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Culture and Science Mix at This Year's Folklife Festival in Washington


Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.

I'm Doug Johnson.
Today, we play some music by a very famous composer in honor of America's Independence Day
And we visit the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.


Smithsonian Folklife Festival


Every summer since nineteen sixty-seven, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. organizes a special outdoor event. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates American and international cultures and traditions. This year, the festival is highlighting the cultures of Bhutan, Texas and outer space. Bob Doughty has more. 


As you walk through the area about Bhutan at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, it is easy to forget you are in Washington. There are Bhutanese people walking around in traditional costumes and tall prayer flags waving in the wind. There is even a Bhutanese religious center where you can watch dances and performances. Some of the traditional dances date back to the sixteenth century. Bhutan's rich culture has been carefully protected because it is generally removed from outside influences.

There are many tented areas where you can learn more about this small Buddhist country in the Himalayan mountains. You might learn that Bhutan's national sport is archery. Or that the Bhutanese government has a policy of measuring the Gross Domestic Happiness in the country.

One area teaches visitors about Bhutan's postage stamps. Since the nineteen sixties, the country has developed unusual stamps including metal stamps and stamps that smell.

Many booths teach visitors about Bhutanese artistic traditions like wood-carving, painting and cloth-making. At one booth, you can listen to a demonstration about the culture of drinking.

SPEAKER: The name for Bhutan in Bhutanese is druk…D-R-U-K. And Druk is a thunder dragon. This session is on how the dragon drinks. What do we drink? We drink alcohol. Then we drink tea!

The speaker gave a careful explanation of the respectful way to drink tea when you are invited to visit a Bhutanese home. If listening to this makes you thirsty, you can try Bhutanese drinks -- or food.

We tried the national dish of Bhutan, Ema Datsi. It is made from chilies and cheese and served with red rice. It was very spicy hot, but very delicious.

A few steps away, festival visitors enter a whole other world, the culture of the southwestern American state of Texas. Known as the "Lone Star State," Texas has a rich culture and history. The festival has two performance stages for Texas music. You can hear the fast playing of Fiddlin' Frenchie Burke. He can play his fiddle backwards, forwards and upside down.

Or you can hear cowboy songs performed by the Gillette Brothers from Crockett, Texas.

There are also bands playing Tejano, Creole, mariachi, and polka music.

The Texas area of the Folklife Festival also has a booth where you can learn about wine made in the state. And, there is a stage where experts talk about the state's many food traditions. For example, you can learn about the influences of cowboy, Mexican and Vietnamese cooking. Then you can taste examples at one of the festival's three Texas food sellers.

The festival's third subject is not one you might expect at a folklife event. Faith Lapidus tells us about it.


The United States space agency is also represented at the Folklife Festival. NASA is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Space exploration may not seem to fit with the themes of folklife in Bhutan or Texas. NASA says the people who work at the agency usually discover new things rather than preserve old traditions. But the culture of engineers and scientists represents a community with special work skills that are an important part of American life.

About two hundred scientists, educators, engineers and astronauts are taking part in the NASA exhibit at the festival. They give talks, answer visitors' questions, demonstrate current space technology and suggest future developments.

In one discussion at the main tent called Exploration Stage, experts talk about the reasons we explore space. Steven Dick is chief historian for NASA. He was joined by chief NASA scientist, James Garvin, and curator of the National Air and Space Museum, Roger Launius. They discuss how space science has taught us about events in the distant past like the formation of the moon's surface. They offer reasons why it is important to return to the moon. And they make some predictions about the next fifty years. 

One popular talk is about the space shuttle, the only reusable spaceship ever made. Former astronaut Carl Walz describes what it was like to experience a shuttle launch. He says nothing prepares first time astronauts for the sudden, shaking force of the powerful rocket engines.

There are also many demonstrations of space technology at the NASA exhibit -- from rocket engines to spacesuits. A team from the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory show a robot. It is designed to be lowered from a lander, like the Mars rover, into craters to gather soil and take pictures.

There is so much at the NASA exhibit that it is impossible to describe it all here. But the NASA employees who have come to the Folklife Festival are showing their special culture of discovery and adventure.