I've organized, reviewed, attended, and performed at my fair share of music festivals here in the Hoosier state and I can say without a doubt that Bloomington's Lotus Fest is the best music festival in Indiana, period.
Every year Lotus presents a carefully curated selection of the greatest musicians in the world. The variety of music on display during Lotus Fest weekend is always staggering — from the traditional (Americana, Scandinavian folk, English balladeers) to the unconventional (Mongolian punk, Arabic hip-hop, Colombian EDM).
This year Lotus Fest is celebrating its 20th anniversary. We asked Lotus Fest director and co-founder Lee Williams to share his thoughts on this important milestone.
NUVO: When you started out 20 years ago did you have any idea the festival would have this kind of longevity?
Lee Williams: I need to point out that it wasn't just me making it happen 20 years ago. There were three of us who came together, shook hands and decided to produce a world music festival. It was a group effort between me,James Combs and Shahyar Daneshgar.At that time we were not thinking about the next festival or the next year or 20 years down the road; we were just trying not to lose a lot of money. Nobody was getting paid, we were all volunteers, the artists took small amounts of money and luckily it all worked. The idea for Lotus was so strong, all we had to do was not mess it up.
After the first year we knew there would be a second one because we got such positive vibes from everyone about the event. So I can say we celebrated after the first one and we knew we would do a second one. But that first year was not guaranteed.
NUVO: So you're surprised Lotus is still going strong 20 years later?
Williams: I'm completely shocked (laughs.) Over these 20 years we've been able to grow incrementally and organically. We had no mandate to grow rapidly, so we did it very community based. It's been a wild, wonderful ride and here we are at 20 years with a great lineup.
NUVO: Lotus is a full time operation now?
Williams: We have three full-time employees and between 500-600 volunteers for our two annual events. Lotus is a big event organization. We have our two large events — the festival, of course, and Lotus Blossoms. We call Lotus Blossoms an event, but it goes for about four weeks. It's educational outreach. We bring international artists into the schools. This past year we brought four artists into 22 schools in four Indiana counties.
NUVO: Did you plan anything special at this year's festival to commemorate the anniversary?
Williams: We're looking back at some of the things we stopped doing at the festival. That's sort of the theme, looking back at our history and seeing what people really liked. Like the Lotus parade, which we haven't done for the last few years. This year we're having two parades simultaneously. They're starting at different points and meeting on Kirkwood Avenue.
We're also looking to the future and putting a focus on the Lotus endowment campaign. It's still an ongoing concern to make sure there's another Lotus festival next year and the year after that.
Perhaps the biggest star at this year's Lotus Fest is Cuban jazz sensation Roberto Fonseca, but as Lee Williams told me in a 2011 interview "Lotus Fest is not about stars; it's about discovering music you've never heard before." The following acts represent just a few highlights on this year's festival lineup.
Multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is best known for her work with critically acclaimed string band revivalists Carolina Chocolate Drops. But McCalla is gearing up for her debut solo release, both a celebration of poet Langston Hughes and an exploration of her Haitian heritage.
NUVO: I want to ask you about your upcoming debut solo release. The album started out as an homage to Langston Hughes, but grew to encompass a musical exploration of your Haitian heritage. How did these two concepts merge?
Leyla McCalla: I started composing music to Langston Hughes' poetry about five or six years ago. I moved to New Orleans about three years ago. Around that time I started to really develop the concept of making an album out of this music inspired by Langston Hughes.
As I settled in here in New Orleans I started reading about the history of the city and I learned how much of an influence Haiti has had on Louisiana's history. It really turned me back to my Haitian roots and inspired me to learn more about music from Haiti. So as I started investigating that, I remembered Langston Hughes going to Haiti and he talks about that experience in his bookI Wonder As I Wander. At that point the album concept became more about me coming into myself creatively. This tribute to Langston Hughes is delivered from a very personal perspective.
NUVO: You were born in Queens, N.Y. Both your parents immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. I'm curious what sort of music was playing in your home as you grew up?
McCalla: When I was growing up I heard a little bit of Haitian music, but really not too much. I heard some kompa which is a Haitian dance music, but my parents listened more to Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and James Taylor. I grew up with a lot of American folk music and The Beatles. I wasn't really exposed to Haitian roots music other than being taken to a few live performances as a kid. My parents were never like she must be exposed to Haitian music.
NUVO: Your Haitian influenced music seems to be drawing a lot on the twoubadou tradition — a form of acoustic folk music. This sound connects with your work in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I'm curious what draws you to that traditional string band sound?
McCalla: Aesthetically I really like the string band sound. It's so raw, there's great melody and intertwining rhythms. A lot of people don't realize that Haiti has its own tradition of banjo music and that's something I found to be similar to the work I was doing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
NUVO: Have you had a chance to study music in Haiti?
McCalla: I really want to do that. I've been to Haiti several times in the past few years, mostly to visit my mom. She moved back to Haiti after the earthquake to work in human rights and development. When I go it's more like a family thing. But it's great to connect with Haiti just by being there and understanding the culture more. But I'd like to set aside a significant amount of time to be able to go and really work on music and work on my Krey˜l. But that hasn't happened yet because I tour a lot.
NUVO: Your music is full of rich sounds and references. I'd love to know what's on your iPod on a typical day?
