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Global Domination

As in the past, sleepers will steal this year's International Festival

Each year, the Houston International Festival brings a batch of global superstars to the World Music Stage, and each year this lineup impresses.

And each year the sleepers steal the show. Count on it again in 2000.

Topping the marquee, undisputed Afro-pop champion of the world King Sunny Ade (Saturday, April 15, 6:45 p.m.) will bring his massive Nigerian band and stratospheric rhythms to this year's event, which turns its attention to Brazil as the spotlight nation. Carrying the favored-nation banner will be legendary Brazilian samba diva Flora Purim and percussionist/composer Airto (Sunday, April 9, 5:15 p.m.), who together and separately have produced enough recorded work to fill Market Square. And to close out opening day, Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca, back for an encore after a dazzling debut in '98, will attack the senses with their multiculti roots fusion. (Saturday, April 8, 6:30 p.m.)

But several of the least prominent (or completely unfamiliar) names on the World Music Stage bill will likely leave the most lasting impressions, if only because of the gap between the modest expectations going in and the blown mind going out.

Begin with Cascabulho, a band that hails from the music-rich but spyglass-bypassed northeast Brazilian state of Pernambuco. At the center of Cascabulho's sound is forro (pronounced "foh-háw"), the regional music akin in substance and spirit to zydeco: accordion-driven, rocking and raw. The band goes urban from there, splitting its time among a souped-up mix of carnival, Afro-Brazilian and local rhythms. Lead singer Silvério Pessoa exhorts, struts and Portu-raps his way through one song-grenade after another: a couple of incendiary minutes, a few seconds for the smoke to clear, then another explosion.

Cascabulho takes much of its inspiration from the work of revolutionary musician/ composer Jackson do Paneiro, who combined traditional rhythms with social tensions of the modern age to keep the music fresh and relevant for the masses. The latest in a long line of bands from Pernambuco to first learn to play by the rules then break them, Cascabulho won't take long to convince the crowd to add forro to its collective dictionary. (Sunday, April 16, 5:15 p.m.)

With its burgeoning population of ex-pat musicians from all corners of the planet, Vancouver is rapidly becoming the Paris of North America. At the head of the pack stands Alpha Yaya Diallo, guitarist extraordinaire. Originally from Guinea, Diallo extends the long line of dexterous, innovative West African guitar players, a line that dates well back into the 20th century. His ability to translate melodies and phrasing from traditional instruments gives his music a grounded, earthy feeling that reaches down into the ear and grabs the gut. Diallo's playing is crisp and deliberate, almost classical at times, but it has the power of a giant gliding bird. He also plays a mean balafon (wooden xylophone), which further reinforces his connection to the soil.

A former member of the Real World recording group Fatala, Diallo toured the continents until 1991 when he landed in Canada, where he disembarked for good. His current Afro-Canadian combo, Bafing, adds a Western touch to already smooth arrangements for a sound that pours forth like liquid silver. (Saturday, April 8, 2:30 p.m.)

Another immigrant living in Canada, Joaquin Diaz transplanted his native Dominican merengue to an unlikely host, Montreal. He may have the merengue market cornered there, but Diaz hasn't let the lack of competition slow him down. A perfectionist on the accordion, he maintains a blistering pace that never strays from the strict, syncopated tempos of the percussion section. Using his tart, prodding voice as another instrument to fill the traditionally sparse instrumental lineup, Diaz works the mike like he expects the listeners to work the floor, full-bore. Tight harmonies inject a sense of overdrive, though the speed never wavers. Make no mistake: Merengue is about dancing, dancing and more dancing.

A squeezebox prodigy, Diaz played fancy hotels and high-profile events in the Dominican Republic beginning at age 12. He won almost every prestigious merengue competition available, performed for the president, played the Olympics and made a weekly television appearance. Though still in his teens, Diaz eventually migrated north, and seems to have become only more heated in the cold weather. (Saturday, April 15, noon)

The idea of five women from Marrakech, Morocco, singing polyrhythmic, percussion-based call-and-response trance might seem somehow inaccessible. With B'Net Houariyat, however, it's inaccessible only for a moment, until the sound's irresistible power penetrates. Though partly derived from ritual Sufism, the music boasts lyrics with a decidedly secular bent. Typical themes include the anger and ecstasy of love, the glory of the Moroccan World Cup soccer team and women possessed by demons. The songs often increase in temperature and intensity in a final climactic section, which indeed represents the passionate rhythms of love. All five women sing, alternating lead as the rest respond in unison. All five simultaneously bang frame drums, metal plates, cymbal tambourines, bells and other small resonant objects; the mixture produces a deceptively seductive brew.

Until six years ago these women from the Houara region had never been out of Morocco. But they chanced a gig at a festival in Milan and have been traveling extensively since, making a memorable appearance at the 1998 WOMAD festival. The popularity of Sufi and other ritual dance/trance has been on the rise, transporting listeners to a world beyond their knowledge or control. (Sunday, April 16, 1:45 p.m.)

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