I joined my colleagues Sojin Kim and Michael Mason on an adventure to Cali, Colombia, recently for a restaging of the Colombia: The Nature of Culture Festival program. This was the second full restaging of the program in Colombia since it was featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2011.
After the Festival ends, it is easy to forget about past programs and focus on the upcoming programs—after all, there is plenty to be done to prepare for next year’s Festival. However, much of the important work at CFCH extends far beyond the Folklife Festival. Participants return to their homes with new connections, communities, knowledge, and insights gained from their experiences and interactions with visitors and with one another. The Festival connects people, leading to new collaboration, research, and areas to explore. The event is a catalyst for scholarly, social, political, and economic activities. And it often stimulates tourism as well as local and national cultural policy for participating countries and regions.
In December 2011, only six months after the Festival in Washington, curator Olivia Cadaval and I traveled to Bogotá to witness the first restaging of the Colombia program. It was presented as part of the well-known Expoartesanías fair held annually at the Corferias Exposition Center. It was a challenge to integrate a cultural exhibition into a Christmas market event. However, the Festival participants skillfully engaged their public through performances, demonstrations, and—most importantly—informal conversations, making the event a success. Unlike the Festival in Washington, in Bogotá they were primarily talking to other Colombians in their own language.
Calling the events in Colombia “restagings” is inaccurate. They are unique events, inspired by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival experience, with many of the same participants; however, the programming is no longer framed by the Smithsonian Festival, so it is not an exact replica. The project takes on new participants, new goals, and new ideas to reach new audiences. For example, organizers in Cali made a special effort to feature additional participants from Cali and the surrounding Pacific rain forest area. A second dance couple representing the older salsa vanguard expanded the story of salsa that is so central to Cali’s music scene, and cane laborers from nearby plantations talked about harvesting techniques and tool care and maintenance.
Thus the event transitioned from a transnational event, to a regional event, to a local event beyond the Festival and its restagings. Participants are able to utilize the resources from their Festival experiences to carry out their own cultural sustainability programming in their communities and around Colombia.
I had the opportunity to speak with many of the participants from the 2011 program about their new projects and endeavors, many inspired by friendships and connections made at the Festival and afterward. The experience introduced them to fellow culture-bearers from across Colombia and has allowed them to network, exchange ideas, collaborate, and share their experiences.
Monika Therrién, director of the foundation in Colombia responsible for research, curation, and program logistics (Fundación Erigaie), explains, “These artisans have come from remote areas and have not traveled much, and sometimes have never been out of the place where they live, work, and have their family. They get to know people from the other end of the country who tell their history through music, dance, stories, and work. And what we saw as well was an exchange of work knowledge, and this to me was fabulous.”
For some, like hammock-maker Anilis María Meza, the Festival experience not only gave her new ideas for patterns and color schemes in her work, it also gave her the confidence to present and talk about her work in public. Wood sculptor Tobías Herrera told me that after the Festival he returned home with a “renewed spirit and the motivation to do even more work.”
For many participants in the Colombia program, the Folklife Festival provided a unique opportunity to experience the diversity of cultures in their own country and, more importantly, to make friends with people from other regions. A recurring theme was that participants felt they had formed a new family that they could count on at any time. They’ve been advising each other on workshop and marketing strategies, sharing ideas about increasing the visibility of their projects. As a result of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and subsequent restagings and programming within Colombia, participants felt that their way of life, their work, and their traditions had been validated by a broad public, and more importantly, recognized as valuable by their own country.
Click on images to enlarge and view captions.
Cristina Diaz-Carrera is the production manager for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She holds a B.A. in ethnomusicology from Barnard College, Columbia University, and an M.A. in Caribbean/Latin American studies from New York University.