¡Viva México!

As with Mexican cooking, many non-Hispanic Texans have entirely the wrong idea about what Mexican music is. The same Anglos who think Mexican food is only hard-shell tacos and chicken fajitas seem to think Mexican music begins and ends with the stuff that's piped into restaurants where those delicacies are served. The stereotypical image: a bunch of guys in spangled suits and giant sombreros wailing out mariachi tunes, or a little combo centered around an accordionist cranking out jaunty polka-like conjunto.

The truth, about both the food and the music, is infinitely more complicated than that. Mexican music is a great stew of multiple ethnicities -- including both the dozens of tribes indigenous to the country and an equal number of African peoples brought in as slaves when Mexico was under Spanish rule. Echoes of the music of medieval Spain -- itself a melting pot once comprising Basques, Catalans, Gypsies, Galicians, Moors, Sephardic Jews and numerous regional variations of plain "Spaniards" -- can also still be heard there, as can sounds from south of the Mexican border (like cumbia) and north (hip-hop and rock).

Especially in Texas and in the north and west of Mexico, the music is often a synthesis of native Mexican and German sounds, the product of Bavarian and Bohemian immigrants flocking to Mexico during the 19th century with dreams of hooking the country on accordions, brass bands and beer. All you need to do is knock back a Dos Equis or Bohemia while listening to a little extreme oompah banda or rollicking norteño music to know that their dreams came true.

You won't find any banda at I-Fest, but you will find just about everything else. "We're presenting the most in-depth presentation of Mexican music and culture that has ever been presented under one umbrella," claims I-Fest booking agent Susan Criner.

"Certainly in Houston, and maybe anywhere," agrees Rick Mitchell, the organization's talent scout. "If you look at the range of stuff over the four days, I know there's never been anything done like this here before."

In Houston, we absorb norteño music by osmosis, and acts like Duelo (the youngsters) and Los Cardenales (the veterans) are likely to sound pretty familiar. We're also no strangers to many of the Mexican-American acts on the bill. Locals include rock en español pioneers the Basics (who are reuniting for this event), the mariachi band Los Gallitos, cumbia bandleader Fito Olivarez and the young 22-piece band Caliente. The absence of Los Skarnales is somewhat puzzling; they would have rounded out the bill nicely.

It's also a shame that Austin's Grupo Fantasma isn't playing, but the capital city's thriving Latin scene is represented by horn-heavy Latin funkers La Tribu, Joel Guzman's retro Mexican Roots Trio and rock from the old school (Los Lonely Boys) to the new (Vallejo). Flamenco-rockers Del Castillo are led by guitarists Rick and Mark Del Castillo, each of whom is talented enough to make you cuss out loud involuntarily. This band is currently the toast of Austin -- they won seven Austin Music Awards this year, and if you think flamenco-rock begins and ends with the Gipsy Kings, you're in for a big surprise. The unofficial capital of Mexican-America -- East L.A. -- also chimes in with a couple of bands: Los Lobos and Quetzal.

According to Criner, Los Lobos is the linchpin of the fest. "Even though they are not from Mexico, Los Lobos was the one band we felt we had to have," she says. "They sort of represent everything we want this festival to be."

Indeed, outside of Santana, who has enjoyed greater chart success, and with apologies to Ritchie Valens, who perished young on the day the music died, no act has ever done more than Los Lobos to champion the Mexican-American experience in music. Their recording of "La Bamba" resurrected Valens, their earliest albums on Slash brought conjunto and norteño to wider audiences, and their landmark 1988 album, La Pistola y el Corazón, managed in a mere 25 minutes of run time to expose whole new universes of Mexican folk styles to the savvy few norteamericanos who picked it up. There were those of us -- this writer included -- then who had never heard a merry huapango or a propulsive son jarocho before, and we might still be missing out were it not for La Pistola.

So it's partly because of Los Lobos that the son jarocho band Mono Blanco is on the I-Fest bill. From the Gulf Coast Mexican state of Veracruz, Mono Blanco's son jarocho is very much like the African-infused son of Cuba in its multiple layers of native stringed instruments, danceability and call-and-response vocals.

