Between the Symbols of the Nation: Two Weeks in D.C. with “Sounds of California” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Leaving our California offices on June 27th, Amy Kitchener, ACTA’s Executive Director, Russell Rodriguez, Quetzal Flores, and I (program staff) arrived in Washington, D.C. for the culmination of a near three-year planning process. We were off to present artists and culture-bearers and be hands-on for the nation’s 49th annual Folklife Festival, held outdoors for two weeks each summer. Our task had been to think about and create a program that could portray California through the lens of immigration and migration with our partners the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Radio Bilingüe, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Smithsonian Latino Center and the American Folklife Center.
What could be more relevant, contested, and timely with a presidential election ahead than to focus on the most diverse state of the union? Did you know that California’s population has no one clear majority and that one in every four Californians are foreign born? It is a State, according to the last U. S. census, where many embrace the mixed-heritage category, and it is home to the largest Native American population in the country. The curation of the Festival was in the able hands of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage team: Sojin Kim, Jim Deutsch and Olivia Cadaval who worked with us as the co-producers and presenters to create a site that would weave together an investigation of these facts, and more, to reflect the resiliency of California communities.
The history of the Folklife Festival, with its beginnings in 1969, is a history of cultural democracy at its best, known for its research-based curation and public programming. The Festival website states: “The Folklife Festival is an exposition of living cultural heritage that focuses on a nation, region, state, or theme. Long considered a model of research based presentation, it has …brought more than twenty-three thousand musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, workers, cooks, storytellers, and others to the National Mall to demonstrate the skills, knowledge, and aesthetics that embody the creative vitality of community-based traditions.”
As we settled into the Sounds of California site, made up of stages and tents that would be home for the next two weeks, the deep threads of meaning inherent in the work of the artists and culture-bearers were often punctuated by merely looking up to the imposing symbols of the Washington Monument rising more than 500 feet into the sky on one end, and the Capitol building, where our elected legislators have their offices, on the other end of the Mall.
The magic of the Folklife Festival lies in all of the possibilities that can happen when exemplary tradition bearers come together to engage with a curious public and with one another. This rich interaction was evident multiple times a day. The participatory nature of the Festival affords people the chance to either swing by for an impressionistic view of a performance or a discussion, or to hang around and go deeper with the artists. It was not uncommon to see people flock to the tent, “La Cueva” (the cave), to watch the Mixtec devil dancers of Grupo Nuu Yuku prepare for their daily performances. Donning their handmade goatskin chaps, jackets, scarves, gloves, and finally placing the intricate wooden masks on their faces, dancers proceeded towards the stage with leather whips piercing the way. The artists live in the Central Valley, along with the accompanying brass band musicians, known as the Banda Brillo de San Miguel Cuevas. For many in this group, sharing their traditions, which are an integral part of community life, on the nation’s capital became a profound statement of identity. Primarily agricultural workers, their journey as indigenous Mexicans to California to pick the food we eat and to contribute to the 6th largest economy of the world, is a powerful narrative. Coupled with the sharp rhetoric on immigrant issues, the rich cultural expressions shared so enthusiastically gave us pause. This is where cultural exchange can be moving, subversive, and perhaps speaks humanity to power. A few Mixtecos drove from New York State when learning about the appearance of the group in Washington, D.C. with their traditional dress in hand to ask if they could participate along with the California group to enjoy the music and dance that would remind them of home.
On a humorous note, the group had the opportunity to visit the congressional office of Fresno representative Jim Costa, welcoming them to Washington, D.C. When asked about the traditional dress of the diablos, and particularly what the whip sounded like, a demonstration of the whip commenced. Anticipating the intensity of the sound of the whip and the acoustics of the grand building, there was some reluctance. After the deafening whack of the leather whip hit the marble floor, a dozen ‘click-click-clicks’ could be heard up and down the hallway as offices quickly moved into lockdown protocol! The issue was resolved magnanimously and quickly, forever a humorous anecdote to share.
What it means to be from California is a complex idea
Innovation is a word that is often used in connection to our state, and this was exemplified by the urban mix of a ‘new tradition’ of Fandango-Obon. Its genesis reflects two neighborhoods separated by a literal bridge in downtown Los Angeles. On one side is Japantown, where the summer Obon is danced to honor the ancestors. On the other side, Dia de Los Muertos is observed in the fall, similarly invoking the departed. It took innovative artists, rooted in tradition to come up with a merging of artistic styles. Nobuko Miyamoto of Great Leap, Inc. and the East L. A. band, Quetzal joined their communities together to learn from one another the highly participatory forms of son jarocho from Veracruz, and Obon from Japan filtered through the lens of first, second, and third generation practitioners.
