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Celebrating Peru at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, Paucartambo

I’ve had such a busy summer that I totally forgot to tell you about my “visit” to Peru.  Instead of flying to South America, the art, music, and culture of Peru came to me as part of the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife festival on the National Mall in Washington DC.

Back-strap loom, Peru

Beautiful textile in progress on this back-strap loom.

Due to construction on the Mall, the annual Folklife festival was smaller this year and only focused on Peru.  But this Andean nation definitely held its own bringing over 120 craftspeople, musicians, storytellers, artists, chefs, and dancers to bring their country to life in the heart of DC.

The Q’eswachaka Bridge

One of the highlights of the celebration was the construction of a traditional rope bridge.  The Q’eswachaka Bridge spans the Apurimac River Canyon in the Southern Andes.  The techniques for fabricating the twine from grass, braiding the twine into rope, constructing cables, and building the bridge have been handed down for hundreds of years.  The bridge is replaced annually and only takes three days to construct.  This bridge, along with the cultural knowledge needed to maintain its traditional construction, has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Here’s a great video from the festival for more background on the bridge and see the incredible landscape it spans:

All stages of bridge construction were presented at the festival.  There were women demonstrating how to prepare the grass and make the twine.

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Grasses are pounded to prepare them for twisting.

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Twisting the grass into twine.

The twine was then wrapped together to make cords which were then braided to make cables.  The team from Peru had spent the last week slowly preparing the cables and was now ready to start constructing the bridge.  The wet material looked heavy and took a dozen or so people to carry over to the bridge location.

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Bringing the first cable to the bridge location

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction

The braided ropes, hand-made from grass, are incredibly heavy.  Some of the other performers (notice the nice shoes) had to help.

With no river canyons on the National Mall in Washington, DC, two platforms were constructed to support the bridge.  I watched as the Q’eswachaka team pulled the first cable over to create the floor of the bridge.

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Pulling over the first cable for the bridge.

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Grabbing the first cable!

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Great progress – Four floor cables laid down.

It was amazing to watch the bridge come together in a couple days!  Even though it is made entirely of grass, the finished bridge is incredibly sturdy and safely lasts for a full year in the Andean climate.

Q’eswachaka Bridge construction, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Two days later the handrails and sides supports are already up.

Color and Weaving

Peru is known for its incredible textiles.  Part of what makes them so special is the wide spectrum of colors used.  The leaves, barks, flowers, and insects of Peru have given artisans an incredible natural palette.  The festival weavers were happy to explain the process of making these dyes.

natural color dye board

Display of Peruvian dyes and the leaves, bark, and flowers from which they are extracted.

natural yellow dye, Peru

Yellow dye form flowers.

natural pink dye

Pink dye from vines.

natural red dye

Red dye from insects.

dyed yarns, Peru

Collection of dyed yarns ready for weaving.

Artisans were also at the festival demonstrating several types of traditional weaving.

Standing loom

Standing loom

Small back-strap loom

Small back-strap loom

Back-strap loom

Regular back-strap loom

Peru knitting

Knitting with needles

Festival Dancing – La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen

Every July, the Virgen del Carmen is paraded through the streets of Paucartambo, Peru and celebrated with dances, ceremonial vignettes, and music.  I watched the contradanza troupe perform their stylized dances in masks and elaborately decorated, but unique, costumes.

La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, Paucartambo

Dancers from La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen from Paucartambo, Peru.

madonna statue

The Madonna from La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen

For me, the troupe was an excellent representation of the mixing pot that is Peruvian culture.  Their quadrille dances, and really even the idea of processing a religious statue through town, seem very European.  Their music is a stylistic mixture of Andrea huaynos and Spanish folk music.

captain dancer

The caporal (or “chief”) dancer is a humorous caricature of a Spanish soldier.

Peru dancers

Dancers from La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen

Peru dancers

Dancers from La Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen

Overall, another great Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  I can’t wait for 2016!

Peru street artist

“Monky”, contemporary Peruvian Street artist

Paper mache crafts, Peru

Paper mache crafts

Trío de Estudiantina Municipal de Ayacucho

Leader singer from the “Trío de Estudiantina Municipal de Ayacucho”

painter Peru

This artist pulls from traditional motifs to create modern images.

mask crafts Peru

Festival masks on display.

For more cultural celebrations, check out these past Folklife Festivals:

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