Connecting Global Communities through Meaningful Cultural Interactions: Reflections on the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival from a Presenter’s Perspective
by Kiley Guyton Acosta
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After having seen, heard, touched, tasted, talked, felt, danced, lived and breathed the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival for two weeks, it is nearly impossible to articulate in words how profoundly this unique event has impacted me. Through my eyes, our program Colombia: The Nature of Culture not only generated a cultural conversation between the marvelous Colombian participants and the public, but it became the forum for an extraordinary trans-national, intra-cultural exchange yielding countless connections and discoveries, where valuable new discourses took root outside the theoretical confines of academia among people of all walks of life, right on the National Mall in the sweltering summer heat and humidity of Washington DC.
The experience of working as a presenter for the musical group Chirimía la Contundencia as well as artisans and tradition-bearers of the Pacific Rainforest ecosystem was both challenging and inspiring. The velocity of the spontaneous exchanges between the participants and the public kept me on my toes. I quickly realized that in my capacity as translator and cultural interpreter, I had to listen well and remain totally present in all aspects of the interaction in order to maintain the authenticity and integrity of the individual voices of the participants, while also ensuring that commentary from the public was accurately communicated. My brain felt inundated and exhausted from the intense dialogues and Spanish-English translations during the first two days of the festival, but by the end of week one, facilitating had become second nature as I was energized by the constant activity.
Like my fellow presenters, I witnessed fascinating interchanges as a cultural intermediary. Consequently, the Folklife Festival has inspired me to reflect on the tremendous significance of valorizing past and contemporary cultural production in myriad forms. After observing these dynamics in a real-time interactive setting, I have come to understand cultural production as vital to the preservation of tradition and identity. Moreover, I have gained newfound insight into the potential cultural products hold to unite globally dispersed populations through mutual understanding and appreciation. Examples from the festival provided me with tangible points of reference as I continue to contemplate organizer and writer Suzanne Pharr’s idea that "it is through the creation of art and culture that the spirit is fed and kept alive and our common humanity is expressed and exposed."
I loved looking out from my corner of the Al son que me toquen stage at the packed dance floor, where every day exuberant crowds danced in unison to Zully and Leonor's choreographies, enlivened by the contagious rhythms of La Contundencia. My enjoyment culminated in the band's impromptu collaboration with the R&B group The Monitors on the last day of the festival. With Dan Sheehey effortlessly facilitating the unrehearsed workshop-style performance in Spanish and English, these musicians shared their instruments and listened attentively to one another as a novel musical sound was born. The natural fusion delighted the audience, moving everyone out of their seats. I felt proud and honored to share in a moment that truly illustrated the universal language of music. Rare are these instances in life when we experience pure joy collectively, among total strangers.
I also found it remarkable how Xiomara's traditional hair-braiding demonstration drew interest and admiration from an incredibly diverse public, many of them familiar with similar hairstyling and cornrowing techniques despite geographic, cultural and linguistic disparities. For nearly three hours, I watched festival goers watch Xiomara as she methodically reproduced her award-winning design La chirimía chocoana; a hairstyle inspired by the traditional chirimía band of El Choco that featured braided sculptures of the five major musical wind and percussion instruments. In particular, African-American women in the audience nodded their heads in agreement and understanding as Xiomara answered a constant flow of questions about her hair-braiding process and the materials she uses. The familiarity of her craft fostered a sense of camaraderie that traversed linguistic borders, and by the end of the demonstration several observers had personally invited Xiomara to visit renowned local hair-braiding salons in the D.C. area to exchange styling techniques and ideas. I recognized many of the same faces days later at her second staged demonstration, and by the end of the festival she had gained a fan base!
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