Allow Houston International Festival education coordinator and performing arts director Rick Mitchell to channel his inner Ron Popeil.
"Imagine that Pace Concerts," he enthuses, "is doing a blues festival up in The Woodlands and their headliners are Buddy Guy, the Neville Brothers, Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, plus local bands opening. Cool event, right?"
We'll also throw in...
Houston International Festival
"Imagine that Inprint is doing an African-American literary reading in the Julia Ideson. Cool event, right?"
But that's not all...
"Imagine that Society for the Performing Arts is bringing the National Dance Theater of Ethiopia to Jones Hall."
Isn't that amazing?
"...the Museum of Natural Science is doing an exhibit on Ethiopia and re-creating the churches of Lalibela that are built into mountainsides. Cool event."
And we're not done yet!
"...the downtown business community is doing a conference on sustainable business initiatives in Africa, on Friday, April 18. Cool event."
Order now, and the next 500 callers will also get...
"... the Forum Club is bringing in former Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young to speak, and imagine that HISD in honor of Black History Month publishes a curriculum guide that is distributed free to all schools in our region that focuses on social studies curriculum for Africa and African Americans."
Ask your operator about —
"All of that is under one umbrella," Mitchell continues. "The Houston International Festival. How much would you pay for that hypothetical blues festival in The Woodlands? That would be at least $50, and if you add all the rest up separately, and never mind that the National Dance Theater of Habib Koite would never get here at all without the festival, just the music alone would cost you $200 or $300 per day."
How much would you pay? $500? $250? Nope. Think again! $100? No! Act now, and you can have all this — the blues, Habib Koite and local band concerts, the business conference, the educational programs, the Andrew Young speech, the African-American literary reading, the curriculum guide and the Ethiopian dancers and mountainside church replicas, and much, much more for one low price of $12.50 per day! (Tickets at the gate are $15 per day. Kids under 12 are free!)
"Hardcore music people are probably going to want to come all four days," Mitchell adds. "And even if they pay the walk-up all four days, that's $60. When I went to the Austin City Limits Fest it was $80."
All right, Rick, send me the damn knife set already!
"What we do here could be considered the defining cultural event in Houston," continues Mitchell. "Here you'll see an African guy with a soccer ball on his head standing next to a Tejano in a cowboy hat and a Yuppie in penny loafers and Bermuda shorts, all standing in front of the same stage, checking out Taj Mahal or whatever.
"Not only do we bring a nation or part of the world to Houston, we also show Houston to itself. This is who we are. The rodeo's cool. I went to see Johnny Bush at the rodeo. There's a part of me that embraces our cowboy heritage. But this is who we are now. We're not a bunch of cowboys — we're one of the most diverse international cities in the world."
Setting aside the Ronco gags, Mitchell is right. The rodeo represents a past that was never a reality. Houston was never a cowtown — before the coming of Big Oil, we were nothing more than a second-tier Dixie cotton port. No Tsu Oh, the early 20th Century bacchanalian revel from which Jim Pirtle's downtown spot takes its name, feted not steers but King Nottoc. (Read it backwards.)
The International Fest represents the future that already is real. We really are a world city; maybe second-tier, but a true world city.
But in contrast to more compact cities such as New York and San Francisco, it's sometimes hard to detect just how much of a world city Houston is. Our real Chinatown is ten miles from the center of the city, the West Africans are scattered around from Alief to Katy, the Indians and Pakistanis are clustered in Sugar Land, an international multitude of space and oil workers live in Clear Lake, there are Mexican and Central American pockets all over town...The list goes on and on: Koreans on Long Point, predominantly white enclave cities, historic black wards...Houston can seem less a crazy quilt of a city than a vast Jackson Pollack canvas. The International Fest is one of the only times all of it is compressed, in the same digestible field of view.
And as for the sounds...
This year's lineup is one of the best yet, especially on week two. Mitchell says the weak dollar has enticed fewer world music performers stateside this year, which explains why there are fewer of them than in some other years. Mitchell stresses, though, that this year's iFest is not a salute to Africa per se. "It's 'Out of Africa,' which means the African diaspora," he says. "Technically, it's from Africa to America and back again. Buddy Guy, the Wailers, Taj Mahal, the Neville Brothers — that is the theme. All black music in its incredible, wonderful variety. And not just black music by black artists — guys like Charlie Musselwhite and Sonny Landreth are great white blues artists."
