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Irie iFest

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

Well, the Houston International Festival is again upon us, and this year the spotlight nation is Jamaica, so expect downtown to be infused with the smells of jerk chicken and, uh, other smoky stuff. As for the music, as was the case last year, there are two main music stages and two folk-music stages, so there's not as much walking around as there was in the festival's turn-of-the-century heyday.

There's not as much music either, but this year we're not gonna grumble too much. The last person to mess with iFest in a big way was City Council's Carol Alvarado -- remember how her pesky financial demands caused the shindig to move to Reliant Park for a year? And where is she now? In a heap of shit, that's where. Seems to us that iFest has some powerful mojo.

Not that we haven't taken a poke at iFest ourselves in the past. Last year we questioned the quality of the local bands that were on the bill on a sponsor-booked stage, and I still don't know why it's not possible to book a bevy of the best local bands from beyond the folk, zydeco and blues circuit, but I'm just gonna leave it at that before some of you start querying me about the tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money my team of assistants made off withÉ

So here's my quick and dirty rundown of each day's can't-miss act, or acts, as the case may be.

Day 1
Burning Spear
Bud Light World Music Stage
Saturday, April 22, 6:15 p.m.

Last year, iFest brought in Toots Hibbert, the James Brown of reggae. Politics, while often present in the music of both those funky, raw-voiced cats, usually takes a backseat to the groove. This year, in comes Burning Spear, a mystical, militant guy more aptly compared to Curtis Mayfield in that he's a sweet-throated tenor with a profound, revolutionary presence.

The year 1969 was a pivotal one in Jamaican music; the slow and soulful rocksteady of acts like the Heptones, Alton Ellis and Dave Barker tilted forward into full-blown reggae. Present at that creation was this rebel, born Godfrey Winston Rodney in St. Ann Parish, the same area that produced both Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley. Rodney adopted the name Burning Spear to honor Kenyan freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta (whose first name means "burning spear" in Swahili), and Rodney's uncompromisingly Rastafarian music matched his moniker.

Marley introduced Spear to Studio One's producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, who was impressed enough by Spear's singing to ditch the multipart harmonies then ubiquitous in Jamaican music, the better to let Spear's jazzy and chantlike vocals shine. "Door Peeper" (or "Chant Down Babylon," as it's sometimes called) was Spear's first single on Studio One, and it introduced a whole new strain of radicalism to Jamaican music, one that predated Marley's own more famous stuff and only continued with his mid-'70s, early-'80s albums like Marcus Garvey, Social Living and Man in the Hills. A standout song from this era is on the criminally forgotten soundtrack to the 1979 film Rockers -- an utterly haunting Rasta chant called "Jah No Dead," wherein Spear's throaty and defiant words are backed by only the gently lapping Caribbean surf and the hoots of the island's night creatures.

Jack Ruby, one of Spear's post-Studio One producers, summed up Spear like this in the liner notes to Creation Rebel, the singer's recently released Studio One retrospective: "The type of sound that Spear sing, as you listen to the words, it relate to black people. Is black message. Any black man that know black history and listen to Spear gotta take unto himself some truth."

Despite his reputation as an utterly mesmerizing live performer, widespread success of the sort accorded to contemporaries like Marley, Toots and Peter Tosh has eluded him. Still, you get the distinct impression that Spear is content with his career nonetheless. "I am the stone that the builders refused," he sang on the 1999 album Calling Rastafari. "They put me aside, they passed me by, thinking I would cry. Stone don't cry."

(Other top shows: New Birth Brass Band, Lavelle White, Iguanas, Patrice Pike, Kimberly M'Carver, Mutabaruka and Kwame Dawes on the literary stage.)

Day 2
Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers
AT&T Louisiana Stage
Sunday, April 23, 2:30 p.m.
Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John -- these are the people who embody popular New Orleans music in the mind of the rest of the nation. Kermit Ruffins is rapidly approaching that stature.

Ruffins got his start as an early teen as a trumpeter and lead singer in the Rebirth Brass Band, which cut its first album in 1984 for Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label. Even then, he showed several remarkable likenesses to his hero Satchmo -- he had a similar gravelly and good-natured voice, he loved old-school Crescent City jazz standards and songs about New Orleans food, and he played the trumpet, if not as masterfully as Armstrong. As he got older, he also went public with his unapologetic love of reefer, one that matched Satchmo's.

Ruffins parted with Rebirth on amicable terms in the early '90s and recorded three albums of small-combo jazz and standards for Houston's own Justice label, but in the main his fame was restricted to New Orleans. A steady Thursday-night gig at Vaughn's -- which, despite its location in the Ninth Ward, still stands -- became one of the city's most famed. Ruffins and his band the Barbecue Swingers would perform tunes like "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," "Hide the Reefer" and the Ruffins original "What Is New Orleans?" all while the trumpeter would smoke a variety of meats on a grill near the stage. (Ruffins would share the vittles with his fans between sets.)

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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