Soggy weather predictions before the Northwest Folklife Festival turned out to be mostly exaggerated, though rain did cause a dip in attendance Sunday. Friday and Saturday were well-attended, and on Monday, Memorial Day, the Seattle Center grounds were packed before noon with holiday crowds buoyed by sunny skies and colorful music.
“We did well,” said executive director Rob Townsend, who predicted attendance would top out “where it needs to be” — above 200,000, many of them young people. Individual donations, requested as admission, were strong, too, he said.
Though Folklife’s main thrust is local, the crown jewel this year was an operatic ballet Sunday in the Bagley Wright Theatre, “Mahishasura Mardini Kuchipudi,” starring Indian dance guru Sri Pasumarthy Venkateswara Sarma.
A dazzling, 12-part, two-hour spectacle with elaborate costumes and headdresses favoring gold and red, “Mahishasura” told the mythic tale of an evil, ambitious king the gods eventually defeat, though not without quick wit and serious weaponry.
With a minimal set, piped-in music and stylized dancing favoring stable midriffs and elegantly bowed legs and arms, the form’s combo of dance and opera was probably new to most Seattle audiences, though a substantial Indian crowd came out for the show.
The project was a paradigm of the Folklife approach, in that it involved a local cultural committee (recruited for the festival) enlisting a master artist from another country to rehearse and teach locals. All the dancers were from this area.
“The things that thrill me about Folklife are the ones that are already in town, but not to the magnitude that we bring them to at the festival,” said Townsend. “At the Balkan dance last night there were 500 people.”
There was lots to be thrilled about over the festival’s four days.
Monday began with the deep, ceremonial bang of a Muckleshoot pow wow drum out on the Space Needle lawn, as Southern Express and Indian Heritage performed a Grand Opening dance.
Crowds packed Fisher Green for a tribute to Pete Seeger, delivered by half a dozen folk-singing stalwarts, led by Peter McKee. Seeger, who appeared at Folklife in the 1990s, died this year. The scene felt like a time warp out of the Coen brothers folk- music film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as the crowd harmonized lustily on “If I Had a Hammer “ and “Worried Man Blues.”
In a different vein, Seattle trio Hannalee offered stunningly pitch-perfect harmonies on Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” at the packed Folklife Cafe. Over in the Exhibition Hall, things got “wiki wacky woo,” as Gregg Porter led a gang of more than 40 aspiring ukulele players in an informative and surprisingly fascinating program tracing the lineage of various Hawaiian pop hits.
Folklife wouldn’t be Folklife without Zimbabwean marimba, and the 12-strong group Niyamuziwa obliged with ad hoc booms and boings on the Exhibition Hall lawn.
But when one of the members of the Irish quartet, Carrigaline, direct from County Cork, sang a quiet sean-nós song in Gaelic on the tiny Trad Stage, the crowd went pin-drop quiet, and the din of African drums, marimbas and buskers seemed merely part of the Folklife weather — this year, a sunny triumph.