Talk about a multi-cult glut: for its 25th year, the Houston International Festival is hosting more than 100 acts on six stages in an area that covers 20 city blocks. Pondering the sheer volume of music booked for this "world's fair style" event is exhausting enough, let alone deciding which performances actually fall into the must-see category -- and there are many that do.
The spotlight this year is on the countries of West Africa, and a good portion of the music is devoted to this region's diversity of sounds, which are often grouped under the Afropop and world music tags for simplicity's sake. The aural stimulation should be at least as exotic as the visuals provided by the West African village assembled just south of City Hall. A stage nearby will feature the live music, much of it worth considerably more than a passing listen.
Among the performers coming to the City Hall stage this weekend, the must-see contingent includes Nigeria's Babatunde Olatunji and O.J. Ekemode, who play Saturday evening to cap off the day's entertainment. Olatunji is a founding member of the percussion ensemble Planet Drum, which, in the early '90s, united musicians from India, South America, the Caribbean and the U.S. for the Grammy-winning Planet Drum. Olatunji's imprint on world music stretches back more than 35 years to his 1959 release, Drums of Passion, which is considered the first major recording to bring African music to Western ears. Olatunji has continued on through the decades, driven by a desire to preserve and perpetuate his native culture while keeping the message contemporary. In living his passion, he hasn't shied away from American popular culture, working with American artists such as Carlos Santana and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Ekemode heads up the Nigerian All-Stars, who for years have incorporated elements of reggae, juju, calypso and jazz into an intoxicating tonic dubbed Afrobeat. Ekemode is a bulging pocket of energy on-stage, his vocals and tenor sax leading the All-Stars horn section, percussion brigade (congas, trap drum and talking drum) and backup singers through flowing musical segments that speak both of Africa's beauty and the tragedy of war and apartheid. Though most of the lyrics are sung in Yoruba, the group's exhilarating delivery dictates a sense of purpose that crosses all language barriers.
On Sunday, another of the weightier names in Afropop, Black Umfolosi, takes the City Hall stage. Dubbed Zimbabwe's answer to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the eight-man group pairs Zulu war dances with the haunting imbube songs of South Africa. On-stage, the a cappella renderings should clash wonderfully with the dancing, which features shields, spears and stomping feet all moving to insistent rhythms.
Keeping with the international theme, other festival stages will focus on other cultures. Saturday, the Heritage Stage exposes the bayou country's Cajun and zydeco roots, with acts such as the Wayne Toups, the Iguanas and Houston's Zydeco Dots featuring Pierre Stoot. Sunday, the Heritage Stage moves to jazz and gospel, with Ronald Materre and the Inspirational Voices of Praise, Kirk Whalum and others. Houston's Fama will headline the Latin Stage on Sunday, topping off a weekend lineup that also includes Jaime Y Los Chamacos (Saturday) and Bobby Pulido (Sunday).
Of the Texans scheduled to perform the first weekend of the festival, Brave Combo is a spirited bet. The Denton sextet's iconoclastic fusion of punk/new wave attitude and traditional ethnic dance rhythms has earned Brave Combo its shot at "ultimate party band" status. Outside, inside, day or night, Brave Combo is the funkiest, funniest Texas band ever to champion a flugelhorn. They headline Sunday on the International Stage.
A bit closer to the straight and narrow, Joe Ely headlines the Texas Stage Saturday, preceded by well-heeled locals Carolyn Wonderland and Zwee and the Graveberries. Also, catch local boy Jesse Dayton and Clapton disciple Tab Benoit at a lunchtime concert at City Hall Plaza on Wednesday.
Houston International Festival concerts will be held April 20-28 downtown. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; free lunchtime concerts weekdays at City Hall Plaza 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the gate; advance tickets available. For info, call 999-9456.
Andrea Marcovicci -- Last year, the Society for the Performing Arts tried something a little different when they turned Jones Hall into a cabaret for the evening, placing the audience on-stage at small cafe tables to hear singer Ute Lemper give a sense (sort of) of what nightclub life might have been like in Weimar-era Germany. The event was such a success that the SPA has booked yet another musical revivalist. The cafe tables and the intimacy will be the same, but the continents will shift: Andrea Marcovicci, who's been singing the tunes of the first half of this century since 1985, when she decided that the songwriters she really liked were Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and their ilk, is American to the core. Her shows mix songs, a bit of history and considerable theatrics (Marcovicci has a lengthy resume as an actress) to create the feel of U.S. cabaret society of the '20s through the '40s. While the titles of her CDs (Just Kern, I'll Be Seeing You: Love Songs of World War II, December Songs) may suggest she's just trading on nostalgia, her performances are anything but nostalgic. Instead of simply recreating old songs, she reinterprets them to find their core of meaning and emotion, which may be why she's been dubbed the "most Sinatra-like" of the recent rash of cabaret acts. One of Marcovicci's standout characteristics is that she doesn't just perform a set of tunes, she builds a show around them. It takes Marcovicci up to two years to build one of her shows, and her latest, and the one she's bringing to Houston, is titled "Love Songs from the Theatre." It'll include works by Kern, Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, along with some intelligent patter to pull it all together. At Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, at 8 and 10:15 p.m. Friday, April 19. Tickets are $34. 227-ARTS. (Mitchell J. Shields)
Poe -- Anyone waiting for a follow-up to the DNA's acid-house remix of Suzanne Vega's quirky ditty "Tom's Diner" should cheer the arrival of Poe, whose major-label debut, Hello, features several beat-heavy, synth-laden tunes with vocals delivered in a manner similar to Vega's stream-of-consciousness babble on that 1990 hit. On Hello, Poe ricochets off a slew of topics. Whether musing over carjackings, surfing the Internet or saying good-bye to a loved one, her life-in-the-'90s lyrics spill naturally over jazzy loops and trippy, hip-hop grooves. Born Annie Danielewski, Poe chose her current moniker at age eight, taking it from the name of her then-favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, though, isn't as mysterious as her name might suggest. And while she might denounce the image of chilly alt-rock diva, she hasn't exactly mounted an aggressive campaign to bury it. Call her what you like; Poe's here to stay. At the Buzz Fest Saturday, April 20, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Show starts at 1 p.m. Tickets are $10.75 and $15.75. 968-1000. (Greg Barr)
Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick -- Three decades back, when they first plied their revamped versions of traditional standards in English folk clubs, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick helped plant the seeds of a movement that would revolutionize Anglo roots music. Carthy's impeccable, syncopated finger-picked guitar and melodious vocals and Swarbrick's playful fiddle brought an electric jolt to the ancient forms. A few years later, Swarbrick plugged himself in with Fairport Convention, the landmark folk-rock band that launched the careers of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. Carthy maintained his premier position on the acoustic circuit but added his own electric feathers, first with the Watersons, then with Steeleye Span. Neither has ever stopped innovating. In recent years, Carthy pieced together Brass Monkey, a truly oddball horns- and guitar-based band, while Swarbrick countered with Whippersnapper, an acousto-electric combo specializing in originals with that old-time heart. Now they're playing together again, something they've done periodically over the years. Neither musician has lost a chop, and their technical brilliance never fails to overwhelm. Carthy's rendering of those staple tragic English ballads brings out their Everyman qualities as if sung by the skeletons of the deceased, while Swarbrick always jump-starts a crowd with his deft slashing. Many master musicians have followed Carthy and Swarbrick down the modernizer path, but the two add a dimension that's almost impossible to top: an ability to banter with the audience and spar with each other between songs. And seeing as they've been everywhere, and done all that, they have more stories to tell than the Brothers Grimm. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 23. Tickets are $10. 529-5999. (Bob Burtman
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