Sunday: iFest in Downtown Houston -- Seun Kuti, Texas Tornados & More

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Photos by Marco Torres
Texas Tornados' Shawn Sahm
Houston International Festival
Downtown Houston
April 29, 2012

See lots more on iFest's second weekend in our slideshows of the bands, the crowds and the arts & culture.

I like iFest. I'm glad it's here. It's not the kind of thing I'd like to go to every weekend, but once a year is about perfect.

One of the most interesting things about the festival is the way it's set up, as a nonprofit venture instead of a commercial enterprise. Besides keeping ticket prices down, that keeps corporate sponsors at bay, and you don't appreciate that until you see somebody's product shoved in your face at every turn or their logo slapped on every goddamn available surface (see: SXSW).

It also forces iFest to be creative with the talent they book. Although it begs the question of where they might put such an artist were they able to snag a top-drawer talent like Bruce Springsteen -- or even the relatively obscure Manu Chao, who has been on their wish list for years, would be a perfect fit and is at least in theory a little more affordable than the Boss -- iFest's limited talent budget means it has to rely on a combination of ringers who must get dropped into their lap by Buddha or Allah, and an array of dependable regional draws for whom familiarity breeds contentment rather than contempt.

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Seun Kuti
And most of the time it works, believe it or not. One of the coolest things about iFest is that it's supposed to be educational, and actually is. It really does turn people on to new music. Like, I doubt that many people specifically came out Sunday to see Washington, D.C. reggae group SOJA, but all afternoon long, I kept seeing people wearing their T-shirts.

Young people, too -- people who aren't even old enough to smoke pot, let alone listen to reggae. (Yes, that was a joke.) By the way, have you noticed how many touring reggae bands come through Houston? Decent touring reggae bands? Not. Many.

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One of Egypt 80's backup singer/dancers
Well, we got one Sunday. It would have been so, so easy for SOJA to be another group of white dudes in copious dreadlocks ("doo doo dreads," one humorous iTunes commenter said, when I looked up their new album, Strength to Survive) playing terrible versions of Sublime songs in between kicking around the hacky sack.

Instead they turned out to be a solid traditional roots-reggae band -- the hottest in the country, supposedly -- that were socially conscious, emotionally sensitive (lots of love songs) and environmentally aware. And, you know, not a complete snooze. SOJA incorporated bongos, squelchy synths and some fuzzy psychedelic guitar to give their rock-steady rhythms a different color besides green.

You already read about what a party War threw Saturday night. I don't think I've ever seen a blast of African-tempered funk like Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 threw down. Granted, the son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti did spend ten minutes singing about pot on "The Good Leaf" -- longer than even the most clichéd reggae band would do -- but he explained it fairly well: Marijuana is a force of nature just like an earthquake or tsunami, he said -- those things aren't illegal, so why should pot be? Write your congressman.

The real force of nature was Kuti's ten-piece orchestra, although I probably left out a couple of horn players in there somehwere. There was a gourd, wood block, two guitars, a bass, drummer, percussion, at least three horns and two female singer/dancers who helped Kuti strip off his shirt after a couple of songs in the Nigeria-like Houston humidity (to the delight of many in the crowd).

Together they created such a tidal wave of sound even Kuti himself could barely control it, contorting his body to and fro like he was tossed by a hurricane-force breeze. Really, he was.

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