National Folk Festival

Thousands of people gathered recently for an event that celebrates the traditions of many of the groups that have come to America. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. We take you to the National Folk Festival on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.


Music filled the air at the sixty-fifth National Folk Festival, held in Bangor, Maine. Maine is a small state on the northeastern Atlantic coast, on the border with Canada.

The festival offers music from many lands. Crowds heard Yang Wei and Betty Xiang [shee-ONG] play ancient Chinese instruments. Los Camperos de Nati Cano performed Spanish mariachi music.

Another group, Wylie and The Wild West, performed music of the American West. And there was lots more.


The crowds had five stages to choose from the entertainment. All this took place in Bangor's Riverfront area. Many people sat on the grass under the hot sun. But breezes from off the Penobscot River cooled them.

Visitors looked at handmade crafts for sale. Penobscot Indians, for example, sold objects carved from ash trees. Women from Maine showed knitted and woven clothing. They also sold sweets made from the syrup of the state's maple trees.

Festival goers could also choose foods from Greece, Ireland, China and many other cultures. The smell of food made people hungry.

Seafood is one of the things that Maine is famous for, especially shellfish. People stood in long lines to buy rolls containing lobster. They also ate what seemed like tons of blueberries grown in Maine.


The National Folk Festival is a chance to show off many of the traditions that have become part of American culture. These include the traditions of the Indians who lived here first.

The festival first took place in nineteen-thirty-four. It has taken place almost every year since then. At first, the National Folk Festival was held in the same city each year. As time passed, it became a traveling event. It now moves every fourth year.

The National Council for Traditional Arts is the main organizer. The festival is free of charge. Financial support comes from businesses, individuals and collections at the event.

Julia Olin is an official of the National Council for Traditional Arts. She praises the support that citizens in Maine have given the National Folk Festival. She points out that only about thirty-eight-thousand people live in the city of Bangor. But, last year, about eighty-thousand people attended the festival.

Julia Olin says eight-hundred local citizens offered to work at this year's festival. Some of these volunteers answered questions from visitors. Others served as "artist buddies" to assist the performers.

Now let us meet and listen to some of the artists who performed at the sixty-fifth National Folk Festival.

Yang Wei and Betty Xiang, his wife, grew up in Shanghai. Yang Wei is an expert on the ancient Chinese instrument called a pipa (PEA-pah). This is a string instrument similar to a lute. Betty Xiang plays the erhu (er-WHO), a kind of violin.

They have performed in the United States with cello player Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. They also have played at the Ravinia International Music Festival near Chicago.

Yang Wei tells us about the two-thousand-year history of the pipa. He also talks about how his family arrived in the United States in nineteen-ninety-six. He says he and his wife and son knew little English at the time. He expresses pleasure that they can speak the language now.

But now is the time for music. Here Yang Wei and Betty Xiang play "Rainbow Dance."

Next, we meet the members of Los Camperos de Nati Cano. Their homes are in Los Angeles.

Mariachi music came from Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Around eighteen-hundred, farmers and day laborers in Mexico began to develop mariachi music into its present form. Special guitars along with trumpets and violins produce the sweet and lively sound.

"Los Camperos" means "The Countrymen." Nati Cano is a musician who came from a family of day laborers near Guadalajara, in western Mexico. He was born in nineteen-thirty-three. His father and grandfather also were musicians. He tells us that music helped them earn enough money to live.

Nati Cano came to the United States in nineteen-sixty. His group, and others, have helped continue and develop mariachi music in California.

Listen now as Los Camperos de Nati Cano perform "Se Me Hizo Facil."

Next we meet Wylie and The Wild West. Their spirited cowboy music tells about life in the American West. Cows and horses are big subjects.

Singer Wylie Gustafson should know. He owns a cattle farm. Every morning, he wakes up at five-thirty to feed his animals. His ranch is near the town of Dusty, in the northwestern state of Washington. Dusty has a population of eleven people.

Wylie Gustafson has performed many times at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. He also has appeared at the Original Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and other events.

Wylie Gustafson is known for his yodeling. This form of singing jumps from normal sounds to extremely high notes. He says the tradition of the yodeling cowboy started in Hollywood movies of the nineteen-thirties. Today, he says, yodeling is very important to cowboy music.

Listen as Wylie and The Wild West perform "Lonely Yukon Stars."

There are many different kinds of music to listen to during the three days of the National Folk Festival. Robert Turner and the Silver Hearts Gospel Singers are from Indianapolis, Indiana. They perform Christian music in the African American tradition.

Another group is called Sounds of Korea. Its members play drums and dance.

But it's time we go. We leave you with some dance music. It's based on the Jewish folk music of eastern Europe, called klezmer. It's by the group the Klezmatics.

(MUSIC: "New York Psycho Freylekhs"/The Klezmatics)

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. The next National Folk Festival is August twenty-seventh to the twenty-ninth, two-thousand-four, in Bangor, Maine. Next week, listen for another report about life in the United States, on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.