Monday, July 7, 2014

Slideshow from the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Saturday, I had a chance to visit the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which ended yesterday. If you've never been, the Folklife Festival is a huge outdoor event featuring food, crafts, dance, talks, demonstrations, and (of course) music. As I mentioned in last week's blog post, this year's two featured countries were China and Kenya. Here's some short glimpses of what I saw:

1. Musical marionettes

Not your mother's lonely goatherd...
The first group I saw was a Chinese marionette troupe, the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe. These puppeteers did some amazing feats, such making a marionette do tricks while riding a bicycle. I think one of the most amazing things about the group, however, was that it had a seven-piece Chinese orchestra, which you can see in the above picture: three percussionists and four other players that switched between melody instruments. There were almost as many musicians as their were puppeteers, which I think says something about the importance of music to their tradition. The instrument you can see best in this picture is the pipa, a four-stringed lute. The four melodic players pretty much played the melody without harmony the whole time, but varied who was playing and adding their own ornamentation particular to their instruments. This type of musical texture (many instruments playing one melodic line) is sometimes called heterophony.

If you look closely at the marionettes in the picture above, you'll see that they are playing instruments, too—and the puppeteers were very good about playing when their corresponding instrument was playing.

2. Inner Mongolian awesomeness

This guys
The next group I saw was Ih Tsetsn, a Beijing-based group of Inner Mongolian musicians (Inner Mongolia, by the way, is part of China while Outer Mongolia is what we call the country of Mongolia). This group was made up of three horse-head fiddlers, a percussionist, and three guitar-like strumming folk instruments. All of them also sang. And not just your normal singing—they were throat singing, which is a style of singing that allows men to produce more than one note. For example, you might hear a high, clear whistling sound from this group, and you might look around for some sort of flute, but then you realize the man in blue on your left is actually making the sound with his throat (along with another note). The high whistling sound is actually an overtone, or a vibration already present in the vocal sound at a different frequency from the normally-heard fundamental note. The singer is able to bring forward that note so it sounds out from the fundamental. Besides singing more than one note, Ih Tsetsn were great instrumentalists, too, using their horse-head fiddles to sound like actual horses and sometimes mixing in some samba beats into their staple horse-trotting-influenced rhythms. They weren't sticklers to tradition, but didn't abandon it, either.

3. Dancing with a mouth organ

American marching bands need these
The Leishan Miao Dance and Music group, representing an ethnic group that lives in the southern Chinese mountains, played and danced at the same time with their lusheng (a type of mouth-organ), an instrument that has a very distinctive sound.

4. Kenyan (rock?)

They got mad at you if you didn't dance
I obviously spent more time in the Chinese tent then the Kenyan one, and that's because the Chinese music was more different than American music. This was true at least about all the Kenyan groups I saw. The bands were very much guitars and percussion with a lead vocalist, with music built around dance grooves (and had accompanying mosh pits, as you can see). Of course the style differed some and there were as many percussionists as guitars, but nothing really surprising or different or amazing. 

It's a shame more people can't visit the festival, as it can be a very eye-opening event. Hopefully, I'll be able to attend another one myself in some future year.

Vocab: pipa, ornamentation, texture, heterophony, overtone, lusheng

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