Popular as it is stateside, Irish music struggles to find its place among the masses who consider world music a monolithic other. As various styles come into vogue and then recede in the popular consciousness -- flamenco and Cuban on today's front burner, Afro-pop and the Bulgarian women's choir on last year's global hit parade -- Irish music remains on the periphery. Except for a brief moment in the spotlight several years back when it (horrifyingly, mistakenly) became synonymous with the New Age genre, Irish music has generally escaped the notice of the trendspotters.
Familiarity has a lot to do with its place in the commercial panoply: Much American folk music is based on Irish songs and tunes (as well as English and Scottish -- yes, there's a difference), and those essential forms have in turn stealthily infused themselves into the work of contemporary singer-songwriters, country artists and others. Irish music just doesn't seem all that foreign, certainly stacked up against Nigerian polyrhythms or Middle Eastern exotica.
But as this year's edition of the Houston International Festival (April 21-29) amply demonstrates, Irish music has been boiling away the past few years in one of the world's more creative cauldrons. The results both advance those familiar sounds a light-year or two and forge some entirely new alloys.
Of all the festival's Irish entries, accordionist Sharon Shannon has been flying highest above the radar. A former member of the Waterboys, Shannon has played with Texans Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle and otherwise has made an impression this side of the Atlantic. Hailing from one of those musical families where everyone played several instruments, Shannon cut her teeth on the tin whistle before picking up the accordion -- at age 11. After absorbing various regional styles, she co-founded the traditional band Arcady but soon found the music too confining; striking out on her own, Shannon formed a series of bands that balanced the upper registers of fiddle, flute and strings with double bass (from longtime collaborator Trevor Hutchinson) and drums.
Her next leap was stylistic: She began borrowing freely from other cultures, first those with close musical ties to the Shamrock Shore (Scandinavia, French Canada), then further afield, dabbling in reggae and rock and whatever else she absorbed during her extensive travels. While others have overlaid disparate elements onto an Irish foundation, their combinations have too often been incompatible. But Shannon, a consummate player, manages to pull them together without a clash. (Sunday, April 22, at 3:30 p.m. on the MoneyGram World Music Stage; and at 5:45 p.m. on the Bailey's Irish Pub Stage.)
While Shannon rearranges existing music to build her repertory, the Dublin-based band Kila draws from similar sources but writes all-original material. The results, as evidenced on its two U.S. releases, are astonishingly fresh and distinct. Like many of the new Irish bands, Kila opts for a big sound (seven members), made even bigger by virtue of each playing three or more instruments. Such versatility allows the band to seamlessly wind gypsy, African or Eastern European melodies around whatever Celtic root they choose, giving the whole a pulsating, cellular feel (unsatisfyingly lumped into the category "Celtic fusion"). The Gaelic vocals reinforce the band's fierce identity. Two sets of brothers anchor Kila, whose ten years together with the same personnel create unspoken understandings that only time can produce. Kila is perhaps the most electrifying and unexpected of the Irish bands coming to Houston. (Saturday, April 28, at 3 p.m. on the Irish Pub Stage; and at 5 p.m. on the World Music Stage. On Sunday, April 29, at 1:45 p.m. on the World Music Stage; and at 5:45 p.m. on the Irish Pub Stage.)
Though initially slowed by the departure of two key members, especially vocalist Karan Casey, Solas has rebounded well to vie for top dog among the new Irish acoustic wave. More refined than either Shannon or Kila, Solas still puts a twist on its traditional approach, though the material tends to originate closer to home. The band's recent show at the Mucky Duck spotlighted the multi-instrumental talents of its American founder, Seamus Egan, whose playing from his corner post continually drew attention away from center stage. Where Kila's throbby jumble overpowers with its cumulative force, Solas attacks with crisp, clear solos and point-counterpoint duets atop sturdy melodic legs. Lead singer Deirdre Scanlon has as keen a knack for the ballad as her predecessor. (Sunday, April 29, at 6:45 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
The most youthful of the Irish bands appearing at the International Festival, Danú is also the torchbearer. The latest in a string of virtuoso bands that invigorate traditional material with complex and inventive (yet straight) arrangements, Danú descends in spirit from a line that includes Planxty, the Bothy Band and DeDanaan. Seven pieces (including all the key components: flute, guitar, pipes, fiddle, accordion, bouzouki and bodhran) make for dynamic jigs and reels, complemented by an occasional velvet vocal from Ciaran O'Gealbhain. Since its 1995 debut, Danú has jelled into a true force on the scene. (Saturday, April 21, at 1 p.m. on the World Music Stage; and at 6 p.m. on the Irish Pub Stage. On Sunday, April 22, at 1 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., on the Irish Pub Stage.)
Bands that fit into the Irish theme constitute only part of the all-star lineup. The rest of the map is well represented, beginning on the African continent with Femi Kuti and his band Positive Force. Son of the late Fela Kuti, a cultural icon whom many regard as the originator of Afrobeat, Femi released his debut last year amid a ton of hype and unreasonable expectations. Somehow, he lived up to it all. Though less politically charged than his father, whose harsh criticisms of the Nigerian government led to routine bans of his music, Femi has nevertheless had his own run-ins with the establishment -- in his case, over racy lyrics. Slicker and more Westernized, the new-generation Kuti is less anarchic than his dad. But he blows a heady sax, and his full-bore, stage-filling band retains the same incomprehensible level of energy that propelled every Fela concert into other dimensions. (Saturday, April 28, at 6:30 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
Mahotella Queens has equal claim to legacy status, but in the case of the South African vocal trio, they're the originals. Urban South African music emerged out of Soweto in the 1970s, a symbol of the resilience of the people and their resistance to apartheid. Known as Mbaqanga, the music of the Mahotella Queens and others who carried its torch had an irresistible power, seemingly devoid of rage or hopelessness even in the face of atrocious oppression. A mix of traditional South African styles infused with American R&B, soul and gospel, the Queens' sound relied most heavily on its three-part harmonies, vocal blends as inspirational as those of any church choir. The group has taken a few breaks during its storied career but has now reunited. Although some of the musicians who helped craft the style have recently passed on, the Queens' latest band picks up the slack. (Sunday, April 22, at 5:15 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
Super Rail Band of Mali has no less rich a history. Founded in 1971, the band then included Salif Keita and Mory Kante, who each would later achieve pan-African superstar status as a solo artist. A pure dance band whose shows might normally last from dusk to dawn, Super Rail meshes electric guitars and Afro-Cuban percussion with traditional instruments such as the kora (21-string harp) and balafon (wooden xylophone). Vocal duties fall to those schooled in the improvisational griot praise singing that is a hallmark of West African melody. Blended with Latin rhythms, Congolese rumba and even reggae and blues, the music has an international quality that yet retains its Malian roots. One of the last of the great dance orchestras, one that dominated the West African scene for two decades, Super Rail Band is still a stranger to these shores -- this trip is its first to the United States. (Saturday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
One group that International Festival regulars should have no trouble recognizing is Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca -- 2001 marks their third appearance in four years. While the festival does not make a habit of filling its bill with regulars (at least if they live outside Texas and Louisiana), Lemvo and his crew have made themselves welcome with knockout performances each time out. Possessed of a huge sound, Makina Loca shifts effortlessly between dance music from Lemvo's native Congo and Cuban son, with which he was heavily dosed as a child. Transplanted to Los Angeles as a student, he formed his band in the mid-1970s and developed a salsified concoction that over the years has become his own. The band name has two meanings: "dance in trance" in Congolese and "crazy machine" in Spanish. Both fit perfectly. (Saturday, April 28, at 1 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
Two bands that deal strictly in Spanish anchor the Latin portion of the festival. Orlando "Maraca" Valle and his 14-piece band Otra Vision bring Afro-Cuban jazz from the heart of Havana. A former member of the seminal ensemble Irakere, Maraca went solo in the 1990s and has been racking up the accolades since. The title of his latest recording, Descarga Total ("Total Jam"), gives a clue as to his orientation: improvisation from first note to last, vocals included. Maraca's flute may be atypical for a bandleader, but he's elevated the instrument to a new level of respect on the Cuban scene. Otra Vision, in fact, has two flutes, the other played by Maraca's wife. His modern arrangements place the band in the company of Cubanismo and other cutting-edgers, but his takes on rumba and son keep him firmly planted in tradition. The band members have so much cumulative talent, California should consider tapping into them to avoid summer power outages. (Saturday, April 21, at 2:30 p.m. on the Latin Stage; and at 4:30 p.m. on the World Music Stage.)
Equally explosive, trombonist Jimmy Bosch returns to the festival with his 21st-century salsa dura ("hard salsa"). Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, to Puerto Rican parents, Bosch and his big band have elbowed their way into the heart of New York's Latin music scene in just a few years. Drawing from the rich smorgasbord of Puerto Rican jazz, Bosch layers horn upon horn, weaving and bobbing around the tumultuous percussion section. The Gotham landscape may be littered with salseros, but this band's intensity makes it clear how Bosch separated himself so quickly from the pack. (Sunday, April 29, at 1:30 p.m. on the Latin Stage.)
While big bands take center stage this year, a solo artist may well provide the best set of the festival. Richard Thompson, a monster talent as both a guitarist and songwriter, has been way ahead of his time since he first appeared with Fairport Convention in the late 1960s. Thompson crafts inimitable acoustic originals, his blackest-side-of-dark lyrics offset by his self-effacing humor and satirical perspective. (Sunday, April 29, at 6:30 p.m. on the Bank United Texas Stage.)
