Sacré Bleu Bayou!

To look at retail stacks or Amazon.com, the selection of France as the Houston International Festival's spotlighted nation seems an odd choice. While record stores devote entire sections to Afro-pop, reggae, Celtic music and myriad Latin offerings, it's hard to find much with an obvious French connection beyond the usual suspects: Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg and their fellow practitioners of the French singer-songwriter tradition.

Yet France more than holds its own on the world music stage. Paris, in fact, long ago established itself as the international music capital of the world, a sanctuary for musicians from other lands whose work is either underappreciated or under attack. The city has long been home to American blues and jazz greats, African superstars, Latin expats and others seeking both artistic and commercial acceptance. And with so many styles and sounds circulating about, Paris also has been the breeding ground for countless unique hybrids that have expanded the global repertoire at an unprecedented rate. Much like the Foreign Legion and the ethnic mélange that was the 2000 World Cup Champion French soccer team, French bands that combine players from multiple nations are the norm.

Paris Combo embraces this multiculti movement while remaining distinctly French. Fronted by sultry chanteuse Belle du Berry, who emotes with the passion and flair of Piaf and also pens all the band's songs, the group emerged from the cabaret revival of the 1980s to become one of France's premier musical exports. Anchored by the skilled guitar work of Potzi, trumpeter David Lewis (who played with Afro-pop heavyweight Manu Dibango), bassist Mano Razanajato from Madagascar and drummer-crooner François-François, Paris Combo captures the theatrical magic of French cabaret, embellished with touches of jazz, gypsy swing and Latin rhythm.


The Houston International Festival

April 20, 21, 27 and 28 at various locations downtown. Parking is available in Theater District lots. Advance tickets are available at HEB stores. For more information, call 713-654-8808. For performance schedules, visit www.hif.org.

That gypsy sound, institutionalized by the legendary Django Reinhardt and his Hot Club bands in the 1930s, continues to thrive in the hands of its modern practitioners, two of whom make I-Fest appearances. Guitarist Bireli Lagrene comes from a family of noted gypsy musicians (he still lives in a caravan) and recorded his first album, a Django homage, at age 13. Like a French version of child bluegrass prodigy Mark O'Connor, Lagrene has evolved well beyond those roots in the intervening two decades. Having journeyed through several jazz fusion phases, he now mixes Brazilian, rock and bebop influences with his Djangoesque swing. Lagrene's jaw-dropping technique makes cake of his forays into seemingly incompatible realms.

More loyal to the original Hot Club sound, Latcho Drom ("Have a Good Journey") is led by guitarist Christophe Lartilleux. Like Lagrene, Lartilleux has impeccable Romany street cred: He was raised in a traveling circus run by gypsy performers and musicians. Violinist Florin Niculescu (who also has played with Lagrene) handles the Stephane Grappelli role with aplomb, exchanging stratospheric solos with the guitar as bass and rhythm guitar provide the texture. More than half a century later, gypsy swing has lost none of its zip. Not merely a Hot Club reincarnation, Latcho Drom nevertheless knows better than to mess too much with a good thing.

Sergent García also calls France home. But this is a Latin band at its core, and borrows more from the explosion of sounds found in the ethnic enclaves of Paris than any French cultural traditions. The band was founded by Bruno García (a.k.a. Sergent), an icon of the alternative French rock scene that flourished in the 1980s and early '90s. García moved restlessly from proto-punk through reggae, Cuban music and hip-hop, before a hastily arranged gig led him to form Sergent García. What's not surprising, the band alchemizes these incarnations into a solid, badass amalgam. Peppered with dance-hall phrasing -- Bruno's commanding, somewhat crazed lead vocals leave no room for argument -- the lyrics speak of the immigrant experience and other politically charged topics even as they urge the crowd to party hard. The band is big: Multiple vocalists join the chorus in Spanish as guitar and synthesizer punch out a reggae beat; a mighty horn section and dual percussionists punctuate the straight-ahead salsa breaks, shipped directly from Havana.

Not all traditional sounds at the 2002 International Festival serve simply to underpin fresh takes on old themes. Despite her travels, Colombian singer and dancer Toto La Momposina rarely ventures far from her musical roots, which begin at her birthplace on the Magdalena River in the Andes and descend to the musically fertile Caribbean coast, where Colombia's native, African and Latin cultures converge. Born into a musical family spanning five generations, Toto seemed genetically predestined to perform. She spent years combing the Colombian hinterland for songs and regional styles, eventually mastering dozens of subtle variations. Seeking to mature as an artist and broaden her horizons, Toto based herself -- where else? -- in Paris for four years, studying dance at the Sorbonne and touring Europe. Later, a stint in Cuba capped her absorptions. Her multipiece band moves fluidly from an up-tempo urban-flavored cumbia with horns and flutes to a more tribal, percussion-only accompaniment. Toto's riveting vocals, and occasional dance steps, superglue the mix.

Every I-Fest has its renowned headliners -- and its unexpected marvels. Rajery from Madagascar, master of the valiha, may provide the biggest surprise. A tubular harp made from a large bamboo stalk strung with bicycle cable, the valiha defines the light, plucked quality of Malagasy music. That Rajery is one of the instrument's leading proponents is extraordinary, since valiha virtuosity depends on exceptional dexterity -- and, shades of Django, he has only one functioning hand. Following the lead of bands like Tarika, which helped modernize the traditional music of Madagascar, Rajery adds guitar and flute to a lineup of traditional instruments. Lush rain-forest harmonies supplement every composition.

Two other African bands taking the World Music Stage for the first time have the potential to establish themselves in the perennial favorite class. After years of success in Zimbabwe as a musician, producer and actor, singer/guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi ("Tuku," for short) has finally achieved acclaim beyond the borders of his homeland. Carrying the torch lit by chimurenga pioneer Thomas Mapfumo (with whom he briefly played in the late 1970s), Mtukudzi is both a musical and political force, unifying a nation torn by internal strife, rampant alcoholism and the AIDS epidemic. With his band Black Spirits, Tuku performs a proud and joyful collection of Ndebele- and Shona-language songs that are reminiscent of the South African ghetto music that sustained the masses under apartheid -- the embodiment of the indomitable human spirit. For a preview, catch the band April 22 on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Cheikh Lô labored in Senegal as a backup musician and producer (with a brief sojourn -- naturally -- in France) until his famed countryman Youssou N'Dour heard a demo tape and brought Lô into the studio. A drummer and guitarist as well as an accomplished vocalist, he knows how to put just a few pieces together and maximize the return; a horn blast, a sustained keyboard chord, an acoustic guitar riff, beats of the talking drum. Constructed around a foundation of Senegalese percussion, his compositions and lyrics echo his deep spiritual commitment to Islam. Those of you who don't speak Wolof, however, might think the dreadlocked Lô is just another fabulous, funkified African soul singer on a mission.

And whether or not you speak French, this should be un enfer of a festival.

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