Weekly Obsession: Strum the tanbour

Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 10:05pm

It’s not every weekend that Seattle break dancers share space with Kurdish musicians, but the first weekend in September isn’t going to be like every other weekend.

The National Folk Festival lays down roots in Nashville for a three-day, free-to-all-comers run at Bicentennial Mall starting Friday.

Expected to draw up to 80,000, the event will allow attendees to listen to music, experience traditional dance, eat a smorgasbord of global food and witness a variety of craftspeople making (and, yes, selling) their wares.

In the first year of a run that will have the festival in Nashville until 2013, performers and artisans represent cultures from Samoa to Slovenia, turning Bicentennial Mall from its typical use of celebrating all things Tennessee into an exultation of everywhere and everyone.

It seems almost criminal it took the National Council for the Traditional Arts so long to bring its festival to Music City. For nearly a century, Nashville has been the place to go to take traditional music off the front porch and into the homes of people who wouldn’t know a banjo from a Dobro.

But this weekend, Nashvillians and thousands of others will get a heavy dose of folkish education — and it’s not just banjos and Dobros, but Kurdish tanbours and Japanese shamisen, too.

And those break dancers? OK — so head-spinning b-boys downrocking to fat beats doesn’t exactly evoke the same folkish feelings as cloggers and washboards. But folk arts evolve and change and shift — just as folks themselves do. 

Indeed, Morris dancing was once a fad for English youth before it became a mainstay at every Renaissance fair in the world. When the first fiddlers put bow to string, some naysayer proclaimed it would never catch on, that it was just a fad. 

Folk art spans centuries just as it does cultures — and that’s worth celebrating.