Houston International Fest 2007

The Bayou City's biggest festival continues making strides toward total recovery

You'll remember that just three years ago, the Houston International Festival was in dire straits. Exiled by a pissing match with City Hall's fees to Reliant Park's sterile wasteland, the scaled-back fest was then drenched by rains for half or more of its four-day run, and it was with a diminished budget and lowered expectations that the shindig limped back to its rightful home downtown in 2005. Fewer performers were booked, and there was a noticeable drop in quality along with the verifiable dip in quantity, one that only got a little bit better last year.

This year's model finds the festival in finer fettle than at anytime since the fiasco of '04. As in the glory days, there will be four music stages, as opposed to the measly three of years recently past. Rick Mitchell, the former Chronicle music critic and the owner of one of the more finely tuned sets of ears in town, returns in his role as music curator. (He also did the Ireland-themed fest in '01, '02's French version and Mexico in '03, but has only served in a part-time role once since then.)

Back in those palmy pre-exile days, Mitchell was dispatched to the honored nations to scout for talent, but in the case of this year's honoree — China — he didn't get that chance. “The regional Chinese governments we dealt with this year decided to send us acrobats,” Mitchell says. “With Jamaica, they didn't choose to send acrobats, they sent music. Thank goodness! For China, that's what they are really known for culturally in international circles — martial arts like the Shaolin Kung Fu Spectacular and amazing acrobats like the Shenzhen Acrobatic Circus, so that's what made sense to put onstage.” (Not to mention the fact that the Wu-Tang Clan was too expensive.)

“And this was also the case with India,” Mitchell continues, “but it didn't make much sense that year to put a sitar-based Indian raga out in the middle of a big outdoor music festival. That music takes an hour to build and requires a different type of venue.”

Another of this year's new developments is the late closing time. Look out, Vegas, Bourbon Street, all you other round-the-clock gilded palaces of sin — here comes Git-Down H-Town! For the first time ever, iFest will be running until 10 p.m. on the two Saturday nights of its run.

“This was one of those things we'd talked about every year, but changing the closing time affects not only the people running the stages but also all of the vendors, food vendors and arts and crafts people, too,” Mitchell says. “We'd talked about closing all but one of the zones and trying to drive people over there, but ultimately that seemed like it wasn't going to work. So basically we had to go to all the vendors and say, ‘Look, this is what we're gonna do this year.'”

The festival has always been a fairly PG-rated affair. Mitchell implies that the last couple of hours of each Saturday night this year just might kick that up a notch to PG-13. “The festival takes pride in being a family-oriented event. We want families to be comfortable, we don't want a bunch of drunken people staggering around,” he says. “But if we stay open from eight to ten, hopefully by that time a lot of the families will have gone home, then maybe we can sell some more beer those last two hours and do what every other festival does. And obviously, the acts that we booked on the Saturday nights, particularly George Clinton, show that we had that in mind. We'll still be who we are during the daytime.”

Mitchell has always had a finely honed sense of the “who we are” part, at least in terms of our musical identity. “I've always felt that the Houston International Festival should reflect Gulf Coast Texas music in the same way that JazzFest reflects Gulf Coast Louisiana music,” he says. “Now we can't do the $100,000 headliners like they do in New Orleans, because we don't have a racetrack. Or $100,000. I do think that part of the mission is to bring international music to Houston, but the other half of it is to showcase Houston to the international community.”

To do so, Mitchell wants to showcase some, if not quite all, of the city's indigenous music, including zydeco, conjunto, blues and roots/country. (There's still no rap. Parental advisory stickers don't cut it at iFest.) “All that music that is indigenous to Houston is also world music, because last time I checked, Houston was part of the world,” he says. “Particularly zydeco. You get these people who feel like they have to go to Madagascar to find world music. Zydeco is as hip as anything in Madagascar.”

And, oh yeah, there will be some great music from the world beyond Houston and the Gulf Coast, too. The first weekend's highlights include the Lee Boys, who bring their sanctified Florida sacred steel to town on April 21 and 22. (Think Robert Randolph, only with a pronounced Allman Brothers-circa-“Ramblin' Man”-and-“Jessica” twang.) Ba Cissoko, also playing both days this weekend, are coming from Guinea with their lute-like African koras; what sets them apart from anything you've ever heard before is the fact that one of them amplifies his instrument and has earned the sobriquet “the Jimi Hendrix of the kora.” From the same nation comes what promises to be the most visually stunning act in many a year — the Amazones Women Master Drummers of Guinea, ten or so highly toned women in traditional garb, banging hand drums and dancing and chanting in unison. Fiery chanteuse Angelique Kidjo, who hails from Benin, about a thousand miles east of Guinea along west Africa's coastal bend, brings a more Afropop-oriented sound.

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