Yesterday, I wandered down to the inaugural events at the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival, greeted by lively crowds and nearly 100 drummers, all dressed in brilliant white shirts. The musicians sat tall on their box-shaped drums, legs spread across the sides in order to slap the meaty front panel of the instruments.
I later learned that these wooden drums are called cajóns and were of African origin. It's believed that this style of percussion instrument arrived in Peru with enslaved peoples from West and Central Africa as early as the 16th century. Generations later, the cajón is a staple in Peruvian music, heard on its own or with voice, guitar, even bugles.
But who knew that the latest staffer to join the exhibits team, Maria del Carmen Cossu, could play the cajón? Born in Miraflores, near Lima, Maria was approached a few months ago about performing at the Folklife Festival, as this year's focus is on Peru. She and her fellow participants practiced together for about five weeks to prepare for the event, perfecting three primary rhythms: Lando, Zamacueca, and Festejo beats.
"The drumming group was made up of both amateur and professional cajón enthusiasts, from all walks of life," said Maria. "There is a melting pot in Peru, and we are part of that melting pot in the D.C. area. We are economists, teachers, lawyers, even kids--all connected to the cultural arts in some way." Maria was thrilled to be a part of the group and hopes people come away from the Folklife Festival with a "deeper knowledge of Peru than just basic tourist facts."
When I asked her what those deeper things might include, she asserted that she wanted visitors to know that "Peruvian people are open, hospitable, and love to welcome new friends, that they love to celebrate together with food and dance, and that the nation has an incredible mix of people, culture, and biodiversity."
Back at the office, I investigated her own story a little more. Maria came to the United States 28 years ago for the first time--GET THIS--as an intern for SITES. (Let's do the math . . . that would back in 1987.) In all those years, she's studied history and museum education in the U.S. and has been a fixture at the Smithsonian, having worked for the Smithsonian's Early Enrichment Center, the Smithsonian's Office of International Relations, the National Museum of Natural History, and later for the World Bank Art Program.
We're thrilled that she's joined our staff as the Project Director of Latino Initiatives, and we look forward to working with her--and hearing an occasional drumbeat.