WASHINGTON - The National Mall is about to erupt into an international block party of Mexican dances and tequila-making, Asian Pacific martial arts and healing arts, moon rocks, and adobe huts.

And that's just for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which each year draws more than 1 million visitors over 10 days.

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This summer, there also will be original plays, puppet shows, and hip-hop at the Source Festival; a Restaurant Week for Kids, to learn about healthy eating; the 18th annual National Barbecue Battle; and a Caribbean Carnival.

The Boy Scouts of America will parade down Constitution Avenue to celebrate their 100th anniversary, and the National Symphony Orchestra will rouse patriotic pride with free Fourth of July and Labor Day concerts on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Best of all - they're all free.

The season's biggest event is the folklife festival - a museum without walls, which will trick visitors of all ages into learning by having fun. You'll learn about places, cultures, and rituals through demonstrations of music, dance, crafts, artistry, and cooking.

This year's festival, June 24 to 28 and July 1 to 5, will feature three themes: the culture and traditions of Mexico, the traditions of Asian Pacific Americans; and "Smithsonian Inside Out."

"I've never been to a non-Western country, so the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is my big chance to see and try some very foreign art forms," says Andy Wald, who lives in the District of Columbia.

The festival lets you join in performances and ask performers questions about their lives and traditions, or learn to dance to their music and sing their songs.

"It's an intimate type of learning where you can learn directly from the practitioners of those cultural traditions," says Richard Turin, former director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage. "That's not like a book. That's not like a movie. That's not like a Web page or any other experience. That's a tremendous thing."

It's almost guaranteed you'll see things that will stick with you. I can still picture the painted Pakistani truck at the 2002 festival, every inch covered with intricate designs and adorned with fringes and trinkets. Who knew this was a typical undertaking in a country we generally hear about only as a political friend or foe of this country or that?

That festival focused on lands of the ancient Silk Road, from Japan to Italy, and I listened to throat singers from Mongolia. I still don't know how two sounds came out of one person's mouth at the same time - I only know that the man came halfway around the world to demonstrate it.

This year, "Mexico Profundo: A Deeper Mexico" will focus on four aspects of life there - the plaza, the market, the workshop, and the field. You can watch artisans from Oaxaca, a candy maker from Xochimilco, and instrument makers from Nayarit and Veracruz. Listen to mariachi music from Guadalajara and Michoacan.

Mexico has plenty to celebrate this year - it's the 200th anniversary of its war for independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.

The "Asian Pacific American Connections" theme will join people of Asian descent from D.C. and around the world to share language and calligraphy traditions; martial arts; theater, music, and dance performances; and children's activities.

And the third theme, "Smithsonian Inside Out," will show how the museum takes care of its moon rocks and meteorites. It will let you peer into a black hole, watch an African mask carver, and compare the adobe building techniques of West Africa versus the Southwest.

The museum is giving a behind-the-scenes look at its operations and bringing curators, archivists, and other experts to explain their challenges in unlocking the mysteries of the universe and understanding life on a biodiverse planet.

You can taste the cuisine of the cultures represented and buy crafts and recordings at markets near the exhibits.

As a semiregular at the festival, I usually attend either because I'm interested in a culture or country I've never visited or I want to see how the festival re-creates cultural experiences I know.

I was bowled over by a New York City noodle maker, and I'm looking forward to seeing how tequila is made in Jalisco and mezcal in Oaxaca.

Sometimes you just want to put your feet up while you're on vacation. That's the beauty of the National Symphony Orchestra concerts on July Fourth and Labor Day. Bring a blanket, cheese and crackers, maybe a board game, and set yourself up on the grassy hill behind the Capitol.

As the orchestra folks say, "There's no place like our nation's capital for America's biggest birthday party." They might be right.

The concert starts at 8 p.m., with performances by the U.S. Army's Herald Trumpets, Ceremonial Band, and "Old Guard" Fife and Drum Corps, and the Armed Forces Color Guard.

An hour later, as the orchestra strikes up the 1812 Overture, fireworks whistle and burst, the beautiful sprays of color and light illuminating the Washington Monument beyond the temporary stage.

These are special concerts in that they're free, casual, and outdoors. Children who wouldn't go to the Kennedy Center dance uninhibited to the music. Families relax together.

"Watching the fireworks and listening to the symphony is the big payoff," says my friend Bob. "I've done it in the rain, and in 100-degree temperature, and despite the crowds," he says. "I think I sat in a flower bed one year."

Gates open at 2:30 p.m., and it's best to get there early for the best seats in front of the stage. The concert draws hundreds of thousands of people - the National Park Service doesn't give attendance figures - but no one has ever been turned away.

Even if you can't see the stage, you can hear the music from anywhere on the grounds, and you can watch the PBS telecast on Jumbotrons set up on the Mall.

My friend Bonnie prefers the dress rehearsal the night before, which also starts at 8.

"It is the same show," she says. "It's a dress rehearsal, and everybody is there."

These days it can get as crowded as the holiday performance, but at least you won't get stuck in the much larger Metro and street crowds.

It used to be a better-kept secret, but this town is not nearly as good with secrets as it is with festivals.

Washington's Summer Fun

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

National Mall

June 24 to 28, July 1 to 5

11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with special evening events

Information: 202-633-1000

One of the best ways to get a close-up look at cultural heritages from around the world. Free.

Independence Day Parade

July 4

Marching bands, floats, military units, and VIPs. Constitution Avenue, from 7th to 17th Streets, starting at 11:45 a.m. Free.

A Capitol Fourth

National Symphony Orchestra - Independence Day Concert

8 p.m., West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol; free.

Source Festival

June 12 to July 3

1835 14th St., NW

1-866-811-4111

New works of theater, dance, music, visual art, film, puppetry, spoken word, poetry, and hip-hop. Each of the festival's three weeks examines the creative process from a different perspective. Includes 18 ten-minute plays, artist collaborations, and three full-length plays.

Restaurant Week for Kids

June 20-27

About 20 restaurants are focusing on family connections, healthy eating, and nutrition awareness, with menus for kids during early dinner seatings (5 to 6:30 p.m.) and some lunches. Children 11 and under pay their age with the purchase of an adult entree.

Silverdocs

June 22 to 27

Festival will present 102 films from 54 countries, supporting the diverse voices and free expression of independent storytellers. Films are shown at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., walking distance from the Silver Spring Metro Station.

National Barbecue Battle

Pennsylvania Avenue (9th to 14th Streets NW)

June 26 and 27

Thousands sample the American South's favorite cuisine. Barbecue teams and restaurants from across the country will compete for more than $40,000 worth of cash and prizes.

Caribbean Carnival

Banneker Park

Georgia Avenue NW

June 26 and 27

Follow the festival's colorful parade, which leads to an international marketplace called "De Savannah," where you can experience Caribbean culture through food, crafts, and entertainment.

Capital Fringe Festival

July 8 to 25

It's the fifth year of the funkiest summer festival in D.C. At unique locations throughout the city, it captivates audiences with 500 inventive performances by more than 120 edgy artists. Genres include drama, experimental, comedy, musical theater, and more.

Boy Scouts of America Grand Centennial Parade

July 25

100th anniversary celebration. Constitution Avenue, from 7th to 17th Streets, starting 1 p.m. Free.

Labor Day Capitol Concert

National Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m., Sept. 5, West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Free.

- Ellen Perlman

SOURCE: Destination DC

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