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Thursday, May 21, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Not Just For Hippies Anymore -- Northwest Folklife Festival Brings A World Of Music To The Seattle Center.

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- Festival preview

Northwest Folklife Festival, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow through Monday, Seattle Center; FREE, 206-684-7300. -------------------------------

Newsflash: In case you haven't heard, the Northwest Folklife Festival is no longer about fiddles 'n' banjos, hippies in tie-dye and amateur singer / songwriters.

And it hasn't been for a long time, though the stereotype is loath to die.

Outside of New York's Central Park summer series, Seattle's Folklife Festival, which opens tomorrow and runs through Monday night at Seattle Center, is the biggest world-music festival in the United States. And it's all free.

Some of this year's headliners include Spirit Talk Mbira, with Chartwell Dutiro, from Zimbabwe; the Huastecan "son" group, Dinastia Hidalguense, from Mexico; Eva Ybarra, the Queen of Tex-Mex accordion, from Texas; Geeva, a music and dance group from Siberia; and the popular New Folk songwriter Ferron, from Canada.

Though Folklife was always meant to be an international affair, for years it largely presented "folk music" per the 1960s. Its most conspicuous venue at Seattle Center, the Flag Plaza stage, was a bluegrass love-in.

Not anymore. This year, on the Flag Plaza you will hear the music of South America, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Australia, Japan and Russia. Elsewhere, on 17 other stages, there is music from almost every country in the world, often played by people whose ancestors came from those countries, or by authentic practitioners from abroad.

At any given moment, there are also half a dozen workshops and participatory dances to choose from, where you can learn a lick or two yourself, which gives Folklife its friendly, community atmosphere.

"We're open to the whole world," explains Executive Director Scott Nagel, "but we start with what's here. That's what makes us unique. There are lots of festivals who present artists from around the world, but for us, those special guests are here to enhance what's in our local communities."

That is the operating principle behind this year's special focus, Norte Y Sur, Un Solo Peublo (North and South, One People), a "festival-within-the-festival" that celebrates the culture of Mexican and Chicano heritage in Washington state (see accompanying story).

Of course, if your ethnic community happens to be the tie-dyed "spaghetti dancers" at the Mural Amphitheater, gyrating to African marimbas - rest assured, you're still welcome. Nor has the festival dropped concerts devoted to local practitioners of bluegrass, folk songs, blues harp, hip hop, gospel, barbershop, swing dance, honky-tonk and didgeridoo.

After all, Northwest Folklife is, and has been for a long time, a first-class, planetary party.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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