"This festival used to be lily white," says Jim Austin, the almost evangelical organizer of the Houston International
Festival. "Now look at it," he says, gesturing toward a rainbow-colored Texas crowd swaying in the sun to funky Afropop by Benin's Angelique Kidjo.
Austin wants to market world music -- especially African music -- to the general public in Houston. At the center of his 12-year effort is the festival, one of the
largest world music fests in the States. This is not a marquee-driven festival, Austin says, where people show up to see
one or two performers they already know. The event
itself is the draw.
Austin uses targeted radio and television partnerships to attract key ethnic constituencies. Once they arrive, Austin and his team make sure
that all the guests get to hear the kind of music they came to hear and eat the kind of food they like to eat. Along the way, they get the unexpected experience of Oumou Sangare's sultry Malian roots blues or Samba Ngo's Congolese funk music
Around the four-block area, music from seven main stages smolders together like the ingredients of an extra spicy barbecue sauce. Saturday, April 17, the first day of the two-weekend fest, climaxed with a soulful set from Thomas Mapfumo and the 12-strong Blacks Unlimited from Zimbabwe.
Mapfumo was voted "Artist of the Year" at the third annual American World Music Awards, a relatively new spin-off of
the festival, and the prize was announced mid-set. Facing the gleaming towers of downtown Houston, the dreadlocked
Mapfumo -- who spoke out against Rhodesian oppression 20 years ago and has attempted to dignify the religion of his ancestors ever since --
held up his award, smiled at the applause and
then led his band back into a deep set of traditional Shona pop.
It's too early to say how much clout the American World Music Awards will ultimately gain, but it is of note that the first serious awards program (the token recognition at the Grammys hardly counts) to critically evaluate this
amorphous area of music is not coming from New York or Los Angeles -- where most of the recording industry is located, and
where there are more diverse international populations. It's because of Austin's vision -- his faith in the music, his belief that recognizing great artists will help mainstream them -- that that the awards program is located in Houston.
Other artists honored this year include King Sunny Ade (Lifetime Achievement), Ernest Ranglin (Best Instrumental Group), Cafi Tacuba (Best Vocal Group) and Waldemar Bastos (Best Emerging Artist). The Houston International Festival resumes next weekend with Jerry Jeff Walker, Hugh Masekela, Lucinda Williams, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Abdullah Ibrahim, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Boukman