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas
Saturday, April 21, 6:30 p.m., Budweiser American Music Stage
At its worst, zydeco is rote and mind-numbingly repetitive, which even fans admit. At its best, it's a joyous celebration of a specific people, mood and culture -- not to mention a celebration of a device originally utilized for laundry. For more than a decade, Lafayette's Nathan Williams and his crack band have existed firmly in the latter category. A big man toting a full-piano-key accordion (as opposed to the smaller-button models now in vogue), he's less interested in his place in the genre's pantheon than in getting your ass on the dance floor. The Cha-Chas infuse R&B, electric guitar and lyrical humor into their spicy Creole mix. Let's Go, the group's most recent release, redefines the term "party platter." -- Bob Ruggiero
Sweet Honey in the Rock
Sunday, April 22, 6:45 p.m., MoneyGram World Music Stage
Delicious a cappella harmonies and outspoken lyrics have been the hallmarks of Sweet Honey in the Rock for 28 years. Founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon in Washington, D.C., in 1973, the group has served as a vehicle for spreading African-American history and vocal traditions as well as fighting persecution. Reagon participated in the 1960s civil rights movement and translated that fertile pollen into Sweet Honey. The group has ever since been composed entirely of African-American women. Mixing narrative tradition and African rhythms, the group fuses history with music and drives home a powerful message, embracing gospel, folk, jazz and R&B along the way. -- Elizabeth Taishoff
Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys
Saturday, April 28, 2:15 p.m., Budweiser American Music Stage
Though these days Houston audiences are more accustomed to seeing Riley in his side project, the swampland supergroup Li'l Band of Gold, he's back with his bread-and-hot-sauce gig here, touring on a brand-new record, Happytown. Known for their modern, accessible twists on traditional Cajun music, Riley and the Mamou Playboys have opted to take a long look back on the new album, which boasts lyrics based on Creole slave poetry mixed with drum loops, dark fiddles, and energetic two-steps and waltzes. The Mamou Playboys will be -- as always -- peerless backers in a gig that should feature crowd-pleasing numbers stretching back to their early days. -- Bob Ruggiero
Saturday, April 28, 3:30 p.m., Budweiser American Music Stage
Although hailed in her native Canada as a superstar while in her twenties, the charismatic MacMaster is neither a flavor of the month nor a sellout, despite having done TV ads for her country's biggest doughnuts-'n'-coffee chain. Her virtuosity, unpretentious attitude and respect for her Celtic roots have secured her as a national treasure and one of Canada's most sought-after exports. On her latest CD, My Roots Are Showing, MacMaster's deft handling of Cape Breton jigs, reels, strathspeys and dreamy airs displays not only youthful energy but the technical precision of players twice her age. -- Greg Barr
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
Saturday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., Bank United Texas Stage
They don't come any cooler than Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Born in Vinton, Louisiana, but raised in Orange, this "dual citizen" was exposed early to a Dixie-fried cornucopia of country, Cajun/zydeco, big band, Western swing and blues, all of which helped shape his unique "American music done Texas-style." Brown is as flexible as ever, equally comfortable playing "Take the A Train" as sturdy Gate-rockers like the jazzy "Chickenshift." But the real secret behind his success may be his positive attitude. With a million-dollar smile and a stage persona that seems too good to be true, Brown possesses an energy that can propel an arrangement to new levels of innovation and merriment. -- Mike Emery
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Saturday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., Budweiser American Music Stage
O Brother, Where Art Thou? audiences may relate "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" with the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys, but music lovers know that Ralph Stanley owns the tune lock, stock and corn-whiskey-in-a-barrel. The 74-year-old elder statesman of Appalachian music is enjoying a resurgence because of the Coen brothers movie, which also includes his stunning a cappella version of "Oh, Death." Indeed, the banjo man has one of the most recognizable voices in 20th-century American music, effortlessly veering in tone from down-home to eerily chilling on songs of mortality and retribution, on which he can sound more like a disembodied spirit than a good ol' boy. This is a rare chance to see an authentic legend, who's touring on a new compilation record titled (what else?) Man of Constant Sorrow. -- Bob Ruggiero
Sunday, April 29, 6 p.m., Latin Stage
Born into a family of accordion legends, Flaco Jimenez is the heavyweight champion of conjunto, a music created and nourished in Texas. The San Antonio native was already at the top of the conjunto game in 1973 when Doug Sahm recruited him to play alongside Bob Dylan and Dr. John. Shortly afterward, Jimenez met Ry Cooder. For Cooder, finding Jimenez was a revelation on the order of discovering Ali Farka Toure or Ibrahim Ferrer, an artist with a completely mature vocabulary unknown outside a small local audience. No longer. Jimenez now plays with everyone when an authentic accordion sound is needed. But what he still does best is conjunto, the sound of Tex-Mex soul. -- Aaron Howard
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