Reflections on the Sounds of California
In many ways, the 2016 Folklife Festival represented a rallying cry, an alliance, a remarkable display of kinship and respect. Artists, musicians, and performers celebrated their cultural identities in a space that allowed them to share their stories in their own words.
The buoyant strains of Homayoun Sakhi’s rubâb, the animated drumming of the Banda Brillo de San Miguel Cuevas, the Native crafts of the Kumeyaay community—each event served as a critical form of storytelling, a manifestation of voices that needed to be heard. In this way, a resonant dialogue emerged between performer and participant.
MC Bambu, a rapper, community organizer, and youth counselor, established an easy rapport with his audiences. Groups of students, families, tourists flocked to the Sounds of California Stage to hear his candid deconstruction of social activism and political unrest. He rapped forcefully about gentrification and police brutality. His music validated the fears, frustrations, and quiet aspirations of immigrants confronting the tensions of a fluctuating political climate. Bambu performed twice a day for an entire weekend. Each time, people squeezed onto available benches or crowded outside the tent, mouthing his lyrics and pounding their fists to the beat.
Martha González, lead singer and songwriter of GRAMMY-winning band Quetzal, passionately discussed the ways in which Chicana feminism keenly shapes the arc of her music. A student of feminist history, González recognized that a vast network of social events, ideas, and people have often existed beyond standard historical frameworks. She has consciously sought to create a forum for the voices of her Chicano community. When she performed on the Ralph Rinzler Concert Stage, claps, cheers, and whistles mingled with the energetic rhythm of her music. In the heavy humidity, groups linked arms and paraded through the grass.
At the On the Move: Migration and Immigration Today tent, a panel dissected the historical and present-day ramifications of Japanese internment. The speakers onstage included men and women who had lived in the camps as children, including FandangObon members Nobuko Miyamoto and George Abe. While sharing his story, Abe marked his experience with a frank statement: “I’m an American, but I was born behind barbed wire.” When they spoke, the audience remained silent—but distinctly, clearly present.
Throughout the Festival, artists and onlookers maintained connections through conversation, music, and dance. Open dialogues helped destigmatize difficult, complex topics. Striking melodies, colorful attire, and spirited dancing allowed participants and performers to work together. Again and again, these events stripped away preconceptions and formed layered, honest portraits of human life.
Production and editing: Michelle Mehrtens, Alexis Ligon
Videography: Pruitt Allen, Andrea Curran, Joshua Davis, Caleb Hamilton, Chris Lee, Helen Lehrer, Max Lenik, Alexis Ligon, Michelle Mehrtens, Anne Saul, Ryan Shank, Lillian Schneyer, Albert Tong, Kamila Young
Text: Michelle Mehrtens
Michelle Mehrtens and Alexis Ligon are video production interns at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Mehrtens is a student at Brown University, where she studies English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program. Ligon is a student at Amherst College majoring in anthropology, music, and ethnographic film.
The 2016 Sounds of California Smithsonian Folklife Festival program was co-produced with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, Radio Bilingüe, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian Latino Center.