Artists from remote sections of Colombia, Peace Corps volunteers and performers sharing the history of rhythm and blues music opened the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall on Thursday.
The free festival, which often draws more than a million visitors each year, runs through July 4 and again July 6-11. Each day includes performances and demonstrations on the mall, as well as evening concerts.
To present the many facets of Colombia, more than 100 artists and performers traveled to Washington. Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva Lujan called it a "dream come true" for them to present their arts, culture and food in the U.S. capital.
"They came from very, very far. Many of them had to travel days through rivers, jungles, plains, deserts to be here," he said.
Weavers, potters, wood carvers and others will demonstrate their crafts. Others will show the importance of gold mining and coffee in Colombia. Minister of Culture Mariana Garces Cordoba noted that Colombia's coffee region has been added to the United Nations list of World Heritage sites.
Regional foods will be cooked using an oven built on the mall. Dishes for sale include plantains, beef empanadas, chorizo with corn cakes and rice pudding.
The Peace Corps is featuring 16 of its countries to mark the 50th anniversary since the program was founded by President John F. Kennedy. Performers have traveled from Belize, Guatemala, Botswana, Mali, Peru and elsewhere to offer demonstrations and share stories about their interactions with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.
Johnny McRae, 26, of Tallahassee, Fla., who is completing two years of service in the Republic of Georgia, was demonstrating his work developing tourism and wine making in the former Soviet state.
"This is where wine began. They have traditions that date back to 6,000 B.C.," McRae said, as visitors prepared to stomp on some grapes.
Other former Peace Corps volunteers will demonstrate how they built a two-room school house in Guatemala using discarded plastic bottles as a framework for the concrete structure to cut the cost by half because cinder blocks were so expensive. Another section will include a reunion hall for the program's more than 200,000 volunteers who have served in 139 countries.
Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said current budget cuts could limit the number of new countries the program had planned to enter, but he expects to maintain a corps of about 8,000 volunteers next year. Having such a large presence on the National Mall could be a good recruiting tool, he said.
"We're not recruiting in elementary school, but this is where people make their first connection about the global village and why it's important to know more about it," he said.
In the festival's third section, the Smithsonian's planned National Museum of African American History and Culture has coordinated a large rhythm and blues program on the mall, featuring numerous performers, songwriters and radio personalities. They represent doo-wop, soul, funk and urban blues music that had roots in Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, Tenn., and elsewhere.
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch predicted the festival will have everyone "tapping their toes."
"Dating back to the 1940s, rhythm and blues was intended as a kind of catch phrase that was referring to any music made by or for black Americans," he said. "But candidly, the music proved too infectious, it proved too powerful, it was too good to remain pigeonholed."
Blues vocalist Mable John said the traditions of soul music are universal and recalled the best experience of her career as working with Ray Charles.
"One of the things that he taught me first was you cannot confine soul to race, creed, religion or culture," she said. "It's the beat of the heart. It's what's going on in your heart."
Smithsonian Folklife Festival: http://festival.si.edu/
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