Breaking iFest news: Nigeria's King Sunny Ade & his African Beats have been forced to cancel their entire U.S. tour, including a scheduled appearance Saturday at iFest. According to a press release from the group's PR firm, Rock Paper Scissors, the U.S. Embassy has refused to grant visas to two new members of the group, who came aboard after their talking drummer and a percussionist were killed in a car accident on their way to a video shoot last month, in time to make the necessary travel arrangements.
Every time we go to the Houston International Festival, Aftermath has to remind ourselves that the two-weekend downtown event is not, strictly speaking, a music festival. Not in the way that Jazz Fest and Austin City Limits, two regional neighbors with which iFest is sometimes (and unfairly) compared, are music festivals. Aftermath suspects that very few Houstonians, if any, buy a ticket to iFest strictly because an obscure artist such as Mali's Bassekou Kouyate is on the bill; or, for that matter, because someone as well-known and well-liked as Joe Ely is playing with a band that hasn't been glimpsed around Houston since Rockefeller's in the early '90s. The vast majority (we're guessing) buy tickets because if the weather holds out - which, Sunday's early-afternoon downpour and flash shower around 6 p.m. notwithstanding, it did - it's a pleasant and family-friendly way to sample exotic dishes such as goat curry, get their faces painted and let their kids gawk at people walking around on giant stilts. Meanwhile, the people who go mostly for the music hardly ever have to worry about having to elbow their way up front, although there was precious little green space around the Bud Light World Stage for Ely (who killed) or Ozomatli, who wound up involving most of the crowd up front (including our photographer) in their boisterous Latin hip-hop fiesta.
The quickest way to tell iFest is not a music festival is that, besides the HEB Cultural Stage and Center Stage, which are as likely to feature poetry readings, cooking demonstrations or dance exhibitions as live music, all the performances start at the exact same time. Real music festivals group their stages into two or three categories and stagger the starts so there's no quiet time and fans can circulate from stage to stage and never have to stand around waiting for someone to finish a sound check. Granted, the stages at iFest are all maybe a five-minute walk from one another, but it still meant that, for example, Aftermath had to leave the fragrant reggae grooves of the Mighty Diamonds Sunday afternoon to go catch a quick mambo and samba from Houston's Norma Zenteno Band. We didn't mind that much - one time we walked by New Orleans rappers Truth Universal on the HEB stage and were sorely tempted to stay - but it would have been nice to see complete sets from both artists, or at least to have had the option.
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Other times, the music at iFest seemed like an extension of the festival's "Living Museum" educational outreach. That was the case with Kouyate and his group Ngoni Ba (named after their principal instrument, an African cousin of the banjo), whose dronish showers of free-floating notes and polymorphous percussion were completely unmoored from any discernible Western-style rhythm, the opposite of the precise rock-steady timekeeping and gooey dub bass of the weekend's two principal reggae acts, the Diamonds and Easy Star All-Stars. It was captivating, but in the "now there's something you don't see every day" sense, not the fist-pumping fire sparked by Ely or Ozomatli or hip-shaking sensuality of Zenteno and Karina Nistal, whose banana-yellow Carmen Miranda outfit made her the weekend's No. 1 stunner. But perhaps the best lesson in where music rates at iFest came Sunday afternoon on the Chron.com Entertainment stage tucked onto the rear steps of City Hall. Once the rain finally let up, Houston's Robert Ellis & the Boys played a brief set of originals to about five people, including the line-dancing couple as seen on YouTube by another member of the Rocks Off team. Far from their Montrose home base - culturally if not quite geographically - Ellis and the Boys were as precise and poignant on their own songs as they are on others' during their Wednesday-night Mango's marathons.
By the end, they had attracted a dozen or so onlookers, and from their vantage point the Chron.com stage looked like just another booth lining Bagby Street. The music contained within became one more cultural artifact among rows and rows of them (albeit, unlike the food, art, etc., a free one). Music may be more important to some people who go to iFest than to others, but whether or not it rains, the festival makes plenty of room for us all.