Arts Desk

What to See at the Folklife Festival This Weekend

Update, June 30: The festival is closed today due to damage from the storm last night. The Rinzler Memorial Concert has been moved to the Baird Auditorium in the National Museum of Natural History. The festival will reopen tomorrow, July 1. Original post below.

This weekend, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is rolling out a bunch of music-related events that go beyond the parameters of this year’s themes (Campus and Community, Citified, and Creativity and Crisis).

Saturday brings a special edition of Metro Mambo, WPFW DJ Jim Byers' long-running tropical-dance and discussion series. "Metro Mambo: The Revolution WAS Televised" will feature '50s TV show bandleader and conga player Harold Harriston as well as Verny Varela and his band. Plenty of people remember American Bandstand, but not many remember the D.C.-based tv music show Capital Caravan that was broadcast from 1953-60 at the Caravan Ballroom (also known as the WUST Radio Hall and now the 9:30 Club). Harriston's The Modern Latinos were one of two house bands on the program when mambo was featured. "The show was actually a very bold experiment spearheaded by white announcer Bob McEwen," says Byers. "It also was a very distinct moment in time, when the national popularity of Mambo made it a conduit for African-Americans to reconnect with African rhythms and instruments largely absent (in 'pure' form) from North American black music prior to that time.”

Byers, who first met Harriston after he called in to Byers’ radio show, is especially proud of what he thinks this presentation will accomplish. "The nuts and bolts of the musical construct of salsa is something you can get on the Internet. What you can't get online is hearing from Harold—in his own voice—saying how the conga drum connected with a young boy of the late 1940s, and sent him on a lifelong journey of discovery.”

After "Metro Mambo" comes the annual Rinzler Memorial Concert—named after Folklife Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler—that pays tribute to accomplished folklorists. The tribute to Mississippi Blues Festival founder and civil rights activist Worth Long will include sets by the Sweet Heaven Kings, a gospel brass shout band from Anacostia's United House of Prayer, and a rare local appearance by Northern Mississippi's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. That ensemble—led by blues-fife player Sharde Thomas, the granddaughter of the late Othar Turner—will be accompanied by a number of funky marching-band drummers.

Tonight, meanwhile, offers two unique competing concerts: "The Music of Monticello and the Blue Ridge," with featured act The Ebony Hillbillies, showcases African-American string musicians. On another stage, East L.A.'s Quetzal brings their blend of rock, Mexican folk, R&B, and socio-political lyrics, while Venezuela’s La Sardina de Naiguata captures the feel of carnival in their coastal town.

See schedule information at the Folklife Festival website. More information about  the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum presented  "Metro Mambo" is on Facebook.  *Correction-This blogpost originally described Capital Caravan as a Latin music show.  The tv program ocassionally featured  mambo, but largely showcased r'n'b, jazz and rock and roll.

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