August 22, 2013
August 22 is Chuck Brown Day in Washington, D.C., and tonight the American Art Museum fetes the late “godfather of go-go” in grand go-go style—with a party in the Kogod Courtyard. Brown, who died in July 2012, is credited with pioneering the genre of go-go music, a blend of funk, soul, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that emerged in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers concerts featured call-and-response and high-energy beats that kept the crowd going nonstop and became the signature sound of go-go.
“Musically [go-go] really put Washington, D.C. on the map,” says Gail Lowe, an historian at the Anacostia Community Museum. The museum has hosted several programs on go-go in recent years, including “Evolution of the Go-Go Beat” in 2011 and “Citified,” part of the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Anacostia Community Museum is also a repository of Chuck Brown artifacts, holding photographs, signed concert posters and Brown’s famous blonde Gibson guitar.
Off stage, Chuck Brown was just as much of a fixture in the D.C. community. Brown, who was incarcerated in his 20s, inspired youth to pursue their dreams as he did. He mentored and sponsored young musicians throughout his career, often inviting them to open for him. According to Lowe, he was also notable for giving professional opportunities to female musicians, including Meshell Ndegeocello and Sweet Cherie Mitchell. “He always wanted to lift people up,” says Lowe.
Brown was something of a musical magpie. Although he made his name in funk, he was raised on Southern gospel, and his voice had a jazz timbre that comes through on albums like “The Other Side,” Brown’s soulful collaboration with local singer Eva Cassidy. “He brought all the musical genres to the table and said that even in music, we can all live together and make something beautiful out of it,” says Lowe. “He may not have been a major superstar in the United States, but practically everybody who knows music would know [his] name. . . . He transcended all sorts of boundaries.”
Go-go is the “only musical form indigenous to D.C.” as well as the “most geographically compact form of popular music,” according to the authors of The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.—but it also caught on internationally. Lowe says that at Brown’s concerts in Japan in the 1980s, “all the fans knew every single word in English.” Today, go-go is still performed in Washington, D.C.—along with a newer, younger incarnation called “bounce beat“—and its influence can be heard in the hip-hop and R&B music of artists including Nelly, Wale and Chrisette Michele.
Tonight’s birthday party in the Kogod Courtyard is free and open to the public. The local go-go band Vybe will perform, joined by one of Chuck Brown’s former bandmates.
August 21, 2013
The top movie at the U.S. box office last weekend was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a drama loosely based on the life of White House butler and maître d’ Eugene Allen. Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, served eight presidents from Truman to Reagan during his 34-year tenure. The new film, which stars Forest Whitaker as the fictional butler Cecil Gaines, is not a biopic, rather a portrait of race relations through the eyes of one man.
It is also not the first time Allen’s story has appeared on film. In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways released the documentary “Workers at the White House,” featuring interviews with Eugene Allen and other residence staff in a range of occupations. The film was directed by Dr. Marjorie Hunt, curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and was produced in conjunction with the 1992 Folklife Festival.
The documentary can now be found on the Smithsonian Folkways DVD White House Workers: Traditions and Memories. In the following excerpts, Eugene Allen talks about his career, his friendship with President Jimmy Carter and his farewell dinner with the Reagans.
July 2, 2013
Gwyneth Glyn is a singer whose fans don’t always understand her. But her music speaks to them, even if her words don’t.
A native of Wales, Glyn sings most of her songs in Welsh. When she performs for a non-Welsh-speaking audience, she doesn’t worry about the language barrier. She once performed in Wales, and in the audience was an autistic girl from Scotland, who was inspired to learn Welsh after hearing Glyn sing. She has already made progress, and Glyn has stayed in touch with her since.
“I know from experience that even one song, one performance can affect a person’s life journey,” Glyn said.
Performances by musicians, poets and storytellers like Glyn might also affect the vulnerable status of the Welsh language, which is primarily spoken in and around Wales and in a few small émigré communities in Argentine Patagonia. Welsh has been officially classified as vulnerable by UNESCO, which is finding that new generations still speak the language but only at home and only in some regions of the country.
