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Maryland Folklife Festival combines different aspects of folk art

Wandering through the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival is like a mini-tour through the artist values of the world. In a single day guests can take in honky-tonk, polka music and a Congolese rumba, all performed by Maryland artists, without leaving a single venue.

The festival, now in its fourth year, is run by the Maryland State Arts Council and Creative Alliance. Maria Aldana, community arts manager at Creative Alliance, said more than 8,000 people are expected to attend this year.

"The Folklife Festival is really a way to showcase the amazing talents and traditions in Maryland that aren't highlighted enough," Aldana said. "It features music, dancing, storytelling, artistic traditions like Chinese brush painting and blacksmithing."

Cliff Murphy, director of Maryland Traditions at the Maryland State Arts Council, said the event is designed to celebrate traditional arts and culture from across the state, involving all of Maryland's residents.

"We deal with folklife. That encompasses cultural traditions that are handed down from generation to generation. We all learn by word-of-mouth and by example, so in a very simple way, these are traditions that we learn from one another outside of an institution," Murphy said. "To give the example of music, these are traditions that you wouldn't learn at a conservatory. You would learn by going to house parties and festivals and community events."

Rock Howland and Candy Renlet, of Mount Airy, will perform at the festival as the RockCandy Cloggers, bringing old-time flat-foot Appalachian clogging to the greater public.

"I started clogging years ago at old barn dances," Howland said. "For whatever reason I had it in me to dance. I had never done much dancing before, but I got so excited and in such an impassioned state when I heard that music for the first time."

Howland said clogging can be divided into two distinct genres, old-fashioned Appalachian clogging and the more contemporary style of dance. One of the key differences between the two styles, Howland said, is the use of live music in the Appalachian form; the RockCandy Cloggers perform to live fiddles and banjos. Howland said the Appalachian music is a precursor to the development of bluegrass.

"I grew up listening to 'Grand Ole Opry' in the '40s and I guess it just stuck in my brain," Howland said. "It's infectious. I just hear that kind of music and want to dance."

Howland travels to schools around Maryland teaching students about the history of clogging. He said it's vital to keep the knowledge and the tradition alive.

"The dance was developed in the Appalachians, and it was heavily influenced by the Cherokee in North Carolina. It also incorporated influence from African-Americans after they were freed. Some of the great old time cloggers were African-Americans," Howland said. "We're trying to impart all of this knowledge."

Murphy said one of the key components of the festival is presenting the artistic expression in the midst of their cultural context.

"What you'll find is that with the different traditions at our festival, you could take many of them and you could put them on a CD or in a museum behind a display case, but what we do goes beyond that," Murphy said. "We provide a context for how these different forms of cultural expression come about by letting people engage with the artists."

At the event, they will feature live performances from groups like the Trinidad and Tobago Baltimore Steel Orchestra, South Broadway Baptist Church Choir, and Arty Hill and the Long Gone Daddys. In addition to the musical performances, the festival features a multicultural array of food and craft vendors.

"We feel very strongly that anybody who lives in Maryland should see themselves reflected back in an event that speaks about Maryland," Murphy said. "Our objective is to celebrate outstanding artistic achievements as well as celebrate individuals who are good stewards within their community. You find those people everywhere and in every community."

Over the four years, Murphy said the one thing he has learned is that it is nearly impossible to predict what an audience will respond to.

"It's rare that anybody famous is appearing at our festival, so that's one of the wonderful things about it. People are reacting in the moment to these performers they haven't seen," Murphy said. "I feel like we're so used to seeing people rally through social media and create these communities of affinity. Our festival kind of confounds that while at the same time it's creating these moments live and we get to watch them develop."

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