For other California artists, who are hyphenated Americans, such as the American-born artists of the acoustic trio, Armenian Public Radio, their mission is to contemporize folk and traditional music which is their connection to their identities. Armenians, with their rich diasporic histories, are unified through language and religion. A youth ensemble from Yerevan known as Tmbata, have grown up only knowing Armenia as homeland and joined with the Glendale based trio in folk songs. At other times their renditions had a clear Western rock adaptation with electric bass, rhythm guitar and trap drums.
Representing the largest California Afghan community from Fremont (also known as Little Kabul), master rebab musician Homayoun Sakhi and Salar Nadar, who plays tabla, reminded us how traditions are kept alive despite the fact that one is unable to return home due to war and displacement. Homayoun spoke movingly of fingering his rebab silently when he and his family were in a Taliban refugee camp in Pakistan for close to four years. Unable to play music, he kept up his skills on the long neck of the instrument which had to remain silent. For Salar, his parents fled Afghanistan for Germany, where he was born, before coming to California where, as the youngest student of renown tabla master Zakir Hussein, he gained his artistry. The second day of the Folklife Festival ended with a welcome surprise of cross-cultures: Homayoun Sakhi and Salar Nader invited Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera, along with vocalist Eneritz Aulestia, onstage for the conclusion of the concert (see video link below). It is this kind of possibility that can happen and when it does, it seems to be as close to magic as we can get.
Sobering news and a possible anecdote
While we were in D.C., our nation was wracked with more deaths of Black men by police in Minnesota and Louisiana. This was rapidly followed by police killings in Dallas following a peaceful protest initiated by Black Lives Matter supporters. These were troubled days where the deep dysfunction of justice was widely felt on a personal and social level. Returning to the Mall each day, the humanizing actions of cultural exchange felt charged and more urgent somehow. Social justice issues were brought up by our artists, notably from MC Bambu de Pistola, a Pilipino-American whose conscious hip-hop lyrics are rooted in issues of indigeneity and social justice. Many conversations had been taking place throughout the Festival in the “On The Move” tent. Programmed by the American Anthropological Association, topics delved into a vast array of subjects from the recent refugee crisis from North Africa and the Middle East, to the internment experiences of Japanese-Americans, to the impact of losing indigenous territory from a Native American perspective and how that can impact the gathering of natural resources and loss of language when people are divided up by borders.
Between the resiliency, innovation, and hardships inherent in migration, immigration, and social justice that eludes far too many people, two incidents seemed to provide the salve and anecdote to despair. One came from Quechan elder Preston Arrow-weed who sang excerpts from the Lightening Song cycle, allowing us to witness how a near dormant language comes alive. In this cycle, which can go on for days, are important history and moral lessons. When he sang excerpts to share with the public one day, buckets of hard rain shut down the afternoon program. In Preston’s typical good humor, he smiled and took complete credit for the downpour suggesting that powerful forces were just unleashed not by coincidence.
The other closing anecdote was the powerful voice of Cuban-American vocalist, Bobi Céspedes accompanied by John Santos, Afro-Latin percussionist and educator. Bobi, who is also a respected Lucumí/Yoruba priestess, sang a sacred song of Eleguá, the deity who sits at the crossroads and who can open doors so that humans and the divine may communicate. Her chant was sung, looking out at the symbols of power on the Mall, and captured in that moment how the complexities of our times will require us to cherish and assert our diversity powerfully through cultural expressions like these.
Preston and Helena Arrow-weed:
Grupo Nuu Yuku
Armenian State Radio and Tmbata together: https://www.facebook.com/actaonline/videos
Homayoun Sakhi and Salar Nader with Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera and Eneritz Aulestia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkvqKEOuicU
For more videos and blogs from the Festival, please visit:
This program was co-produced with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Radio Bilingüe, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian Latino Center. Presenting partners included the Aga Khan Music Initiative, Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, and My Armenia, a collaborative project between the people of Armenia, USAID, and the Smithsonian Institution. The program received Federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, and the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Other supporters included the Sakana Foundation and Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia for the Humanities.