Saturday: iFest in Downtown Houston -- War, Bombino & More
It's hard to know what to experience first at iFest. Long before you reach the gates, the smell of a tremendous variety of meats and vegetables being smoked, grilled and fried fairly carries you inside, and the mingled strains of a dozen genres of music, both live and recorded, waft from every direction.
It's a fitting, disorienting introduction to Houston's annual downtown celebration of cultural eclecticism.
My first stop at the fest was the Bud Light World Music Stage in Sam Houston Park, an open, manicured oasis in the shadow of the Gulf Freeway. The sun was hot and bright on Saturday, but a persistent breeze turned the park's shady spots into cool, pleasant places for couples and families to stretch out on the grass.
The first act of the day that I caught turned out to be the most interesting. Bombino is a young singer and guitarist from Niger, and the spirit of his desert homeland loomed large during his afternoon performance.
The songwriter began his set on acoustic guitar accompanied by a Fender electric and traditional drums, including a djembe and a strange gourd-like bass drum I'd never seen before. Pounded with the heel of the hand, it functioned like an ancient stomp box, propelling the music along.
A crowd watches the Carnival guitar duo on the H-E-B Cultural Stage.
Bombino showed off some nifty finger-plucking on exotic tunes rife with blue notes. It was a neat illustration of just how far and wide the influence of the blues has traveled in the past 100 years or so, but you definitely won't be hearing these acoustic licks over at Shakespeare's Pub anytime soon. The crowd grew as he played, drawn in by the hypnotic rhythms of the hand drums.
After about 30 minutes of captivating acoustic Bedouin blues, Bombino turned up the volume considerably. The guitarist plugged in, and his band ditched the hide skins for more conventional rock instrumentation.
Turns out Bombino has studied his Jimi Hendrix discography as thoroughly as any American teenager, and the electrified power that exploded from his band's amps was made all the more impressive by its juxtaposition with the acoustic stuff. Maybe this guy could fit in at Shakespeare's after all.
The only problem with the breadth of music on display at iFest is the impossibility of seeing it all. I tore myself away from Bombino's electric set to catch the Carnival Guitar Duo at the HEB Cultural Stage, but they were packing up by the time I made it over there. Instead, I moseyed over to the 29-95.com stage on the steps of City Hall to take in the end of Dharma's performance.
As I walked up, Harry Sheppard was in the middle of a pretty great vibraphone solo. Cold beer and a divine breeze had the assembled music lovers in the best of moods as his four mallets danced across the keyboard.
When Sheppard's set with flautist Bob Chadwick wrapped up, I did a little wandering. On the midway set up down Walker Street, live pan flutes at one booth mixed with Caribbean hip-hop blaring from one a few tents down. As I rounded a corner, both dissolved in the thump of Chicago blues playing over a PA system. Not exactly an everyday experience, no matter where you come from.