Irie iFest

Finding the coolest runnings at this year's Jamaica-themed Houston International Festival

All that came to a screeching halt courtesy of Katrina. Ruffins and an extended family of dozens were among the tens of thousands of displaced who settled in the ramshackle southwest-side apartments here, and for a few months, the Big Easy's top musical ambassador called the Bayou City home. Recently, he's been back in Louisiana more often, which is our loss and the Big Easy's gain. The place just isn't New Orleans without him.

(Other top shows: Grupo Fantasma, Morgan Heritage, Yerba Buena, Joe Ely, Ivan Neville, Eric Taylor, Dr. Roger Wood and Rita Porfiris on the literary stage.)

Day 3
La Bottine Souriante
Bud Light World Music Stage
Saturday, April 29, 12:30 p.m.
As BeauSoleil is to Louisiana, so La Bottine Souriante ("The Smiling Boot") is to the Cajuns' cousins in Quebec. To a base of traditional French Canadian music -- itself a mélange of French, English, Irish and Scottish sounds -- they add in dashes of jazz, salsa, funk, honky-tonk and folk and come up with something that is hard to place on the globe. If you just wander in to one of the ten-piece band's sets and don't know their backstory, and you hear an Irish jig with French lyrics and an accordion or two -- not to mention a horn section and an interpretive dancer -- you could be excused for wondering where the hell they're from. "Like Cajun music on steroids" was one New Hampshire fan's opinion after a show at Dartmouth in 2003.

(Other top shows: Skatalites, Bobby Bland, Stephen Marley, Nathan and the Cha Chas, Buckwheat Zydeco.)

Day 4
Tinariwen
Bud Light World Music Stage
Sunday, April 30, 2:15 p.m.

Along with the Gangbé Brass Band (see below), Tinariwen forms one of the most exciting one-two same-stage punches in the history of iFest. Tinariwen means "empty areas," and the band is composed of Tuareg desert warriors from the Saharan north of Mali. In 1982, the central authorities in Mali launched a crackdown on the Tuaregs, who took refuge in Libya, where Mu'ammar Gadhafi offered them arms and sanctuary -- or so they thought. Gadhafi's promised aid in creating an independent north Malian Tuareg nation never came. Instead, the Libyan employed them as mercenaries in his other campaigns. Disillusioned, the Tuaregs stole away to Algeria, where they are even less welcome, and their situation remains unsettled to this day.

But Gadhafi's broken promises did give rise to this music, for it was in his refugee camps that the Tuaregs not only learned the concept of "bands" but also traded in their shepherd's flutes and one-string violins for guitars and drums.

Twenty-five years later, you hear what sounds to me like inconclusive proof that this music is an ancestor of the American blues. Not even Timariwen's Timbuktu-bred countryman Ali Farka Touré sounded as bluesy as these desert dwellers, whose wailing vocals and serpentine guitars recall John Lee Hooker on one song and bear an uncanny resemblance to Junior Kimbrough on the next.

Not that the members of Tinariwen are completely untouched by the outside world; on their recent CD Amassakoul, reggae and hip-hop also pop up here and there. But even on those songs, the boogie-blues guitar licks roll on, steady and strong as the mighty Niger River.

Gangbé Brass Band
Bud Light World Music Stage
Sunday, April 30, 4:15 p.m.
Somewhat akin to New Orleans combos like the Rebirth and the Dirty Dozen in lineup and sound, the Gangbé hails from the West African nation of Benin. The primary difference between their sound and that of the Big Easy bands comes from the percussion section. Where the New Orleanians offer rat-a-tat, boom-snap-crash syncopation, the congas and talking drums of the Africans bubble and percolate. And seeing as the New Orleans/Houston group the New Birth Brass Band will have just finished playing a fest gig on a nearby stage, we just might get to see a new alloy of brass band forged right then and there. Stranger things have happened at iFest.

(Other top shows: Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Cray, Step Rideau, Carol Fran and Marcia Ball, Geno Delafose, Susan Gibson.)

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