The sound of children rapping pulses from a tent on the Mall — not the music you expect when you visit the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which started up again Wednesday and continues through July 5.

The hip-hop comes courtesy of Radio Ucamara, 98.7 on your dial if you happen to live along the Ucayali and Maranon rivers, which are tributaries of the Amazon in Peru.

[Scenes from the Folklife Festival]

The crew from Radio Ucamara is playing some of the striking music videos it has produced in collaboration with Create Your Voice, a nonprofit that works with youth in a number of countries. Rap is definitely not indigenous to the Amazon — yet it just might help save the indigenous Kukama language, spoken by only a few hundred elderly Kukama people.

“I like rap,” said Danna Gaviota Tello Morey, 15, who lives in the river district of Nauta and is featured in the videos. “Almost all of us like it,” she added of her fellow students, some 90 in all, who are learning Kukama in a station-sponsored language program.

The videos use the universal language of hip-hop as a tool to bring attention and commitment to Kukama culture, said Danna, who plans to become an anthropologist. In the video embedded above, she sings in Kukama then raps in Spanish:

I’m from Nauta, and I like to rap

But singing in Kukama I like even more

Enrollment in the language program increased after that video went viral among families in the river communities, Danna said.

Another piece takes on the pollution of the rivers caused by oil spills and other contaminants. Danna sings in Kukama, then schoolmates join in Spanish as the melody shifts to pop, followed by individual kids rapping about the rivers, all with English subtitles. The video is filled with scenes of the beauty and blemishes of the waterways:

The videos are a small part of Radio Ucamara’s festival presentation, which also includes storytelling, language lessons, interviews with participants, and discussions of how remote cultures can create visibility for themselves.

Radio Ucamara is one of 12 distinct manifestations of Peruvian culture that make up this year’s festival, which is taking place on the Mall between Third and Fourth streets SW and NW. The festival’s title is, “Peru: Pachamama,” a reference to the Quechua word for Mother Earth. The other cultural expressions range from a rope bridge being woven across the Mall, to the creation of handmade fishing boats that can withstand the Pacific surf, to the presentation of specialized dances and musical styles, to demonstrations of fine craftsmanship.

Like the radio project, all embody strategies not just to convey culture, but to survive the centuries and maintain contemporary relevance.


Smithsonian Folklife Festival volunteer Emily Goldman (left) at the Radio Ucamara display on the Mall with radio director Leonardo Tello Imaina and his daughter Danna Gaviota Tello Morey. (Courtesy of Emily Goldman)