In my view, it's not just that Mitchell is correct about the concept, but also that this year the little stuff and attention to detail promises to make up for any shortage of foreign music talent. Here are some of the highlights from week one as well as some of the performers that will be appearing both weeks. (We'll round up the other stuff next week in this space):
Saturday, April 19: Lovers of string-bands have a whole buffet to choose from. The Louisiana Stage features the Pelican State's finest Bill Monroe disciples in the Louisiana Purchase Bluegrass Band followed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, African-American thirtysomethings who are helping resurrect the long-dormant tradition of black Appalachian fiddle tunes. (Long ago, songs like "Little Sadie" and "Cluck Ol' Hen" were not the exclusive domain of mountain whites.) Cajun swing revivalists Red Stick Ramblers come next, followed by Parisian Gypsy jazz trio Samarabalouf. After their set, the Frenchmen will join forces with the Red Stick Ramblers for some transatlantic Django Reinhardt mayhem.
Local pan-African music group D.R.U.M. opens on the World Music Stage, followed by Austin/Valley cumbia monsters Grupo Fantasma, and fiery soul chanteuse Betty LaVette, with the alternatingly mesmerizing and maddening blues guitar legend Buddy Guy closing things down.
Between sets on the world stage throughout the festival, a collective of Houston-based international DJs put together by DJ Sun will be spinning records. "I wanted to keep the party going between bands," Mitchell says. "Instead of just shutting down between bands or playing intermission music that nobody is paying attention to, the DJs are gonna keep it going."
In addition to Suriname native DJ Sun, this posse includes Jamaican-born DJ Kool Emdee, Zambian-born DJ Josh Zulu, and Kenyan-born DJ Simiyu, each spinning, as they put it, "from the music of the Motherland to salsa, samba, reggae, soca, hip-hop, acid-jazz, neo-soul and classic R&B."
A similar albeit smaller and more Latin-based DJ collective will be spinning on the Latin Stage, where the first day's proceedings find South Texas's Mariachi Los Coyotes followed to the stage by Peruvian/Mexican rock band Triple and local vatos Flamin' Hellcats and Felipe Galvan y Los Skarnales.
In the iFest salutes to Ireland and France, replicas of (respectively) a pub and a cabaret were built to house more intimate performances. In keeping with the Out of Africa theme, this year's intimate space is a replica of the Cotton Club, and jazz is the music of choice.
"Jazz has never been the most popular part of what we do," Mitchell says. "It's hard for jazz to compete on a big stage outdoors when it's up against blues or zydeco or some other music designed for people to get up and dance to. This is a more intimate environment, plus it will have a more theatrical and historical element — it will be designed to resemble the legendary American speakeasy where African-American musicians performed for gangsters in Harlem."
Onstage over the four days of the festival local jazz musicians and singers such as Barrie Lee Hall, Leo Polk, Gloria Edwards, Diunna Greenleaf, Carolyn Blanchard and Nelson Mills will play tributes to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday. Day one features two sets each from the husband-and-wife team of Edwards (saluting Washington) and Mills (saluting Calloway).
On the Houston Stage, Saturday is blues day, with sets from Sonny Boy Terry, Little Joe Washington, Earl Gilliam, Zydeco Dots and D.R.U.M.
Sunday, April 20: What better way to celebrate 4-20 than with the Wailers, the Aston "Family Man" Barrett-led group of former Bob Marley sidemen and acolytes? The Wailers headline the World Music Stage, following the octave-leaping, bewitchingly voluptuous Haitian chanteuse Emmeline Michel (think the Haitian Lila Downs), who in turn is preceded by Terrance Semien's genre-flipping modern zydeco.
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Semien also bats lead-off on the Louisiana stage, where he is followed by young New Orleans jazz-funk-rock lion Trombone Shorty, who fuels epic jams of the sort favored by Galactic fans with fire from the trumpet as well as his namesake horn. The two closers on this stage — sweltering, percussive slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and cosmic harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite — might simply be the best in the world at playing blues and blues-based music on their respective instruments.
Diunna Greenleaf will present three tributes to Bessie Smith in the Cotton Club, while the Houston Stage features contemporary jazz, capped by a Houston Sax Summit featuring Kelly Dean, Kyle Turner, Mike Reed and Cameron Scott.
After another set from Mariachi Los Coyotes, Chango Jackson spin-off Yoko Mono, L.A./Juarez rockeros Pastilla and locals Cuervo round out the Latin Stage.
All that for a penny over 14.99 at the gate. Postage and handling not included, or necessary.