iFest: This Is Our Party

This weekend, Noise will finally become a true Houstonian. Despite growing up in Friendswood and living here the past 21 months, it will be the very first time he attends the Houston International Festival, or iFest, if you really want to sound in the know. Truthfully, he didn't even know all that much about it until recently.

Both an education- and entertainment-oriented event, iFest has been around in some form since 1971, when it was a modest downtown street festival between Dallas and McKinney known as "Main Street 1." It bounced between the Hermann Park/Museum District area and various downtown locations (Jones Plaza, Market Square, Sam Houston Park), and adopted its format of one "spotlight" nation or theme in 1988. Australia was the first; this year's is Ireland, the fourth repeat choice after France, Mexico and China.

iFest nearly became extinct a few years ago when heavy construction downtown and jousting with City Hall over various fees forced the 2004 edition from downtown to Reliant Park, which — thanks to a location that was more parking lot than "Festival Plaza," and three out of four days of rain — was an unmitigated disaster. It promptly moved back downtown, and this year will encompass a sprawling area roughly bordered by I-45/Bagby (west), Capitol (north), Smith (east) and Dallas (south) — see www.ifest.org for, among many other things, parking and street closure info.

Noise toyed with going to iFest a couple of times during high school, but usually spent Saturdays and Sundays checking groceries at Randalls. From 1994 to 2007, even if he happened to be home from Austin on an iFest weekend, laundry took precedence over everything else. Last year's festival fell shortly after he was laid off from the Houston Press, so he wasn't exactly in the mood.

This year, Noise is out of excuses, but going to iFest is also pretty much part of his job description — please visit blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks Monday for plenty of iFest photos, reviews and other coverage. Say he weren't obligated to cover it, though. Why should Noise or any other iFest virgin consider plunking down $15 per day for the festival? Well, besides the dirt-cheap ticket prices?

The task of hawking iFest to newbies such as Noise falls to Rick Mitchell, the former Houston Chronicle music critic who has been the festival's education director and performing arts coordinator since 2007. Okay, Rick, the floor is yours:

"First, there are 12 stages running essentially concurrently throughout the day from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday and 9 p.m. on Sunday," he begins. "There are four headline music stages: the World Stage, Louisiana Stage, Texas Stage and Center Stage. The World Stage features a combination of roots/Americana American headliners [Mavis Staples, Ohio Players] and World Music [Puerto Rico's Plena Libre, Jamaica's Wailing Souls].

"The Louisiana Stage, as you would expect, features predominantly Louisiana artists — zydeco, Cajun, blues, New Orleans funk and jazz," he continues. "The Texas Stage features an incredibly broad range of indigenous Texas styles: country, blues, gospel, different [styles] of Hispanic music, singer-songwriter. And then Center Stage is where the Irish headliners [young traditionalists Beoga, Scottish chanteuse Julie Fowlis] will perform — a lot of them will be early in the day on the World Stage and then closing on Center Stage.

"There are also four stages exclusively devoted to Irish and Celtic music," Mitchell adds. "Center Stage; the McGonigel's Mucky Duck Pub stage; the HEB Cultural Stage, which will feature quieter acoustic music, Celtic fashion and Irish dancing — the dancers will explain the origins of their costumes — and cooking demonstrations; and then the Gaelic Stage in the heart of the Living Museum, which will also feature dance and acoustic-oriented music under an open sky. The idea there is to have kind of a rustic country-type environment."

Besides all the Irish and Celtic activity — though one thing Mitchell says not to expect, thank God, is green beer — iFest perennials such as the Houston Stage (sponsored by a certain other local publication) and Latin Stage (with Los Pistoleros de Tejas and Mariachi Los Arrieros, among other) will return. New is the African/Caribbean performance zone, with African drumming and Caribbean steel-drum bands, and more dancers, albeit dressed a mite differently than their Celtic counterparts.

Sounds like a lot to take in. And when Mitchell starts tossing around words like "Living Museum," it also sounds like people who go might actually (gasp) learn something besides, as at other festivals, what happens when you start drinking too early and spend all day outdoors. In fact, iFest is structured as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and produces an annual curriculum guide distributed to area classrooms — this year's is, of course, Irish culture — but Mitchell insists iFest's educational and entertainment aspects aren't mutually exclusive, that there's room for families who honestly do want to learn about Irish dance or cooking (?!) and the hooligans who just want to get trashed while Blaggards are playing one of six times over iFest's two weekends.

"I think that's the reason it works," he says. "We aren't New Orleans, we aren't Austin — we're a working city in a lot of ways, and what we've been able to do is present out-of-the-mainstream performances in a very mainstream, family-friendly context.

"It fits Houston in that way," he continues. "We're never going to get the tourists they get in New Orleans. We love tourists, but we estimate we get about 20 percent of our audience from outside the four-county [Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend, Galveston] area. But they're not flying in from New York like they do to JazzFest — those are people coming over from Austin or San Antonio or Beaumont."

iFest doesn't have the same national profile as JazzFest or Austin City Limits, but when Mitchell starts throwing around attendance figures, it sounds like it doesn't need to. If the weather works out both weekends — and he's quick to point out that it usually doesn't — Mitchell says iFest could have as many as 200,000 to 250,000 visitors. That's about the same number ACL draws, albeit with one fewer day.

But because Houston is already such a hodgepodge of cultures, Mitchell says iFest-goers are likely to watch a Nigerian group alongside actual Nigerians, or a Latino band amidst actual Latinos, rather than a bunch of white hippies-in-training like at ACL. (Noise figures there may be a few of those at iFest too, though.)

"This is our party," he says. "The Houston International Festival is embraced by Houstonians as the one time when we can all come together and rub shoulders. You'll see a Nigerian guy with a soccer ball on his head standing next to a Tejano guy in a cowboy hat standing next to a yuppie in madras shorts and penny loafers standing next to somebody from India or Vietnam.

"It reflects our reality — first off, for the diversity that is native to Texas with white and black and Hispanic, and then with the international element added onto that with people from all over the world," he adds. "That's what our festival celebrates.

"Are you convinced yet?"

Indeed. At this point, that's a rhetorical question if Noise has ever heard one.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray