Artists turn out for folklife festival on Mall

Thursday, June 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Toe-tapping bluegrass, the plaintive sound of bagpipes and the rhythm of a masked African dance troupe transformed the National Mall into a cross-cultural playground Wednesday.

The performers turned out for the start of the Smithsonian's 37th-annual Folklife Festival. This year, the 10-day festival features the cultures of Appalachia, Scotland and Mali.

The three cultures share musical traditions, said Jean Haskell, co-curator of the Appalachian portion of the festival. "There is so much of Scottish and Irish influence on Appalachian music, and the banjo is an instrument out of west Africa," Haskell said.

Bluegrass musician Ralph Blizard of Blountville, Tenn., got people dancing as he played the fiddle during the opening ceremony. Among them was Douglas Meade, a neighbor of Blizard's who says he traveled to Washington to support his friend and his roots.

"We've got to promote our culture. We need to be proud of who we are and where we come from," Meade said. "We've got to dispel the stereotypes about Appalachia."

Festival visitors can sample Appalachian food such as collard greens and hear storytellers spin their tales on a front porch designed to resemble those found in the mountains of West Virginia or Kentucky. The Scottish portion of the festival highlights the country's golf tradition and offers visitors a chance to try their hand at a putting green. Exhibits also will demonstrate Scotland's whiskey-making and weaving traditions.

Visitors who check out Mali's contribution to the festival "will learn first of all that Timbuktu really exists," said Vanessa Adams, a Peace Corps volunteer who has lived in Mali and helped organize the festival.

Now a small trading town on the edge of the Sahara, Timbuktu was a much bigger trade center under the Mali empire 600 years ago. It had three of West Africa's greatest mosques and was a center of Arab physics, astronomy and mathematics as well as religion.

"People often say that mountains, they never meet. And today we just tried to prove the opposite. We have brought Timbuktu to Washington," said Mali's president, Amadou Toumani Toure, who attended the opening ceremony.

One of Mali's biggest names in music, Ali Farka Toure -- often called the "bluesman of Africa -- will perform at the festival.

Other highlights include performances by bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley and a tribute to the Carter family, who in 1927 made some of country music's earliest and best-loved recordings in the Tennessee-Virginia border town of Bristol.

The crafts of Mali and Scotland also will be displayed, but the curators didn't raise enough money to show off Appalachia's craft tradition, according to curator Jeff Place.

He said he raised roughly $100,000 from the states and private businesses in Appalachia, compared with more than $2.5 million raised from Scotland and Mali. The Smithsonian plans to spend more than $2 million on the overall festival, some of which it will earn back through food and gift sales.


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