To be sure, this year's West African theme brought an impressive array of Afropop stars to town last week for the kickoff of the Houston International Festival. This weekend's lineup, however, makes the first batch seem like warm-up acts.
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Let's start with Cesaria Evora, who, until recently, was an obscure practitioner of morna, the venerable traditional music of her native Cape Verde. Without much hype, Evora's recordings have grabbed listeners around the middle and vaulted her into global prominence. With a voice that pulls from a well of human experience deeper than the Marianas Trench, it's not surprising Evora has been likened to such torchy greats as Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday.
If Evora is the new kid on the block, then Tabu Ley Rochereau helped with the groundbreaking. The Zairian singer played with the great Congolese bands of the 1950s before striking out on a solo career that, 200 releases later, has yet to peak. Widely credited as the father of soukous, the breakneck dance music that has become an Afropop staple, Rochereau has never shied from the controversial -- he was the first to introduce the Western-style drum kit into his band. He's also experimented heavily with electronics.
Though Rochereau's familiarity with stadiums filled to overflowing certainly qualifies him to close the International Festival, that task belongs instead to Malian superstar Salif Keita, whose Pan-African sound makes a truly fitting finale. Keita has forged his music around the pile-driver singing of Malian griots and the traditional, earthy sounds of the balafon, a member of the xylophone family. With the Rail Band, he added layers of Cuban rumba and salsa rhythms; with Les Ambassadeurs, he moved even further afield into Latin and rock realms. His group now includes a Guinean guitarist, a Brazilian sax player, a drummer from Cameroon and other international stars. Guiding the operation with his nebular voice, Keita reclaims Africa as the cradle of civilization.
-- Bob Burtman
Houston International Festival concerts will be held April 25 to 28 downtown. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; free lunchtime concerts weekdays at City Hall Plaza. Tickets are $5 at the gate. For info, call 999-9456.