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S. A. Life


Houston festival celebrates cultural diversity

Web Posted: 04/26/2007 11:14 PM CDT

Aïssatou Sidimé

HOUSTON — Looking for an even more culturally diverse alternative to Fiesta 2007?

The Houston International Festival, called iFest, offers a wealth of music, dance and spicy foods from the Caribbean, Africa, Louisiana and Asia, on Saturday and Sunday.

More than 500 artists will exhibit handcrafts and clothing from around the world. Their booths link seven cultural entertainment zones: China, Africa-Caribbean, International, Texas/Latin, Louisiana, Jamaica and the activity-laden Target Kids section.

It is a far cry from the festival's origins as "Main Street Art Happening" that almost died after a major production in 1986 nearly bankrupted the agency.

Organizers regrouped and decided to focus on what makes Houston unique: the growing internationalization due to oil, gas and medical professions. In 1988, the first iFest debuted featuring one specific country.

Nineteen years later the festival is still going strong, and Houston has 50,000 Nigerians, 300,000 Chinese and Chinese Americans, and 150,000 Indians and Indian Americans.

"It's worked so well because it celebrates them," said Jim Austin, president of the Houston Festival Foundation Inc., the nonprofit organization that produces iFest.

Last week's kickoff of this 36-year-old event filled downtown Houston with, among other events, the funk of George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic and the pounding sounds of West Africa's first female master drummer troupe, Amazones Women Master Drummers of Guinea.

This weekend's iFest will feature conjunto by Los Texmaniacs, the contemporary zydeco of Corey Ledet and His Zydeco Band, some hip-swaying dancehall by Yellow Man and The Sagittarius Band, and other performances.

For the second time in 10 years, China is the featured country. But this time the organizers incorporated entertainers from the local Chinese community in Houston.

Based on experiences at festivals in the South of France, Edinburg and Australia, they also added a large visual display — in this case a 120-foot replica of the Great Wall of China. Visitors can stroll the winding wall as they read bits of Chinese history and pose in front of massive "terracotta" statues.

On the first weekend, 12 members of the JUNGUA Imperial Acrobats of China dazzled standing room crowds by soaring and flipping effortlessly for hours in purple robes. Shaolin Monks will demonstrate Kung Fu techniques with swords, spears and sticks this weekend, while the Joy Luck Club Theatrical Production and Red Fans Dance Group perform on the H-E-B Cultural Stage.

Austin said the performances were picked to encourage a greater appreciation of the world and peoples of the world — while also being fun.

"The idea is to surprise and delight while the sub-theme is to educate," Austin said.

So there are also pirates and 12-foot tall puppets this year.

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