about the ways in which music connects us to each other, and that’s where the social power lies. There are songs of protest and outrage and all of those things, as there should be, but there are also moments of quiet engagement and connection.”
Due to scheduling delays, this year brings a truncated version of the annual festival on the National Mall — two days, Saturday and Sunday, instead of the standard 10 days. But don’t expect the volume to be turned down on programming.
Saturday will focus on preserving D.C.’s music legacy through a pop-up in front of the Freer Gallery of Art, featuring plenty of hands-on activities and demonstrations. Participants include the DC Public Library, the Anacostia Community Museum, #DontMuteDC hashtag creator Julien Broomfield and the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment.
Visitors can bring audio tapes and learn how to digitize them, for example, or make their own punk- and go-go-inspired zines, journals and buttons. There will also be a local record label market, where visitors can interact with the people behind homegrown businesses such as Crooked Beat Records, Electric Cowbell Records and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
“We’re partnering with people who are working really hard to ensure that the legacy of recorded sound and live sound in D.C. is both acknowledged and preserved,” Motley says. “It’s thinking about D.C.’s musical ecosystem in a full way.”
At 2 p.m. Saturday, the DC Bluegrass Union will host an open jam, and the public is invited to bring their instruments. The day will close with a concert featuring the Los Angeles-based Chicano rock band Quetzal and its guests Alice Bag and La Marisoul, followed by a performance from local hip-hop artist and educator Kokayi.
Sunday is family day, kicking off with a concert honoring folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, who would have turned 100 in May. Throughout the next six hours, prepare to get hands-on: Percussion educator Jonathan Murray will lead a drum circle (instruments provided) for all ages, and there’s a maracas-making workshop, complemented by a lesson about the maraca’s role in Latin America. Make your own zine with Smithsonian illustrator and comic artist Evan Keeling, or learn about the music people listened to thousands of years ago — and then create your own innovative music-makers.
If you’re into showing off your pipes or letting loose in public, stop by the community singalongs led by the Rev. Nolan Williams Jr., a local musicologist, songwriter and producer.
“We’ll close out the day with music from Grandmaster Flash, who’s one of the pioneers of hip-hop,” Motley says of the 5:00 performance on the main stage. “He’s going to do a visual history of hip-hop for families, so people can come out and dance.”
The 2019 Folklife Festival is part of the Smithsonian’s “Year of Music” — 365 days of music or sound events, all hosted by the institution. In addition to the activities on the Mall on Saturday and Sunday, the festival is co-presenting five free concerts on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, running Saturday through July 3. Motley recommends checking out the marimba supergroup Río Mira on Monday and “exquisite gospel singer and folklorist” Mary D. Williams on Wednesday.
The festival is also organizing — or simply recommending — events and exhibitions around D.C. throughout the summer, like the “Sound Scene XII: Amplify” interactive audio installation at the Hirshhorn Museum on Saturday and Sunday, and the permanent “Musical Crossroads” exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“We want people on the Mall for those two days, without a doubt,” Motley says. “It’s going to be the place to be.”
National Mall around 12th Street and on Freer Plaza; Sat., noon-10 p.m., Sun., 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., free.