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Pauline Lerner

July 10, 2005 at 5:10 AM

Every year around the Fourth of July, the Smithsonian Museum puts on a Folklife Festival on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building in Washington DC. This year the featured country was Oman, a small sultanate on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Also featured were the culture of food, the National Forest Service, and Nuestra Musica from Puerto Rico. There are information booths, exhibits, crafts, music, and dance. I enjoyed the edible garden, cacao beans (but no chocolate), and a demo of watching for fires from a fire tower, but I loved the music and dance best. I heard some great bluegrass musicians from the Forest Service and enjoyed some really different and interesting music and dance from Oman. The Omanis are dark skinned people, dressed in Arab-style robes for the men and gorgeous saris for the women, with several kinds of traditional African-style drums, and -- bagpipes. Oman is on a trade route from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, western Asia, and the Far East. The British passed through on their way to conquering the world, with Scotsmen in kilts playing the Highland pipes and leading the march into battle. The Omanis liked the bagpipes, kept them, and adapted them to their own style of music. While the Scottish pipe bands play and march with military precision, the Omanis do it completely differently. There was one piper with several drummers, and the piper danced around in a very sinuous way while playing music with a sinuous sound. Even when he played Scotland the Brave, the music sounded distinctly unScottish. The music and dance had very exciting and rhythms. At the end of each performance, people in the audience got up on the stage and danced with the Omanis.

The best part of the Festival for me was going to the parties at night. All the performers stayed at the same hotel, and volunteers from the local folklore society, including me, staffed a Hospitality Suite for the performers there. We had a buffet table with food, soda, and beer for the performers. Some of the performers brought their instruments and jammed, while lots of people danced with them. Some of the Omani dancers were quite athletic. Their women were not allowed to dance except in certain ceremonial dances, but the men sure liked having the American women dance with them. I saw two young Omani women, probably no more than 20 years old, covered by their saris everywhere except for their faces, out in the hall, where they thought nobody would see them, and they were dancing. I heard the Omani piper play Omani music, Scotland the Brave, and Oh Susanna. I thought that must be the greatest cross cultural music of the Festival, but I was wrong. Another night, a bluegrass fiddler joined the Omani piper and drummers in playing Oh Susanna. One night, the bluegrass musicians gathered in the hall outside the party room and jammed. They were joined by a few people from the Cherokee nation who sang some of their traditional songs with beautiful harmonies. They explained to us that these were Christian worship songs. The melodies were traditional Cherokee, and Christian missionaries had put words to them. Someone asked how old the melodies were, and one of the Cherokee men said, “As old as dirt.” When they sang Amazing Grace in their native tongue, the bluegrass musicians played along. One of the bluegrass fiddlers really impressed me with his back up rhythms and chords, in addition to his highly ornamented melodies. His musicality was excellent, even when he played one of his mouth harmonicas. I’ve come to associate the harmonica with the raucous sounds of Bob Dylan, but this man made his harmonicas sound as warm and gentle as a breeze or a birdsong. I spoke to him about his fiddle music. I told him that I’m a classically trained violinist and I’m trying to learn rhythm backup bluegrass fiddle from a book, but that’s not a good way to learn. It’s far better to listen and join in. I was honored that another fiddler let me play her instrument for a few songs. I sat next to the awesome fiddler, listened, and tried to do what he was doing. At times I succeeded, but as quickly as I did, he changed to something else. What great talent and creativity! He gave me one of his CDs to take home and play along with.

There are just no other musical experiences like the ones I had at this Festival. I was so lucky.

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