The theme of the 44th annual Folklife festival, being held May 22-25, is “Beats, Rhymes and Rhythms: Traditional Roots of Today’s Branches,” tracing African and hip-hop traditions in Seattle.

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Close your eyes and think “Northwest Folklife Festival.” What do you see?

A bluegrass fiddler? A juggler? A kid with face paint?

All those will be on hand, of course, when the 44th Northwest Folklife Festival gets under way at Seattle Center on Friday, May 22, but there will also be a surprise: hip-hop emcees and break dancers.

Festival preview

Northwest Folklife Festival

11 a.m.-10 p.m. May 22-24, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. May 25, Seattle Center, Seattle; free, donations requested (206-684-7300 or

That’s right. The cultural focus of this year’s festival is “Beats, Rhymes and Rhythms: Traditional Roots of Today’s Branches,” a program that showcases hip-hop and a tribute to the late Dumi Maraire, who established the Zimbabwean marimba tradition in the Northwest more than 40 years ago.

There will also be break dancing, a graffiti exhibit, a scratch showcase, performances of spoken word, archival films and panel discussions about Seattle hip-hop history. (Refer to our daily list of highlights for details.)

“If we are representing the Northwest, we need to be talking about hip-hop,” explained Folklife’s director of programs, Kelli Faryar, who said she has been particularly pleased to see how local groups such as 206 Zulu, which offers break-dance programs for kids through Arts Corps, fits Folklife’s mission of “bringing communities together.”

Hip-hop may be a surprise for many Folklife fans, but it actually isn’t new to the festival. Back in 1994, the Memorial Day spree presented its first hip-hop showcase, which featured, among others, emcee Jace, whose appearance this year provides some nice historical continuity.

Another historical nicety: “Beats, Rhymes and Rhythms” will feature one of Dumi Maraire’s sons, Dumi Jr., who raps under the handle Draze. (Another of Dumi’s sons is Tendai, half of the successful Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces.) Recently, Seattle rapper Macklemore retweeted a Draze song about Seattle gentrification, “The Hood Ain’t the Same.”

To bring the story full circle, Draze’s mother is the diminutive and once boundlessly energetic (she is now in assisted care) leader of the Sukutai Marimba Ensemble, a Folklife regular and which Draze and Tendai played in, growing up.

Marimbas are those wooden, xylophonelike instruments of graduated sizes, the biggest of which cast out booming bass notes that vibrate the wildly gyrating “spaghetti dancers” who flock to Folklife. This year, the Anzanga Marimba Ensemble, among others, will represent that tradition.

Hip-hop shares a lot with African traditional music, in its focus on the beat, razor-sharp wit, dovetailing rhythmic patterns and its sense of “the word” as carrying a sanctified message, explains Seattle Central College professor Daudi Abe, who is writing a history of Seattle hip-hop. Abe contributed a remarkably detailed timeline of Seattle hip-hop to the Folklife program and will appear on one of the panels.

Though Draze, Jace and the snappily poetic Gabriel Teodros will be on hand at Seattle Center, the best-known names in local hip-hop — folks such as Macklemore, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Shabazz Palaces, Blue Scholars or Sol — will not. That’s largely because performers play for free at the festival, though the popular Nacho Picasso and the Moor Gang had agreed to come, but pulled out at the last minute over a misunderstanding,

However, if you want to see Seattle hip-hop greats, you need look no farther than the archival videos of Georgio Brown’s Coolout Network, which will be screened all weekend. One features a young Macklemore doing an early live version of “White Privilege.”

When Folklife presented a pre-festival showcase of “Beats, Rhymes and Rhythms” a couple of weeks ago at the Crocodile, the organization’s executive director, Rob Townsend, joked, “Whodathunk we’d be doing a Folklife show here?”

Who, indeed.