Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Festival Internationale—funky, free regional alternative

By Donald Frazier

As the best-kept secret in Louisiana music, the Festival Internationale has presented music of southern Louisiana and the rest of the French-speaking world for the last 22 years to a loyal local audience, plus an increasing number of fans who make the 135-mile drive from the more famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on the same weekend.

The year’s event, taking place April 23-27 in downtown Lafayette LA, marks a well-rounded Louisiana-based program, with headliners such as slide guitar bluesman and local hero Sonny Landreth, The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Horns, Geno Delafose and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Others include The Duhks, Burning Spear, Terrence Simien & The Zydeco Experience, Yerba Buena, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstahunk, hailed by The New York Times as “the best funk band from New Orleans,” and a score of other acts from a music-rich local region offering zydeco, blues, and even the more electric kind of Cajun.

What you won’t hear is the strong focus on the Francophone world of previous years. Word-class French-speaking superstars such as Salif Keita (Mali), Baaba Maal (Senegal), Boukman Experyans (Haiti), Angelique Kidjo (Benin), Kanda Bongo Man (Congo) and Ali Farka Toure (Mali) made this event a unique annual must-see for the burgeoning world music crowd in the 1990s. But civil war in Zaire (now Congo) plus post-9/11 travel restrictions reduced the trans-Atlantic traffic to a trickle.

The program still has decent representation from Africa and the French West Indies, if not of the same level. Guitarist Habib Koite, one of the most accessible of Mali’s musicians, heads up an African contingent with lesser known entries from Niger and Togo. Among Caribbean performers, the program includes Cuba’s Javier Garcia and acts from Martinique, Jamaica and Belize.

What the Festival Internationale does not have in African music it makes up in street-party vibe. Most of downtown Lafayette is blocked off for the festival with its four main stages, food courts, and a much better than usual retail pavilion with a strong selection of funky world-beat gear. A number of arts organizations conduct exhibits, erect street art, and perform street theater. The food – this is Louisiana – is anywhere from pretty good to downright memorable, and mostly quite cheap. Much drinking on the street, with no designated stumbler required. As the high point of the season in a sleepy Southern town, this festival draws locals quite heavily, diluted only when students from Louisiana State University in nearby Baton Rouge flood in starting Friday afternoon.

In an era of increasingly corporate musical events, this one is friendly, community-based and unlikely to ever become part of a national circuit. As such, it can be somewhat ragged around the edges, but there's a big upside. While JazzFest becomes more and more of a mainstream, pop-flavored event, the Festival Internationale will always retain a vibrant regional identity.

And did we point out – it is entirely free.

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