At the Folklife Festival, people embrace their own cultures and share others — an approach we should take all year.
I bought two T-shirts this year at the Northwest Folklife Festival, and my wife bought one, too. We always enjoy the festival, but this year it felt especially good.
The festival is a celebration of the many cultural roots that nurture our community, and it’s organized in a way that encourages everyone to get at least a little taste of something outside their usual world.
This past year, nationally and locally, has been so much about the fractures in this society, the places where we are in conflict and where we fall short of the ideal of being one people drawn from many sources.
Americans have been turning away children at our borders, policing poverty rather than eliminating it, especially when it comes in black or brown skin, finding it hard to imagine women creating technology, reaching for a broom to sweep away homeless people rather than offering them a shelter.
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Seattle is changing by the minute, but Folklife remains a moment of something essential and hopeful.
People wandered the grounds of Seattle Center for four days over Memorial Day weekend, listening to Native American flute music or bluegrass, watching Morris dancers or Mexicas in Washington. Ukrainian, Croatian and Argentine culture were part of the mix.
Every year has a theme, and this year it was “Beats, Rhymes and Rhythms: Traditional Roots of Today’s Branches.” It highlighted African and hip-hop traditions in Seattle.
My wife and I keep talking about the three days we were there, sorting through a lot of different strands of thought.
Saturday, we watched Draze perform hip-hop with a little Africa in it. Offstage he’s Dumi Maraire Jr., son of two Seattle music pioneers, the late Dumisani Maraire Sr. and Lora Chiorah-Dye. Draze started performing at Folklife with his family when he was a kid. A lot of the artists at Folklife come back year after year, and there’s something reassuring about seeing them again and watching them go gray, and in this case seeing a torch passed.
Draze was born in Seattle, but lived for a while in Zimbabwe when he was a child. During the performance he said he was going back there soon. There’s something he needs to absorb there.
He got a lot of attention last year for his song and video about gentrification in the Central Area, “The Hood Ain’t the Same.” It isn’t at all the same. Maybe you saw the piece in The Times last week about the population shift in Seattle’s historically black neighborhood from 73 percent black in 1970 to about 19 percent now and still declining.
Draze tried to explain what he misses. He asked his mostly white Folklife audience how they would feel if they went to a beach and saw that everyone else there was black. Would they feel at home? Exploring other cultures and being challenged by the unfamiliar is vital, but sometimes you just want to chill.
Everything is always changing, but people want to hold on to something that speaks to their soul. That’s why there were both a klezmer band and French country dancers at Folklife.
All of these art forms are what people do every week. When you watch people perform at Folklife, you’re seeing a part of their lives because most of them do what they do for love, not money.
You see parents dancing on stage; some dance in the tradition of the country they came from and then their assimilated American children dance, too. And in some of the groups, the old country is generations removed, but some part of it stays alive in song, dance or crafts.
At Folklife you seen something that always makes my wife smile. No matter where an art form originated, you’ll see someone performing it who has no visible connection to the culture. Jewish and Asian Americans doing Argentine tango, for instance. An amazing group of young tap dancers from the South End included a couple of white girls. This year there was an evening of Bollywood dancing (the number of groups says something about local demographic changes) that included two student groups from the University of Washington. That cultural flexibility is a cool and underappreciated part of being in America.
We watched the Savoy Swing Club Performance Troupe on Sunday. They appear to be white and Asian, but I think I saw a little something black in the dancing. The jazz dances they were doing started at black clubs in Harlem, but they move anyone who can feel the joy and sass in them.
The group’s emcee paid homage to the Harlem roots of their dancing, and gave a shoutout to Duke Ellington and to the creators of the Lindy Hop. That made watching them feel even better. Borrow and give something back too.
All the performers already are giving something because they donate their time to the festival. Like I said, they do it because they love it, and that also makes the weekend a refreshing change from the norm.
The festival is free. You donate if you want to, and everyone who can afford to should, but the voluntary system allows the event to be open to everyone. We buy T-shirts, not just because we like them, but because that helps a bit more.
And I bought two this year because I especially liked the design on one of them, a black person with a huge Afro made up of a collage of performers from many cultures. I was moved by a design that allowed me to embrace a part of myself without rejecting any of the other cultures that make up my country.
There’s something essentially Folklife about that, and it’s something that should seep into the rest of the year.