WASHINGTON – It might be hard to see the similarities in the cultures of Scotland,the West African nation of Mali and the Appalachian region of the United States. But one can certainly hear them.
In the twanging of the banjo and the singing of the fiddle,Appalachian music combines the Celtic traditions of the British Isles and the sounds of Africa. This connection ties together the three regions featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival,which runs Wednesday through Sunday this week and next week on the National Mall.
Even some of the Appalachian performers were surprised by the connection.
Jack Hinshelwood,a fiddle and guitar player for the band Celtibillies,which mixes traditional Celtic and Appalachian styles,said he had not heard Malian music until after he agreed to participate in the festival.
Hinshelwood said he felt a similar reaction to the one he had when he first heard Celtic music and recognized its similarity to bluegrass music.
“I completely understood why they made this grouping,” he said.
The Celtibillies,based in southwestern Virginia,performed Wednesday at the festival's Harmony Stage,showing off a unique blend of traditions by singing lyrics to Irish poems and playing Appalachian waltzes and contra dance tunes.
Musician Becky Barlow first brought the band together to play for a contra dance,an Appalachian art form similar to square dancing. The band later began incorporating Celtic styles.
To achieve their sounds,the Celtibillies use uncommon instruments. Barlow plays the hammered dulcimer,a trapezoidal stringed instrument played with small hammers,and the bodhran,an ancient Celtic drum. Banjo and guitar player Tim Sauls also uses the bouzouki,a stringed instrument related to the mandolin.
Other contemporary performers at the festival also put a twist on tradition. Ras Alan and Brother Bob,who will be on stage next week at the festival,perform reggae music with lyrics about life in Appalachia.
The Appalachian section of the festival also commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions,recordings of Appalachian musicians made by the record company Victor in 1927. The sessions,recorded in the Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol,established country music commercially.
Country and bluegrass music are relatively new art forms compared to ballads from the British Isles and the development of the banjo in Africa,said Raymond McLain,assistant director of the Bluegrass and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University.
McLain,a fiddler who toured extensively with the McLain Family Band in his youth and performed at the Grand Ole Opry more than 1,000 times,said he wanted to spend time with representatives of the Malian and Scottish cultures.
“I'm looking forward to having a chance to play with some of the musicians from Mali and sing with some of the visitors from Scotland because we all have a lot in common,” he said.
East Tennessee State is the only four-year university in the country that offers a comprehensive program in bluegrass music. One of the products of that program is the Bluegrass Pride Band,a group of undergraduates who perform with McLain. The band played to a packed tent for its first performance at the festival's Heritage Stage Wednesday.
“Bluegrass has always been hip and always will be,” McLain said.