The Observer does SXSW, Part Two

Afropop in Austin


Michael May


When I first went to SXSW almost a decade ago, I was amazed by how the festival seemed to take over the entire downtown. Flash forward, and it seems like SXSW is taking over the entire city. Between official events, the conference, day parties and of course the showcases, it seems that no one can still complain about being left out of the festival. Over the years, there’s been some perceived tension between SXSW and the other unofficial events, but it seems to me the expansion of the conference into something akin to Austin’s mardi gras has been amazing for the SXSW brand. There is truly something for everybody, and much of it is free.

As for me, I love chasing down the international acts that have traveled over miles of ocean to get here. I have a particular soft spot for afropop, and through some planning and hustling, I managed to see four afropop sets yesterday. I started the day off at the NPR day party at The Parish, where Malian diva Khaira Arby held court. Arby is a protégé of Ali Farka Toure, and a legend in her home town of Timbuktu, where she’s fought for women’s right to play music. At The Parish, her powerful voice tore through the audience, and her Malian band played in a style that’s somehow both hypnotic and aggressive, especially when guitarist Dramane Traore took command with his Jimi Hendrix meets Ali Farka Toure solos. She was absolutely spellbinding.

From there, I hustled over the French Legation, where the Sierra Leone star Janka Nabay was playing to a lawn full of hipsters enjoying the 80 degree weather. Janka, as he’s known, has brought a tribal rhythm from the northern part of Sierra Leone called “bubu music,” and turned it into an electronic, disco sensation in his home country. After the war, he came to the U.S., where he put together a band full of indy rock musicians, and together they’ve created a sound that’s edgy enough for the rock fans but has the complex rhythms of afropop. A feature with an exclusive interview of Janka will appear here this weekend.

After taking a break to play a private SXSW party on the east side with the Minor Mishap Marching Band, I dragged myself back downtown for the always consistent showcase put on by the PRI public radio show, The World. I arrived in time to catch the end of the Debo Band, a Boston-based outfit that specializes in swirling and psychedelic ‘70’s era Ethiopian music. The band has traveled to Addis Ababa to perform with local musicians and it shows. Then, at 1am, Khaira Arby took the stage again. I found a spot near the corner of the stage next to the guitarists, and let her mesmerizing music flow through me all over again.