Oral Traditions


My favorite event of the year happened this weekend and, once again, it did not disappoint. The Richmond Folk Festival drew a record crowd (190,000) and featured performers from Iran, Brazil, India, Haiti, Siberia and many other countries as well as all corners of the United States.

The Richmond Folk Festival is a communicator’s dream. The entire premise is communication — the passing along of songs, dances, stories, food and craftmanship from one generation to the next. And then those oral traditions cross geographic boundaries, helping audiences learn about and appreciate the uniqueness of cultures as well as the things that bind us together.

My favorite performance this year — and my 14-year-old son’s favorite, too — was called “The African Influence: Rituals & Roots.” It featured a jazz musician from New Orleans and performers from Brazil, Haiti and Iran talking about the influence of African culture on their music. After each performer shared a sample of their music, they engaged in a jam session that brought hundreds of spectators to their feet.

Every year, I come away from this festival with an even greater understanding of the power of communication — especially through music — to span generations and bridge diverse cultures.

This year, however, I witnessed something that unexpectedly caused me to think about an oral tradition of a different type. As my son and I roamed the festival grounds, we ran across several people that were just plain grumpy. Couples sniped at each other over silly things. One fellow who was in a hurry griped to his wife about how long it was taking to funnel through a narrow staircase festival-goers used to get up and down a hill. A few parents fussed at their children who clearly were tired of all the walking in the 80-degree heat.

Now, for the record, I’ve been there. I’ve had my share of grouchy moments. But in an otherwise joyful and positive environment, these few grumps stood out. It caused me to think about how we communicate messages about ourselves to unsuspecting people in the most unexpected places. Since most of the nasty exchanges took place among couples, it also made me think about how much our personal communication styles determine the direction of our relationships.

The happiest relationships I’ve seen are those in which each person respects the other enough to speak with kindness. Of course, it takes two to really make it work, but if both people decide they’re going to communicate with civility, respect and kindness — even when they disagree — then the positivity spills over into every other aspect of their lives together.

I might have simply caught these people at bad moments. We all have those. But I’m guessing most of what I witnessed were the symptoms of greater unhappiness. The grouches were communicating their unhappiness for everyone around them to see — most importantly, their spouses and children.

Oral traditions aren’t just about passing down songs, dances, stories, foods and crafts from one generation to the next. They’re also about passing attitudes and spirit from one person to another, and that happens when we’re least aware of it.

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