Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

Frank Waln and the Sampson Bros. performing at the Sol Collective Showcase at SXSW 2016. Photo: Catalina Maria Johnson
Frank Waln and the Sampson Bros. performing at the Sol Collective Showcase at SXSW 2016. Photo: Catalina Maria Johnson
13 APR 2016
by

SXSW celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, and it was truly a fest to remember. In the days and late nights and early mornings hustling in and about pedicabs, swag-givers, pop ups, Texas-style barbeque joints, and lines everywhere, we happily noticed that the most important indie music festival and conference in the world seemed truer to its original and far-from-the-mainstream mission than in recent years.

It was a delight to experience a myriad of almost impossibly fresh sounds, and we didn’t at all miss what had in recent years become an almost overwhelmingly overbearing corporate presence. No doubt the the way SXSW allows us to take the pulse of indie and international music will have us visiting Austin in 2017 and year after year.

In the meantime, here are five of the most memorable moments of our SXSW 2016:

Lucius

I have to admit, Lucius came on my radar because their visual presence was so striking, alien and unique that it seemed likely their music would be equally alluring, and indeed it is. Jess Wolf and Holly Laessig, charismatic frontwomen and vocalists, wear identical haircuts and clothing and mirror each other practically singing into each other as mutual vessels, in stances that almost evoke Inuit female duet singing. Beautifully backed by fellow band members and multi-instrumentalists Andrew Burri, Peter Lalish, and Dan Molad, Wolf and Laessig create a tapestry of luminous vocals and rich harmonies that is all at once incredibly modern, totally quirky and truly irresistible.

Dayme Arocena

As a festival and conference brand, SXSW has known how to ably extend its range to encompass trailblazing indie international music and in particular, music from Latin America, Spain and the Latino U.S.A. within its “SXAmericas” events and showcases. Nevertheless, the Latin offerings had a particularly special surprise this year: Thanks to the increasing normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, for the first time in the 30-year history of SXSW we were treated to a night showcasing Cuban artists direct from the island. All the artists at the Sounds from Cuba showcase, each in their own right, shared extraordinary examples of how the superb and intense musical training in Cuba plays out in different genres from jazz to rock to hip hop. However, Dayme Arocena, we predict, is destined to become legendary. Blessed with an almost impossibly dynamic voice, Arocena captivated the packed crowd with a powerful yet nuanced performance, and gave the musical term “scatting” an entirely new meaning.

Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance

Although SXSW is renowned for usually showcasing contemporary music of the most danceable kind, thanks to the second annual showcase dedicated to the works of Austin composers we were treated to segments from “Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance”, a composition-in-progress by Graham Reynolds. Reynolds is a world-renowned contemporary composer who has ballet music, soundtracks and theater music in his curriculum. “Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance” is a a chamber rock opera and the third part of a triptych about West Texas commissioned by Ballroom Marfa and supported by a Creative Capital grant. What we experienced was evidence of Reynold’s enormous talent. Playing the piano, accompanied by several classical musicians as well as Austin’s Grammy-awarded guitarist Adrian Quesada, tenor Paul Sanchez from the Lyric Opera (in the role of Pancho Villa), and the occasional tuba, the opera melded together Mexican banda and norteño music, Tex-Mex, rock, electronic elements and other western musical nuances in such an intriguing way that we can’t wait to see the final product in the Fall.

Frank Waln and the Sampson Bros.

Another moment at SXSW of the kind that makes the festival so remarkable came about as part of the showcase curated by Sacramento’s artist activist Sol Collective. One of the evening’s performances was that of Frank Waln, a Sicangu Lakota hip hop artist who was born and raised in the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Waln was accompanied in performance by The Sampson Bros., one of whom, Sam, is a visual artist, hoop dancer and flutist and the other, Micco, is a choreographer and dancer. The Sampson Bros., dressed in traditional attire, create a powerful and poignant context for Waln’s fierce rhymes which in and of themselves are lessons in de-colonization. In “What Makes the Red Man Red”, a composition in which Waln riffs off of the famous Disney tune from Peter Pan, we are made painfully aware of how far we have to go to tell a new story that is ours and not the product of a colonial mentality. At the same time, musicians such as Waln makes us hopeful that indeed such awareness is possible as his very music and presence and are a testament to the perseverance of a story that was told strong and proud long before the colonies existed.

The FACE Pakistan Showcase at SXSW

Islamabad’s Foundation for Art and Cultural Expression (FACE) presented five bands in concerts also supported by the United States Embassy as part of efforts to share the art of musicians that represent the pluralistic culture of Pakistan. We were captivated in particular by charismatic singer Mai Nimani from the rural Sindh province in her U.S. debut. The Pakistani community came out in full force for the showcase at the elegant Driskill Hotel and seemed to know most of Nimani’s songs by heart, so we were treated to frequent sing along moments. However, the joyous ebullience not only of Nimani’s music but of the audience’s loving energy had everyone in the crowd doing their best to shake and shimmy parts of our bodies that probably have never shook and shimmied before.

Check out SXSW 2016’s music on Beat Latino