Glyn, who grew up in a hamlet in North Wales, speaks Welsh as her first language. Until primary school, the only English she knew was what she gleaned from watching Sesame Street on the television. The more she advanced in her education, however, the more she spoke English. At Jesus College in Oxford, she earned her degree in philosophy and theology speaking, reading and writing in English only.
Despite the prevalence of English, the Welsh language and traditional culture have begun to make a comeback.
“There has been something of a folk revival in the past, say, ten years . . . a resurgence of folk music,” Glyn said.
Although the language is undergoing a revival, the numbers don’t yet show it. According to a Welsh government census, the number of people in Wales who speak Welsh has decreased. The difference, however, is the renewed interest in learning Welsh and a new effort to teach it in schools, as well as recent government measures to promote it. Welsh has been a core subject in schools since 1988, but children are speaking it even more now as the popularity of Welsh medium schools has slowly increased. These schools do not teach Welsh as a second language, but rather integrate it into the lessons of other subjects, increasing fluency.
With its proximity to England and the prevalence of English-language entertainment, revitalizing the Welsh language is not a simple task. Its status as vulnerable means it has a greater chance of dying out, something supporters of the language know too well.
“I think you always have that at the back of your mind,” Glyn said. “It’s part of the psyche of the nation.”
Glyn sings both original songs and traditional Welsh songs, inspired by the folk stories her mother told her growing up and her father’s record collection, which included albums by Bob Dylan and his Welsh counterpart Meic Stevens, also known as “the Welsh Dylan.”
For her foreign audiences, who don’t normally speak Welsh, Glyn has found that the language still has an effect on them. A man from New York state recently sent her an email after watching a performance. He said that her song “Adra” transcended language and that it was one of the best songs in any language.
Her audience may not always understand her, but Glyn enjoys the cultural exchange, as do her fans.
“It’s really refreshing to cross pollinate culturally,” Glyn said. “It’s ironic that we have to go across the Atlantic to do that, but sometimes it’s when you’re away from home, you realize the wealth of your own culture.”
Glyn performs Wednesday, July 3, through Sunday, July 7, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her schedule is as follows.
July 3 — 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Talk Story Stage and 2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage
July 4 — 2 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage and 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Talk Story Stage
July 5 — 12:30 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Song and Story Circle stage
July 6 — 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage and 3:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Song and Story Circle stage
July 7 — 2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage
July 1, 2013
Hungarian dancing, hair braiding and banjo picking–yep, it’s Folklife Festival time. With the first weekend done, we know everyone is just resting up for part two, which begins July 3. In a given day during the festival you can expect to find interactive programs, workshops and catwalks that span the globe. Check out photos from the first weekend while you prep for the next.
June 25, 2013
This year’s Folklife Festival, kicking off Wednesday, just got a little bit smarter, younger and more hip.
The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has created a festival app that can be downloaded to any iPhone or Android. It was designed to appeal to a new festival going audience, as well as dish out all the necessary information about the events.
“We are interested in making sure the festival feels modern and accessible to younger people,” said Michael Mason, director for the center.
Mason and his team came up with the idea to create the app about two months ago, and it has launched just in time for the festival. Mason considers it an experiment to see how festival attendees respond to different events.
Simply put, the app operates as a go-to guide for navigating the festival. It includes a daily schedule, a map of the grounds, menus for all the food stands, a listing of festival hours and weather warnings. It also allows users to post pictures, links, videos and statuses to social media sites. Those savvy smartphone photographers might even find themselves on the receiving end of awards or giveaway prizes for posting the best photos, Mason said.
To aid festivalgoers in planning their outings, there is also a function to view bios and click on relevant links for every participant and event. All of this information can be found in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival website, but the app will provide more up-to-date information, including schedule changes and weather warnings.
The 10-day festival will feature four different stages and venues and will host dozens of dances, concerts, food demonstrations and presentations each day. The app will allow festivalgoers to make sense of it all and plan out their days right.
“We’re trying to give people all the basic information they need for the festival,” Mason said.
Download the free app now from the App Store (for iPhones) or Google Play (for Androids).