World Beat: The Music of iFest

Fatoumata Diawara
Photo courtesy of Houston International Festival

No matter what language you use to say it (Portuguese is the official tongue this year), it's party time downtown for the next two weekends as the Houston International Festival takes over the streets around City Hall and Sam Houston Park with a sensory overload of exotic sights and sounds.

Now in its 43rd year, iFest more than lives up to its name by offering a democratically diverse and geographically sprawling assortment of music, some coming with the promise of familiarity but much more often accompanied by the excitement of discovery.

Luckily, Bootsy Collins's timeless space-age funk will close the first Saturday, because it's hard to imagine another act who could follow the show-stopping spectacle of Bootzilla in full flight. Seeing the P-Funk/James Brown veteran in broad daylight is a rare treat, and his furious funk should register significant seismic activity before Bootsy's set is over.

Brother Aaron Neville, a Crescent City icon who's currently stepping away from the first family of New Orleans R&B to resume his solo career, released the delicious doo-wop album My True Story earlier this year. Neville will probably dig deep into his doo-wop repertoire this weekend, but it's a money-back guarantee he'll also perform his stunning rendition of "Tell It Like It Is," a song worth the price of admission all by itself.

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With dazzling multi-instrumental virtuosity and an omnivorous musical appetite for experimentation, Los Lobos have embellished the musical tradition of their native East L.A. for decades while remaining eminently entertaining, especially live. The Wailers, Jamaica's quintessential musical group, fill iFest's annual high-profile reggae slot. Still going strong three decades after Bob Marley's death, this band was the first reggae group most people heard, and has an unrivaled repertoire of riddim classics to draw upon live.

Major attractions this year yet to be mentioned include Boulder, Colorado's "polyethnic" folk-flavored jam band Leftover Salmon, veteran Austin guitarist David Grissom and Austin's high-energy 21st-century Tex-Mex big band Grupo Fantasma, here engaged in an unofficial battle of the bands with San Antonio compadres Bombasta.

Also noteworthy are stylishly gritty British R&B unit the James Hunter Six, New Orleans's kick-ass hip-hop brass aggregation the Stooges Brass Band, hometown blues stalwarts Luther & the Healers and France's Sergent Garcia, whose "salsa muffin music" mixes Latin grooves and Jamaican dancehall riddims.

But Brazilian music and culture is the centerpiece of the festival, and will be well-represented by a cross section of educational and entertainment activities; everything from samba-dance demonstrations to colorful Carnaval parades and exhibitions of capoeira, the country's dance-inspired exercise regimen.

Contemporary Brazilian music appears in the form of hitmaker Diogo Nogueira, a 2010 Latin Grammy winner who will play two shows on the iFest grounds. Nogueira specializes in the more relaxed, romantic slow-jam samba known as cançao, which is immensely popular in Brazil but relatively unknown elsewhere.

Flautist/composer Jovino Santos Neto, who has worked with Brazilian stars Hermeto Pascoal and Flora Purim, will also perform two sets; his pairing with former Houston vocalist Kellye Gray looks to be iFest's jazziest segment this year. A couple of Austinites, the guitar-driven Crying Monkeys and folkloric group Seu Jacinto, offer creative yet credible expressions of Brazilian music, while Houston is represented by acts such as Samba Soul and Lois Albez.

But Brazilian music is more than just samba and bossa nova — for example, there's forro music, the style based in northeastern Brazilian culture and imported to iFest by New York's Forro in the Dark and California accordionist Rob Curto's Forro Matuto. Then there's Santa Cruz's rambunctious ­SambaDa, which boisterously bonds samba and reggae with a little surf-rock thrown in for good measure.

Although iFest focuses on a specific country each year, the musical spotlight is easily bright enough to shine on other nationalities. Last year Argentina was the featured country, but the single hottest set was a blistering, horn-powered Afrobeat rhythm riot from Nigerian dynastic star Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80. In similar fashion, the most satisfying international sets this year may well come from a couple of African acts who offer an intriguing contrast in age, gender and style.

Oliver Mtukudzi, with more than five dozen albums and multiple world tours to his credit, is one of African music's superstars. He began performing in his native Zimbabwe in 1977 in a group also featuring fiery protest figure Thomas Mapfumo. "Tuku," as he is known to his legions of international fans, was a success almost from the start. His personable stage presence and the relentless energy of his blend of Zimbabwe pop stylings — infused with a generous helping of sparkling South African township jive — communicate directly to audiences worldwide. Although rarely regarded as a political activist, the singer/songwriter/guitarist has consistently addressed significant social issues throughout his career, but has never let his message overpower the inherent joy of his music.

Fatoumata Diawara, 30 years younger than Mtukudzi, didn't record her first album until 2011, but has rapidly moved to the forefront of the African music scene. Born in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to Malian parents, she moved to France for an acting career and became involved in both theater and film. But making her own music soon overshadowed Diawara's other artistic endeavors as she began playing guitar and composing songs. Her distinctive voice and musical persona led to recording with a wide array of established singers, including jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater, fellow Malian vocalist Oumou Sangaré and soul legend Bobby Womack.

Diawara, who will be coming to iFest directly from a Mexico City concert date, is playing only a dozen American cities on this tour before returning to the States to perform at Bonnaroo in June. Her appearance in Houston embodies the meaning and mandate of iFest at its best: offering Houston fans an opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of the world's brightest international acts without having to leave the city limits to do so.

The Houston International Festival takes place April 20-21 and 27-28 on the streets around Houston City Hall, 901 Bagby. See for a complete schedule of iFest's music and other ­activities.

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