"Connecting Cultures": The Mekong River at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2007

By Rees, Helen | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

"Connecting Cultures": The Mekong River at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2007


Rees, Helen, Yearbook for Traditional Music


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

Each summer, the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, mounts a huge, ten-day-long festival on the National Mall, showcasing the folk arts of selected US states, communities, occupational groups, foreign countries, and/or transnational regions. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has run every year since 1967, organized as "an annual display of living cultural heritage" (Kurin 1997:111) that typically features musicians, dancers, ritual specialists, craftspeople, storytellers, food preparers, specialized workers, learning opportunities, and discussion sessions. The emphasis is very much on "grassroots" culture, and on "foreground[ing] the voices of tradition bearers as they demonstrate, discuss, and present their cultures" (ibid.:113). The festival is simultaneously an opportunity for the chosen locales and communities to raise their profile on an international stage, and for hundreds of thousands of Americans and overseas tourists to learn about places and cultures they might never otherwise encounter. Entrance to all events is free of charge, and annual attendance averages over one million.1

Over the years a substantial literature has developed that explains, critiques, justifies, and comments on the festival's raison d'être, its organizers' philosophies, its organization and presentation, its intended and unintended ideological implications, the experiences of participating artists and presenters, and the long-term effects of individual programmes.2 In the introduction to a recent issue of Journal of American Folklore dedicated to examination of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the editors note the "complex cultural laboratory" that the event has become: it is at once "a performance zone and a staged intersection between cultural tourism and museum education, the national and the local, nationalisms, and tradition and modernity," while "its operation model[s] self-reflexivity in public culture"; the festival as a whole "invites scholarly critique" (Diamond and Trimillos 2008:4). One of the pithiest descriptions of its simultaneously ethnographic, educational, and festive purpose was offered in 2002 by Lawrence M. Small, then-Secretary of the Smithsonian, when he said, "It's a party that scholarship gives" (quoted in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2006:175).

In this article, I do not seek to interrogate the undergirding principles and structure of this now quite venerable American institution. Instead, based on my experience in 2007 as a presenter for the Mekong River programme, I take the context and inevitably "celebratory nature" (ibid.:177) of the festival as a given, a focal point around which the goals, motivations, preconceptions, and concerns of many different parties revolve over the years leading up to each event, the hectic ten days of performances themselves, and often too the aftermath. My jumping-offpoint here is the title of the Mekong River section of the 2007 festival: "Mekong River: Connecting Cultures." What exactly did this mean to those organizing, participating in, and attending the festival? What types of connections were intended, and what types were made? Who were the artists? What cultures were they representing, and how far did they exemplify the Smithsonian's ideal of "authenticity" (the "unscripted participation of ... real participants in the represented cultures-not actors" (Kurin 1998:24))? And given the Smithsonian's emphasis on respect for the artists and on "foregrounding the voices of tradition bearers," what type of agency was available to them? My discussion is inspired in part by the multivocal perspectives on prior Smithsonian Folklife Festivals recorded by earlier presenters, in particular ethnomusicologists Ricardo Trimillos (2008, 2009) and JeffTodd Titon (1999).

The Mekong River at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2007

The 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival included three distinct programmes: "Roots of Virginia Culture," "Northern Ireland at the Smithsonian," and "Mekong River: Connecting Cultures" (figure 1). …

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