The Smithsonian Folklife Fest: Behind the Scenes

Inside info on what you need to see this weekend

Over the years at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I have seen and heard lots of great music -- zydeco, D.C. sounds from Rare Essence and Fugazi, weird Bhutan horns, the Cambodian Ray Charles, amazing Malian music, country blues, rockabilly and numerous Latin styles. I have also seen many fascinating craftspeople and eaten a fair amount of exciting food (and ya gotta have the real lemonade and the giant pieces of watermelon). For some reason though, a couple of people at another local D.C. Web site would have you believe that the event is nothing but a tedious "educational" experience and a place to dump visiting relatives. Do not believe that theory.

The Festival is continuing through Sunday, July 5. This year includes Latin music, songs and culture from Wales and “Giving Voice” -- African-American spoken word, poetry and classic R&B DJ chatter. I recently e-mailed one of the prime movers behind the fest, Daniel Sheehy, for a mid-fest update. Daniel Sheehy is acting director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is also a musician -- he founded Mariachi Los Amigos in 1978, the Washington, D.C., area’s longest-existing mariachi ensemble.

Washington City Paper: Were there any extra-special, unexpected in a good way highlights from the first week?

Daniel Sheehy: The Viva Colombia concert last night [Sunday June 28] attracted an overflow crowd to the Folkways Salon. Three Colombian groups performed, shouts of viva Colombia filled the air, and the concert went to the last, joyful minute. Some said it was the best SFF concert ever.

Also, the amazing human beatbox Christylez Bacon amazed audiences with his super-human sounds. See for more.

Washington City Paper: I read some zydeco enthusiasts raving about La India Canela; was she pleased with the response from the audiences?

Daniel Sheehy: La India Canela is AMAZING, and her band is beyond belief (until you see/hear it). She loved the D.C. audiences and wants to come back.

Washington City Paper: Are there special events coming up this week that you’re especially looking forward to, and or think that readers should know about?

Daniel Sheehy: The Friday night concert features the Wales artistic giant Catrin Finch playing her electrified and electrifying harp, in contrast/harmony with the supersaturated intensity of Colombian, harp-driven Grupo Cimarron playing musica llanera (plains music). They have twice toured together in Wales, and July 3 we will savor the distilled version of their two-year collaboration.

Washington City Paper: In the Washington Hispanic newspaper and El Commercio newspaper out of Manassas I saw huge ads for an upcoming Peruvian festival, and I saw some text about that as well; Similarly I have seen listings for all kinds of Spanish language music events online at Kesta Happenings D.C., but in none of those sources did I see any mention of the Folklife Festival.  How are you getting word out to the D.C. and Baltimore area Spanish-speaking community?

Daniel Sheehy: With budget limitations in the background, we have a volunteer team of PR people to get the word out. Other headline current events have occupied most press attention of late, as I expect you know.

Washington City Paper:In connection with the last question, Is the Smithsonian reaching out to all the various local demographics (old/young; different ethnicities, all races/economic classes via newspapers, websites, flyers in markets and restaurants, Facebook, twitter, word of mouth) or is the Festival becoming an event that is mostly just for visiting tourists?  Do budget issues play a role?

Daniel Sheehy: The issue of the festival outreach is not one of appealing to tourists versus local audiences. The majority of attendees are local, engaged and loyal. Television and radio coverage have been robust for the Las Americas program. A quick glance at the audience in the Las Americas program is encouraging in terms of the engagement with the greater D.C. Latino community. Budget issues play a significant role; with a flusher budget, we could have expanded both programming and public impact. Web presence has been enormous this year. Visit for more.

Festival hours on the National Mall are 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with special evening events on Thursday, July 2; Friday, July  3 and Sunday, July 5.

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