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July 04, 2012

At Smithsonian Festival, Art and Music from Black DC Neighborhoods

by Chris Simkins

WASHINGTON — One featured attraction at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates the culture in African American neighborhoods of Washington, DC. Many residents have maintained their American traditions along with African cultural roots and they're trying to pass them to younger generations in the form of art and music.

One group at the festival performs using song and dance to showcase African traditions that are deeply rooted in Washington's black Southeast neighborhoods.

The group is performing "Taratibu," a South African dance that combines military drill movements with African traditions. This kind of cultural expression is front and center at this year's festival.

"Taratibu teaches their history and respect for each other, respect for your community and for your elders. And it shows the young people that they have to work as a community and not individually in order for us to make it as African Americans in this country," said Arla Scott, who directs the dance company. She says these teenagers are learning about their roots.  
 
This part of the Folklife Festival celebrates the creativity of African American neighborhoods in the southeast corner of the nation's capital. It highlights the connections among residents and how they pass along traditions through dance, art and music.

African-inspired art, especially murals, dot DC's Southeast neighborhoods. Jay Coleman says he's doing his part to keep neighborhood traditions alive.

"A lot of traditions are being passed on and perpetuated through the Southeast community through the churches, through the dance. All of those things that are a part of that community are still rich. It's a resilient community, and I think it deserves to be highlighted because much of what D.C. gets props for, a lot of it was rooted in Southeast," Coleman said.

Storytelling is also a rich tradition in African American culture.

Through his work, Baba-C teaches black history. "Washington, D.C. was not always a city where people of African decent could move freely without looking over their shoulders, and a lot of us took refuge in Southeast. But Southeast has a rich tradition of overcoming what you have perceived of not having and making it a strength not a weakness," he said.

Rap evolved in African American communities but it's rooted in African chanting. It too was on display.

Festival organizers say it's important to celebrate DC's southeast neighborhoods and pass along traditions that shaped the lives of African Americans there.