Two Cultures, Five Senses: Folklife Festival 2014


Another year of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival came to an end at the beginning of this month, this year featuring China and Kenya. Like other years, the festival immersed visitors in colors and textures and sound and the heat of a crowded National Mall in the summer.

Here are some highlights, brought to you by the five senses:

Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performs on the Dragon-Lion Cart

Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe performs on the Dragon-Lion Cart

Sights: on one Sunday, I saw a Chinese dragon dance; the next Sunday, I saw a lion dance, and a performance on the Dragon-Lion Cart by Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe. I turned to my friend and confessed I wasn’t sure how to tell the difference between lions and dragons. What I had assumed were lions on the Dragon-Lion Cart, she had assumed were dragons. What visual cues should we be relying on? I wondered. My guess (confirmed, at least, by a cursory Internet search) was that lions have four legs while dragons have a lot more. Meanwhile, the golden yellow creatures reminded me of the fur of a lion. In any event, all three performances were amazing to watch.

Sounds: at the Ngoma Stage in the Kenya area, I caught part of the Choral Waves and Kenyan Classics performances. The artists who performed included Wesonga, Sengekwo, Ayub Ogada, DK Wamaria, and John Nzenze and Akwabi.

Giraffes made out of flip-flops by Ocean Sole from Kenya

Giraffes made out of flip-flops by Ocean Sole from Kenya

Textures: there were gorgeous Chinese textiles that I would have loved to touch, but I obeyed the signs like a good visitor. However, I did get to touch Kenyan giraffe sculptures made out of recycled flip-flops.

Tastes: even though it means occasionally waiting in long lines, a big draw of the festival every year is the food. In the China section, I tried vegetable lo mein, vegetable dumplings, and Tsingtao Lager. From the Kenyan concessions, I bought a rice and salad dish called Pilau and Kachumbari, spicy vegetable samosas, and Tusker lager.

Smells: while watching a Chinese cooking demonstration, the speaker said that the tofu being used was called “smelly tofu” because of its strong aroma. As soon as he said it, a man in the audience approached the counter and asked to smell the tofu. The speaker told him that audience members could smell the tofu after it was cooked, which of course, everyone wanted to do now that this man’s behavior had piqued everyone’s curiosity. All I could smell was the lemon sauce, though, not the tofu itself.

What were your favorite parts of the Folklife Festival this year?

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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