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South By Southwest attracts hundreds of music acts from all around the world. (Photograph by Lisa A. Walker)

SXSW: Where the World Comes Together

Austin’s eclectic musical heritage started in the late 1800s with live performances at German beer gardens. Since then, it has run the gamut from Tejano, to country, to punk rock. So it’s no surprise that the South By Southwest Music Festival has evolved into a global fusion of music genres, drawing thousands of artists from dozens of different countries to the Texas capital each March.

Being surrounded by so much talent and diversity inspired me to not just hear the music this year, but to talk to some of the artists about where they’re from, how they ended up at the festival, and the places they love most around the world.

I was lucky enough to meet up with two unique bands from two very different parts of the world: Frightened Rabbit, an indie rock band based in Scotland, and a Malian desert blues band called Terakaft. Here’s a recap of our conversation:

Q: How did your band get its name? 

Scott Hutchison, lead singer for Frightened Rabbit: I was a bit shy as a child so “frightened rabbit” was a nickname my parents had for me, or at least for the look I gave when I was forced into social situations. It’s still part of my personality to this day, though it has been diminished significantly by being in the band.

Sanou Ag Ahmed, frontman for Terakaft: Terakaft actually means “caravan” in our native Tamasheq language. I chose the name back in 2001 because it said so much about our own lives—nomadic, traditional, and alive by moving. 

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Scott Hutchison (left) and bandmate Billy Kennedy on stage in Austin. (Photograph by Lisa A. Walker)

Q: Why did you choose to come to SXSW this year, and what does it mean for your band?

Scott (Frightened Rabbit): This is our fourth time at SXSW, and it’s quite different from the others. [This time], it’s about introducing our new record and getting in front of people that have never seen us before. Performing in a showcase with the Flaming Lips on Thursday night was a great opportunity for new folks to check us out.

Diara, founder of Terakaft (and former member of Tinariwen): This is our first time at the festival, and actually our first time in the U.S. We know that music is important here, and that’s why we wanted to come. We are very excited to be a part of it. I actually dreamt of coming to Texas, many years ago, as a very young boy.

Q for Frightened Rabbit: Do you have any advice for folks who are planning a trip to Scotland?

Scott: Scotland really has it all. Edinburgh and Glasgow are very different and on either side of the country, which is only a 50-minute journey. Glasgow is more modern from shipbuilding and Edinburgh has the castles, cobbled streets, etc. Although we both live in the bigger cities now, [my brother, Grant, and I] grew up in a very small town in the south called Selkirk, which is in a pretty historic area of Scotland. The heart of Robert the Bruce is said to be buried 10 miles away in the ruins of Melrose Abbey, and there is evidence of Roman settlements in the same area. I have a lot of affection for Selkirk and the Scottish Borders region. It’s a place I’ll always call home.

We were also lucky enough to do a tour of the Scottish Highlands and islands last year, as part working band and really part tourist because there were places I had never visited before. I would recommend checking out the Outer Hebrides on the west coast. Some of the beaches, if you could up the temperature, would look like you could be in the Caribbean. It’s freezing there, but quite idyllic. And the mountains? Very Middle-earthy.

Q: I watched the documentary you made while you were touring the Highlands, and really like the idea of the band traveling to reach fans in more remote places around ScotlandWhat gave you the idea to do that?

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Sanou Ag Ahmed performs with Terakaft at SXSW in March 2013. (Photograph by Lisa A. Walker)

Scott: The inspiration for the tour came from growing up in a small town, where no bands would come to play. It’s surprisingly difficult [to get around given] the size of the country. If you live on one of the islands you could have a three-hour ferry, followed by a six-hour journey — which all costs money. The whole experience was really refreshing, meeting the people that came to the shows. Some had been waiting for years. Then you go to the pub across the road and meet more people. It was much better than going from the dressing room to the show, and back to the dressing room to the bus. It was a very social thing as well. Scotland has loyalty to its fans and artists. 

Q for Terakaft: Sadly, I know this is not the time to visit Mali due to the militant takeover and the ban on “non-devotional” music. Where are you living now, and do you hope to return one day?

Diara: The situation is still very difficult and we had to leave the country. Right now I live in a small village in Algeria close to the border. Sanou and my other nephew, Pino, [another member of the band] are living in Tamanrasset, which is kind of a capital in the Sahara region. But at least both places are safe. We are still in the same hills where our fathers [raised] their nomadic animals, but I do wish to return to northern Mali. [Though] I am hopeful that things will get better soon so [other] people can return. 

Q: What is the most memorable place in the world you have performed so far? 

Scott (Frightened Rabbit): Performing in Brooklyn and seeing the NYC skyline in the background.

Sanou (Terakaft): Skopje, Macedonia. The city, the scenery, and the mountains were really very beautiful. But we would like to see more of the natural beauty of [the United States] if possible. 

Q: Finally, what did you enjoy most about SXSW? 

Scott: The shows were all great, and each one was a highlight for a different reason. It makes all the stress of rushing around to the point of exhaustion worthwhile. The crowds were fantastic all weekend. 

Diara/Sanou: Seeing so many people come for music, and so many bands.

Lisa A. Walker is a book production manager at National Geographic. Follow her story on Twitter @walkersvibes.