Coming to the Mall: Basque and California Culture

Wrapped around the Fourth of July like a gift package of culture and entertainment, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall has for years explored the culture — visual arts, music, dance, crafts, cuisine — of other lands, as well as of our own.

The festival is an annual, living reminder — for a country (one among many, it seems) currently experiencing all sorts of political pains around the issue of (im)migration — that the United States of America is, after all, almost exclusively a country of immigrants, that we invented our own world by letting the world come to us.

Each year, it’s the illustrative turn of a culture, a region, a place, a people, to shine and be explored by visitors to the National Mall. This year’s edition — running June 29 to July 4 and July 7 to 10 — has “Basque: Innovation by Culture” and “Sounds of California” as its two main themes, as well as the topically current “On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today,” along with the annual Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert, which previews the 2017 festival.

“Basque: Invitation by Culture” examines how the traditional Basque culture sustains its key elements by innovating and adapting in a rapidly changing world. Food is big in the Basque culture, the majority of which is geographically rooted in what is now Spain, but is at the same time separate from it. Also on tap is an opportunity to experience the Euskara language, Bertsolaritz poetry competitions and stone-lifting matches, while tipping a glass of Rioja wine.

The Basque country is located in northern Spain and southwestern France, straddling the Pyrenees mountains. Given that the Basques were among the earliest explorers of the Western hemisphere as fishermen and whalers, their influence — culturally, in food, and in music and language — can be felt everywhere. Think of salted cod and piperrado, a pepper-based sauce, examples of Basque cuisine as a farm-to-table and sea-to-table style. Basques made their way to the United States and were prominent in the West, in Nevada, Idaho and California.

Speaking of which: People often talk about the California sound, and usually that means the 1960s rock-and-roll explosion in the Bay Area, but it means much more than that. California has been an in-bringer and maintainer of Hispanic and Latin American culture; it has embraced rock and roll, for sure, but also numerous forms of Latin American styles, as well as Native American styles, not to mention jazz and even country-and-western music.

The festival this year includes a series of concerts featuring artists that have contributed to the soundscape of California and have demonstrated the social power of music to inspire. The artists represent many parts of California: singer-songwriter Meklit and Youth Speaks poets from San Francisco; the John Santos Sextet with Bobi Cespedes from Oakland; FandanObon, Armenian Public Radio, Quetzal bands and tabla player Salar Nader from Los Angeles; Banda Brillo and Grupo Nuu Yuku de San Miguel Cuevas from the San Joaquin Valley; Native American performers Helena Quintana Arrow-weed and Preston J. Arrow-weed from the southern border region and a host of others.


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