Texas Music Stage
Saturday, April 8
Austin breeds jam bands like Houston breeds smog. Both are easy to detect. Just open your car window sometime during International Festival as you cruise the downtown streets. On this day, it wouldn't have been the ozone that choked you, but the stultifying sound of Capitol City's Soul Hat.
Unfortunately guitarist Kevin McKinney and his seemingly ever-rotating lineup appeared to have taken the day off. It wasn't that the guys were overly relaxed. (That's the idea, right? Get a bunch of groovy people together in one place on a beautiful day and just kind of hang out and feel cool. Fine.) But there also wasn't any sparkle or energy. Nothing that actually made you want to stick around.
At various times McKinney pointed to the presence of children, the downtown setting and the early hour (2:15 p.m.) as the culprits behind Soul Hat's low-key delivery. Whatever. Low-key was one thing, lackadaisical was another. Even such typically punchy numbers as "Prayin' for Rain" came across as hollowed out. Perhaps that was the result of a lack of chemistry between McKinney and the rest of the band; the leader seemed to be moving at half speed.
The whole jam experience is supposed to be about a band building an organic whole of ever evolving music from the synergies among the band members, their instruments and the audience. Sure, this crowd, squeaky clean and nearly docile, might not have been ideal. But the members of Soul Hat let down their end of the bargain, too. They were the ones paid to be there. As three ostensibly professional and obviously talented musicians, showing at least some interest would have been nice. When even a "just for fun" cover of the Beatles' "I Want You/She's So Heavy" arrived lifeless, all hope was indeed lost. Maybe the evening show at the Satellite Lounge went better. Maybe it should have been the only one Soul Hat played that day. -- Les Mixer
Kaminari Taiko of Houston
World Music Stage
Saturday, April 8
Before the show began, an announcer from KUHF/88.7 FM warned the small audience that Kaminari Taiko could reach "6.7 on the Richter scale." Despite the hype, the Houston-based taiko group began its 45-minute-long set with slow chants in Japanese, evoking the quietude of the Buddhist or Shinto temples that still house the traditional drums.
Taiko, or Japanese drumming, has its spiritual and social roots in ancient history, but group percussion is strictly a contemporary movement. The members of Kaminari Taiko, Yas Pack, Serena Humay, Kay McLamb, Midori Mochizuki, Karen Hurley, Peggy Lowie, Kazuyo Wolf, Shiho Matsunaka, Gavin Sanchez, Julian Wooltorton and sensei Jay Mochizuki, played drums of different sizes and often switched instruments or positions. Their interplay was spectacular, both visually and aurally.
The set illustrated the surprising number of sounds that could be derived from the instruments. Members beat on the homemade wood-and-hide drums, the rims, the sides, even the thick drumsticks, called bashi. Percussive elements, such as cymbals, gongs and what appeared to be a conch shell, completed the rumble. The percussionists complemented their sounds with forceful yells and fierce looks strong enough to frighten any potential enemy warriors lurking in the audience.
On occasion, singing and dancing accompanied the performance. The leaps between beats were almost balletic. The gestures, the twirling of the drumsticks, all of it illustrated great showmanship.
For the last two pieces, a single taiko on a tall stand was pushed in front to allow two people to pound the drum at the same time. At one point the drumming was so fast and furious that a drumstick broke in two. An audience member scampered up to collect the prize.
For the finale, Kaminari Taiko performed a bit of tease. Drumming at a frenzied pace, adding more and more instruments, the group got intensely loud, then soft, so soft that people thought the set was over. With a triumphant yell, the drumming started anew, and this time the audience knew to wait for the lulls. -- Sande Chen
Alpha Yaya Diallo
World Music Stage
Saturday, April 8
The afternoon was just beginning to warm up after an uncharacteristically cool and breezy morning when Alpha Yaya Diallo and his band, Bafing, launched into its 45-minute set. Diallo's guitar established a lilting, almost Latin-sounding rhythm and Naby Camara's balafon (wooden xylophone) responded in kind. Two percussionists, Karanda Diabate and Edward Suarez, along with bassist Kent Johnson, kicked in with sunny, upbeat voices that called on the festival audience to move its feet. Afternoon delight, indeed.
Diallo and most of his band are originally from the West African nation of Guinea. They play Manding-style music, a guitar-based, medium-tempo sound characterized by highly ornamental melodies and vocal lines that are easy to sing along with. Diallo's style is partly based on highly rhythmic kora, the 21-string roots guitar native to Guinea. In Bafing's case, the kora has been transposed to the balafon, which is played with two mallets. The other influence on Diallo's music is Cuban dance, which was very popular in Guinea during the 1960s.
After churning out a grand cover of "Yeke Yeke," Mory Kante's classic Manding hit, the band then performed a love song to its home, "Africa," which was sung in several dialects, including tongues native to West Africa. By this time, the audience was swaying to the fluid, melodic lines. A mother held her young daughter and danced with the child in her arms. Diallo was constantly spinning out new ideas as he would answer each melodic filigree foray with a repeating rhythmic pattern. The only time the crowd seemed uninterested was when the tempo slowed, as it did on "Jarabe," another love song. -- Aaron Howard
World Music Stage
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Sunday, April 9
As the final act of the opening weekend, Boukman Eksperyans and his Haitian dancehall stylings provided a jubilant capper, even if you didn't understand what the hell he was singing about.
The band managed to divert people's attention from the $12 pitas, bead vendors and the occasional male Carmen Miranda impersonator. This ten-piece outfit (or 12, if you count the delicious dancers) sized up the crowd with its clash of rock and reggae, which the band calls vodou adjae. Its sound was somewhat conventional, probably brought on by too much keyboard work from Theodore Beaubrun Jr. The audience didn't seem to mind. In fact, many of the posh (read: white bread) spectators were getting more flushed with the group's vodou spirit than anyone else.
This seems to be how the Eksperyans entertains audiences: relentlessly. It performed three more tunes after its designated hour-long set, with the finale consisting of band members plucking out kids from the audience and getting them to join in the onstage rhythms. That's an Eksperyans experience. -- Craig D. Lindsey