A Look Back at Smithsonian Folkways’ 2020

In 2020, a year marked by isolation and tumult, Smithsonian Folkways created an international and justice-focused soundscape, bringing disparate audiences together across cultures and generations. From China and India to Cuba and the Appalachian Mountains, and from Pete Seeger to Langston Hughes, this year’s releases showcased a robust, continental collection of historically-minded and forward-thinking releases.  

This February, Sunny Jain explored his identity both as a first-generation South Asian American and as a global musician in his latest release, ‘Wild Wild East,” which featured lyrics about his family’s immigration story and his eclectic musical upbringing.

In April, when pandemic inspired xenophobia was at an all-time high, acclaimed guzheng player Wu Fei and American folk musician Abigail Washburn released their debut duo album ‘Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn’ whose melded sound Rolling Stone described as a “pan-continental mashup… that brought the similarities between Appalachian and Chinese folk tunes into stark relief.”

Later in the month, bi-lingual singer and educator José-Luis Orozco helped kids stay active while in quarantine with his latest release, ‘¡Muévete! Songs for a Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body.’

And in the summer, John Santos’ Latin jazz record ‘Art of the Descarga’ spotlighted a Latin American tradition of anticolonialism amid a cultural reckoning in the US. 

Later in the year, Folkways turned its attention to the legacies of some of the foremost figures of American cultural thought and dissent, Langston Hughes and Pete Seeger. At a time when support for the Black Lives Matter movement has never been greater and people are looking to the wisdom of Black thinkers of the past, Grammy-winning cellist Leyla McCalla paid homage to the Harlem Renaissance poet with the reissue of her poetry-turned-music collection, ‘Vari-Colored Songs. And with ‘Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet & Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger,’ The Kronos Quartet brought Pete Seeger and his history of intersectional protest to the forefront in an unlikely genre, classical music.

And, in further celebration of Seeger (who was signed to Folkways for decades) and his contemporaries this past spring, Folkways also released ‘Doc Watson & Gaither Carlton,’ which features unheard archival tapes recorded by Gaither Carlton and Doc Watson (who performed with Seeger during the Folk Boom in the 1960s). 

Here’s a look back at this year’s highlights: 

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn – April 3, 2020

An elegant, innovative blend of old-time music and folk sounds from Chinese and Appalachian traditions, the intermingling of languages, dialects, and soaring, sparkling strings on the record is a celebration of music’s ability to unite distant cultures. Produced by 16-time GRAMMY winner, Béla Fleck, this album pays homage to the oral tradition of American folk music and the structured musicality of Chinese court music. 

Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet & Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger – October 9, 2020

This most recent release from the Kronos Quartet pays tribute to the music, political philosophy, and social impact of activist Pete Seeger. David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang give voice to the plainspoken songs of struggle that Seeger both wrote and collected in his seventy-plus years as a musician. Jacob Garchik and Kronos’ arrangements movingly (and seamlessly) translate Seeger’s banjo-playing for the group’s two violins, viola, and cello. 

Sunny Jain – Wild Wild East – February 21, 2020

Sunny Jain’s Wild Wild East encompasses myriad facets of Jain’s identity both as a first-generation South Asian–American and as a global musician, from his own family’s immigration story to his eclectic musical upbringing. Drawing on inspiration from the scores of Spaghetti Westerns and Bollywood classics, as well as Indian folk traditions and jazz improvisation, Jain creates a unique musical blend rooted in the contemporary American soundscape. 

Leyla McCalla – ‘Vari-Colored Songs” – October 16, 2020

Drawing on her Afro-Haitian roots, McCalla artfully pays homage to the creative spirit of Langston Hughes through her musical settings of his poems alongside original compositions and traditional folk songs in her latest album, ‘Vari-Colored Songs.’ After a summer of protest against police brutality and racial injustice, this album explores the legacy of one of the true trailblazers of Black art and Black culture in America. 

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton – May 29, 2020D

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton is a new album of old-time music produced from archival recordings by two legendary musicians, featuring largely unheard tapes from Watson’s earliest concerts. 

John Santos – Art of the Descarga – August 7, 2020

In his new album, Art of Descarga, Latin jazz expert and revered percussionist John Santos paints a direct through-line from Africa to Cuba, drawing inspiration from the expansive, multiregional array of jazz woven into the fabric of American music for the past century. Drawing on Afro-Cuban rhythms, traditions, and folklore, Santos invites us to sway, dance, sing, and celebrate a wonderful blend of musical cultures and the beauty of Afro-Caribbean philosophy and culture. 

José-Luis Orozco – ¡Muévete! Songs for a Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body – April 17, 2020

All about the importance (and fun!) of exercise, this album is a timely celebration of 50 years of Orozco’s music career, the magic of multicultural education, and 50 years of teaching and inspiring children through Spanish/English bilingual tunes and lessons. Featuring eighteen joyous songs sung in both English and Spanish, the album will get kids dancing, jumping, singing, and learning important language and exercise skills – without even realizing they’re doing it.

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