Silk Road Folklife Festival

This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about plans for the thirty-sixth yearly Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. It will be the first Folklife Festival that honors only one subject – the ancient Silk Road.

About two-thousand-five-hundred years ago, Asia and Europe were linked by trade paths. Much later, these paths became known as the Silk Road, named for the most famous trade product, silk material from China. The series of paths that made up the Silk Road stretched through Central Asia from Japan to Italy. Goods, ideas, art and music were exchanged along this road for about two-thousand years.

This year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is celebrating the living traditions of the Silk Road, the evidence of the centuries of exchange. It will also show the influence of these cultures on American life today. The festival will be held for ten days beginning June twenty-sixth on the grassy Mall area in the center of Washington. The festival is called "The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust."

Richard Kennedy is one of the main organizers of this year's Folklife Festival. He says planning began almost four years ago for what is the most complex and costly festival yet. About four-hundred people will take part in the festival. They are coming from more than twenty countries that reach from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and from the United States. They include musicians, artists, cooks, storytellers, dancers and presenters. For most of them, this will be the first time outside their countries.

The yearly Folklife Festival was started in the nineteen-sixties. Mr. Kennedy says it was a new way of considering what museums should be. The Folklife Festival used the model of the museum exhibit, but centered on living people rather than objects. It also was a way to try to increase the numbers and kinds of people who visit the Smithsonian and take part in its activities.

Mr. Kennedy says the kinds of arts included in the Folklife Festival are not the kinds of arts shown in national museums. Yet, he says many of the skills and arts of the people at the festival are worthy of the same kind of respect as the art that hangs in a museum.

Mr. Kennedy says that organizing a Folklife Festival generally begins with identifying artists who represent community traditions. Arts and traditions help hold a community together. Mr. Kennedy says the feeling is that when these traditions and arts disappear, then the communities disappear. The Smithsonian Folklife Festivals are a way to honor and support the surviving traditions, music and arts of different communities.

Visitors to this year's Folklife Festival will be transported to the ancient Silk Road. They will experience the sounds, sights and smells of many different cultures. And they will see how East and West were brought closer together through the exchange of culture, goods and religions.

What will this festival look like? Visitors will not see the white cloth tents that seem to appear each June like huge mushrooms rising from the green grass of the Mall. Instead, the major performance areas will be covered with beautiful cloth made in India.

Rajeev Sethi and the Asian Heritage Foundation designed this year's festival. It will include five performance centers that represent important stops on the Silk Road. Near each center will be areas where people demonstrate the creation of some of the major products exchanged along the trade road.

Visitors can begin to follow the Silk Road from either Italy or Japan. They will travel through five major structures that have been designed to look as though they belong on the Silk Road.

At the east end of the Mall, toward the Capitol building, will be a copy of the Nara Gate in Japan. At the west end, near the Washington Monument, will be a structure that looks like Saint Mark's Square in Venice, Italy. In between, visitors will move through the bell tower of Chang'un, now Xi'an, China; Registan Square in Samarkand, now Uzbekistan; and Hagia Sophia, a religious building in Istanbul, Turkey. Near each area, people from many countries will demonstrate the making of some of the major products exchanged along the Silk Road.

What will visitors see and hear in each area? Music, art and handmade crafts made in Central Asia are the main themes of the festival. There will be musical instrument players, wandering storytellers, puppet shows and Sufi dancers known as whirling dervishes. There will be weavers of silk, clothing designers and stone carvers.

At each of the five main areas, there will be demonstrations by artists and craftsmen throughout the day.

Visitors will be able to see how arts and skills that began in one area changed as they moved to other areas. For example, papermaking started in China and moved through Japan to Italy. Paper was made in a different way in each country because of local materials and local needs. At the festival, papermakers from Fabriano, Italy, will demonstrate how they make handmade paper with special marks on it.

For hundreds of years, traders who moved along the Silk Road carried cloth, jewelry, paper and woven rugs. Glass and stone beads worn by women were always popular and were easy to transport. Festival visitors will be able to see jewelers from Syria, Turkey and India and bead makers from Pakistan and Europe demonstrate the ancient traditions.

Tribal nomads from Iran to Mongolia provided supplies and transportation for the Silk Road traders. Nomads do not live in settlements. They move from place to place with their animals. On the Mall next month, camels will carry nomad houses called yurts which are easily transported from place to place. And a Pakistani truck painted in bright colors will demonstrate that travel continues along the Silk Road today.

This year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is being produced in cooperation with the Silk Road Project. The world famous cello player, Yo-Yo Ma, started the Silk Road Project in nineteen-ninety-eight. It is providing music concerts, cultural activities and educational programs across the United States, Europe and Asia.

The Silk Road Project has several purposes. It shows how the Silk Road led to a mixing of arts, technologies and musical traditions. It identifies the people that best represent those cultural traditions today. And it supports cooperation among musicians and artists from the Silk Road countries and the West. The Silk Road Project is supported by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Ford Motor Company and the German company Siemens.

Yo-Yo Ma says he hopes that the Folklife Festival will help develop a sense of community among artists, musicians and visitors from different areas. And he hopes it will create a strong interest in the cultures of the Silk Road.

Music is always an important part of the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. But this year it is even more so, partly because of the help of Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project.

Richard Kennedy says there are two different music traditions in most of the Silk Road countries. Courtly music is the traditional music of cities and settlements. It is called maqam (MAH-cahm). Groups from Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, China and Iran will perform different forms of maqam music.

Another kind of music in the Silk Road countries is called Aitys (EYE-tis). Musicians compete in storytelling, singing and playing of instruments. Eighteen singing storytellers will perform Aitys music from nomadic groups along the Silk Road.

Children's activities are a very important part of the Silk Road Folklife Festival. Learning while having fun is the goal. All during the festival, the family activity shelter will provide children's activities. Children can try Chinese writing called calligraphy, watch Indian magicians and puppeteers, or make their own musical instruments from re-used materials.

Special passports will be given to young visitors. The passports will include a map and interesting facts. Children can get a special mark on their passports at each performance area.

Richard Kennedy says that this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be a chance to celebrate the historic links between East and West. It will show that the exchange that began centuries ago along the Silk Road still continues today.

This Special English program was written by Marilyn Christiano and directed by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Keith Holmes. This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: EXPLORATIONS – May 29, 2002: Silk Road Folklife Festival
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