Los Lobos has also helped foster the ongoing Chicano renaissance in East L.A., and one of the foremost ambassadors of the sound of that rebirth is Quetzal, a collective of men and women who cook up a blistering mix of traditional Mexican, Afro-Caribbean, jazz and hip-hop that's so funky, as one reviewer wrote of their 2002 album, Sing the Real, that "you can practically hear the afros growing."

Half-American/half-Mixtec Indian singer Lila Downs offers the one can't-miss set in a fest packed with great music. Downs combines a thorough knowledge of the traditions of North, South and Central America with a great band (with members from the United States, Mexico, Argentina and Paraguay) and a multi-octave, operatically trained voice that is as versatile as it is richly expressive. On her wonderful 2001 release, La Linea, Downs ranges from a hilarious Mayan cumbia ("The day will come when I will leave you," runs the translation from the original Mayan, "because you smell like an armadillo"), to Woody Guthrie adaptations, to salutes to migrant workers stateside and the women in maquiladoras across the line.

"She may be the most unique of the Mexican acts we have, because she's got that Indian background and the jazz element and that style of singing called nueva canción with the more political and socially conscious lyrics," says Mitchell.

Also on the bill are two Mexican rock bands that are heavily influenced by ska and punk. Café Tacuba is the poppier of the two, while Maldita Vencidad offers up a harder-rocking style. At the other extreme of the musical spectrum is Cuarteto Latinoamericano, a Mexico City-based classical string quartet with a Houston connection. (Alvaro Bitran, one of the three brothers in the group, calls The Woodlands home when he's not touring the world.) Mitchell loosely likens them to a Latin Kronos Quartet, while The Washington Post calls them "matchless in tonal magnitude, tuneful fluency and concentrated teamwork."

And in keeping with a relatively new I-Fest tradition, the main stages will be augmented by more intimate venues. Frida's Cantina is this year's model -- a Mexican bar studded with Frida Kahlo look-alikes.

"A couple of years ago when Brazil was the spotlight country we had Carmen Miranda look-alikes," says Criner. "So this year we're gonna have some Fridas. I'm not organizing that, but I'm very interested to see it." (Male and female faux Fridas are invited…)

Of the non-Mexican artists on the bill, the highlight is Nigerian Afropop saxophonist Lagbája, who intrigues with both his music and his politics. In Yoruba, "Lagbája" translates as "somebody, anybody, nobody in particular," and the Lagos-based performer wears a mask on stage to symbolize the facelessness of third-world denizens. In Nigeria, the jury is out on the question of Fela Kuti's true successor as the king of Afropop in that country -- is it Kuti's son Femi, or Lagbája? As for Mitchell, he thinks Lagbája could be the hit of the fest. "I think that if African-Americans check him out they will find he has tremendous crossover appeal," he says. "There's a lot of hip-hop and R&B in his sound mixed with juju and elements of Yoruba culture."

As it has too often in the past, world politics intruded on this I-Fest. Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil had to cancel his tour when he was selected to be his country's minister of culture.

Other cancellations were brought about by sadder causes. Senegalese Afropop star Youssou N'Dour canceled his U.S. tour in protest of the American invasion of Iraq. That's understandable -- he comes from a predominantly Muslim nation.

What's really maddening is that we got cheated out of another band by the grandstanding of a Louisiana politician. For many of the bands, Houston's I-Fest is part of a circuit that also includes the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette. Such was the case for Kassav, pioneers of the lively Caribbean music called zouk. While the group's members are natives of the island of Guadeloupe, they live in Paris. When Louisiana governor Mike Foster told French president Jacques Chirac he "would not be welcome" at a re-enactment of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in New Orleans this December, Kassav pulled out of the Louisiana festival (and the rest of its tour) in solidarity.

Controversies and cancellations aside, this year's I-Fest promises to be as educational and entertaining musically as a trip to Hugo's is gastronomically.The Houston International Festival will take place at various downtown stages on Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27, and May 3 and 4. For schedules and tickets, go to www.ifest.org or call 713-654-8808.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax