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The Houston International Festival Is Upon Us

Allow Houston International Festival education coordinator and performing arts director Rick Mitchell to channel his inner Ron Popeil.

"Imagine that Pace Concerts," he enthuses, "is doing a blues festival up in The Woodlands and their headliners are Buddy Guy, the Neville Brothers, Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, plus local bands opening. Cool event, right?"

We'll also throw in...

"Imagine that Inprint is doing an African-American literary reading in the Julia Ideson. Cool event, right?"

But that's not all...

"Imagine that Society for the Performing Arts is bringing the National Dance Theater of Ethiopia to Jones Hall."

Isn't that amazing?

"...the Museum of Natural Science is doing an exhibit on Ethiopia and re-­creating the churches of Lalibela that are built into mountainsides. Cool event."

And we're not done yet!

"...the downtown business community is doing a conference on sustainable business initiatives in Africa, on Friday, April 18. Cool event."

Order now, and the next 500 callers will also get...

"... the Forum Club is bringing in former Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young to speak, and imagine that HISD in honor of Black History Month publishes a curriculum guide that is distributed free to all schools in our region that focuses on social studies curriculum for Africa and African Americans."

Ask your operator about —

"All of that is under one umbrella," Mitchell continues. "The Houston International Festival. How much would you pay for that hypothetical blues festival in The Woodlands? That would be at least $50, and if you add all the rest up separately, and never mind that the National Dance Theater of Habib Koite would never get here at all without the festival, just the music alone would cost you $200 or $300 per day."

How much would you pay? $500? $250? Nope. Think again! $100? No! Act now, and you can have all this — the blues, Habib Koite and local band concerts, the business conference, the educational programs, the Andrew Young speech, the ­African-­American literary reading, the curriculum guide and the Ethiopian dancers and mountainside church replicas, and much, much more for one low price of $12.50 per day! (Tickets at the gate are $15 per day. Kids under 12 are free!)

"Hardcore music people are probably going to want to come all four days," Mitchell adds. "And even if they pay the walk-up all four days, that's $60. When I went to the Austin City Limits Fest it was $80."

All right, Rick, send me the damn knife set already!

"What we do here could be consid­ered the defining cultural­ event in Houston," continues Mitchell. "Here you'll see an African guy with a soccer ball on his head standing next to a Tejano in a cowboy hat and a Yuppie in penny loafers and Bermuda shorts, all standing in front of the same stage, checking out Taj Mahal or whatever.

"Not only do we bring a nation or part of the world to Houston, we also show Houston to itself. This is who we are. The rodeo's cool. I went to see Johnny Bush at the rodeo. There's a part of me that embraces our cowboy heritage. But this is who we are now. We're not a bunch of cowboys — we're one of the most diverse international cities in the world."

Setting aside the Ronco gags, Mitchell is right. The rodeo represents a past that was never a reality. Houston was never a cowtown — before the coming of Big Oil, we were nothing more than a second-tier Dixie cotton port. No Tsu Oh, the early 20th Century bacchanalian revel from which Jim Pirtle's downtown spot takes its name, feted not steers but King Nottoc. (Read it backwards.)

The International Fest represents the future that already is real. We really are a world city; maybe second-tier, but a true world city.

But in contrast to more compact cities such as New York and San Francisco, it's sometimes hard to detect just how much of a world city Houston is. Our real Chinatown is ten miles from the center of the city, the West Africans are scattered around from Alief to Katy, the Indians and Pakistanis are clustered in Sugar Land, an international multitude of space and oil workers live in Clear Lake, there are Mexican and Central American pockets all over town...The list goes on and on: Koreans on Long Point, predominantly white enclave cities, historic black wards...Houston can seem less a crazy quilt of a city than a vast Jackson Pollack canvas. The International Fest is one of the only times all of it is compressed, in the same digestible field of view.

And as for the sounds...

This year's lineup is one of the best yet, especially on week two. Mitchell says the weak dollar has enticed fewer world music performers stateside this year, which explains why there are fewer of them than in some other years. Mitchell stresses, though, that this year's iFest is not a salute to Africa per se. "It's 'Out of Africa,' which means the African diaspora," he says. "Technically, it's from Africa to America and back again. Buddy Guy, the Wailers, Taj Mahal, the Neville Brothers — that is the theme. All black music in its incredible, wonderful variety. And not just black music by black artists — guys like Charlie Musselwhite and Sonny Landreth are great white blues artists."

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