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We are the world
Jim Austin wants to make Houston America's world music capital.

[ 10:00 a.m. PDT- 04/20/99 ]

HOUSTON | "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), Café 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 Eksperyans.
-- Banning Eyre

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