The Observer does SXSW, part one

Little Joe speaks truth to power and Beautiful Nubian from Lagos, Nigeria


Michael May


As I headed out last night to catch Austin’s psych-rock warriors the Black Angels at La Zona Rosa, I decided to take the hike and bike trail across town from my east-side abode. I figured a nice ride by the water would clear my head after a few hours of day parties. But even the waterfront was rockin’ last night. As I passed the Mexican American Cultural Center, I was hit by the full force of a Tejano band, complete with horn section, that had a huge crowd on the plaza under its spell. It was the Mexican American Music Experience 2011, sponsored by the Cultural Center and Crossroads Events. (And continuing tonight!)

It turned out to be the supergroup Los Tres Amigos, made up of Little Joe, Ruben Ramos and Roberto Pulido. I had never seen Tejano live before, and the lugubrious singing and dazzling accordion playing had me swaying in my bicycle seat. Then, the Grammy-winning Little Joe stopped the band and spoke some truth to power in his own charming way. “SXSW is so good for Austin,” he said. “You pay $20 to park your car. Another $20 to eat. Everyone is making money — except the musicians.”

That wasn’t Little Joe’s only gripe. “You know, we should be over there,” he said, motioning to the downtown, where the official showcases were in full swing. “But instead they’ve got us segregated over here. I just have to say what’s on my mind. Maybe next year they’ll have us there, where we should be.”

I understood the sentiment, but there was a bit of irony in it. The band was performing in front of an enormous crowd in a beautiful space, and the sound quality was much better than it was at most official showcases. The truth is, the unofficial SXSW events have at this point blended in with the official events, which I would argue is good for everybody, including the official SXSW. Although, putting a Mexican American event over on the eastern edge of downtown where many SXSW badge-holders would never find it does seem like a bit of a missed opportunity.

I cruised to La Zona Rosa, passed a group of skateboarders doing tricks under an overpass, to find an enormous badge-holders line had already formed for Queens of the Stone Age, which went on at midnight. I had no chance of getting in for the Black Angels or anything else. So I drifted over to Copa, my default club when SXSW plans go awry; Copa is hosting world music showcases every night, which are often superb and rarely crowded. I arrived just in time for Beautiful Nubia and the Roots Renaissance Band, a band from Lagos, Nigeria. The band consisted of Segun Akinlolu, aka Beautiful Nubia, on vocals, guitar and hand drums, along with a bass player and keyboardist. The songs were catchy and funky and I could imagine what they must sound like with a full band in their hometown. Here, it felt a bit too stripped down, especially the use of a drum machine. But when Akinlolu took over on percussion, the Roots Renaissance band really took off.

I headed home early, this old guy needs to conserve his energy for the days ahead. Tonight, find me at the “All Music is World Music,” hosted by Marco Werman, the host of the PRI show The World. The headliner tonight is the Malian diva Khaira Arby, who is not to be missed.