McCalla: I go in and out of phases of listening to Lauryn Hill. I've been listening to this awesome recording from the '70s of a Haitian kompa band called Les Gypsies de Petion-Ville. It's four electric guitars with congas and bass, a really fun, big sound with lots of intertwining parts. I've been listening to an album by the fiddle player Canray Fontenot called Louisiana Hot Sauce Creole Style.It's really amazing, I've been trying to learn to play the fiddle parts on my cello.
NUVO: You're a classically trained musician?
McCalla: I have a classical background, but I think that's mostly because I chose the cello as my instrument. It's the basis of my technique, but I don't think any of the music I play sounds like classical music.
NUVO: What plans does the near future hold for you?
McCalla: I'm planning on playing a lot more solo shows to promote the album in 2014. I'm pretty busy getting ready for the release. We're putting it out on Langston Hughes' birthday on Feb. 1 and I couldn't be more excited about that.
Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen founded the 11-member Debo Band in 2006. The Boston-based band has developed a large following for their soulful and unconventional take on classic Ethiopian styles.
NUVO: I've read a bit about your background and I understand you grew up primarily listening to classic American jazz. Although Ethiopian music was played in your home, your interest in exploring Ethiopian music was influenced by hearing the Ethiopiques jazz series as an adult. What was it like discovering that music as an American jazz fan with Ethiopian heritage?
Danny Mekonnen: I think it makes me approach the music with a more open mind. I understand the roots of the music, but I'm not afraid to take it into new directions. We've been experimenting with folkloric genres from the beginning. One of our first original compositions, "Not Just A Song," draws from Tigrigna music, which is from the northern part of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
NUVO: Can you tell me about the significance of Debo Band's name?
Mekonnen: Debo means "collective effort, communal labor" in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia and the language of most of our songs. It signifies the fact that much of what we do as a big band — which consists of composing music, logistical planning, even cooking — is done together.
NUVO: Ethiopian rhythms and scales are quite unique. Was it difficult for the musicians in Debo Band to adjust?
Mekonnen: Well, it definitely took a while for us to get the rhythms and scales under our fingers, and we're still working on it. But our group is made up of musicians with big ears, so we are well suited for the challenge.
NUVO: There's been a strong surge of interest in Ethiopian music over the last few years. The Ethiopiques series has introduced a lot of Western listeners to classic Ethiopian sounds and Ethiopian music samples have been popping up in hip-hop songs by Mos Def and Nas. Are you surprised by this interest?
Mekonnen: I think the current interest in Ethiopian music has its roots in the mid-1980s when American rock critics like Robert Palmer were celebrating Mahmoud Ahmed's 1986 reissueEre Mela Melaas one of that year's best discs. Sometimes I'm surprised it's taken over 20 years for this music to catch on. It's been a long time coming, but I'm very happy with the interest I see out there for Ethiopian music.
NUVO: Any new Ethiopian music you're excited about?
Mekonnen: I'm interested in this group called Jano Band. They are a heavy 10-piece Ethio-rock group from Addis. Their album was produced by Bill Laswell and they are known for their high energy live shows complete with head banging. I'm curious where their careers will go and I'm excited for their success.
NUVO: How are Ethiopian crowds reacting to your sound?
Mekonnen: Ethiopian audiences have been supportive of us. We're always pleased to see these audiences dance with vigor to our covers of classic Ethiopian songs as well as to our originals.
Noura Mint Seymali
Stepdaughter of legendary Dimi Mint Abba, Noura Mint Seymali has emerged as a major artistic force in the Saharan nation of Mauritania. Situated between Mali, Senegal and Algeria in northwest Africa, the music of Mauritania represents an intoxicating mix of West African and Arab tradition. I recently discussed Mauritania's unique musical tradition with drummer Matthew Tinari of the Noura Mint Seymali band.
NUVO: You grew up in Philadelphia. How did you find your way to Mauritania and Noura's band?
Matthew Tinari: I went to Dakar, Senegal, on a scholarship to study Wolof language. I stuck around because I started playing with the great Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi. I was playing with him and a bunch of other groups, a lot of hip-hop people.
I was in Dakar for six years and got sort of attached to it. But ultimately the music in Mauritania became more interesting and engaging to me. Noura played at a festival in Senegal and that's where we met. I eventually went out to Mauritania and was invited to tour with them in West Africa.
NUVO: Did you have any experience playing Mauritanian music prior to joining Noura's band?
Tinari: I'd listened to Mauritanian music, but prior to that I'd never played with Mauritanian musicians. There's not a whole lot of Mauritanian artists out there.
NUVO: Can you describe the instrumentation of the group?
Tinari: Moorish music is based primarily off of a few instruments. There's the ardine, which is a Mauritanian harp-like instrument. It's played only by woman. There's also the tidnit, which is like a lute, which is played only by men. It's known is the ngoni in Mali or xalam in Senegal. Nora plays the ardine and her husband, Jeiche, plays tidnit and guitar.
The guitar Jeiche plays is an electric guitar that's been modified to play in Moorish scales. They cut off a bunch of frets from the bottom of the neck of the guitar and place them in between frets towards the top. It's necessary to reproduce the halftone scale. When we encounter other guitarists on the road there's always this moment where they're like, "How the hell are you getting all those sounds out of a guitar?"
An ensemble of these traditional instruments is called an azawan, which is what we named our album. Added to that is just bass and drums. Noura has been doing this type of fusion music for years, since 2004. Essentially we try not to stray to far from the traditional structures, but we back it up with bass and drums.
NUVO: Was it difficult for you to adapt to the Mauritanian rhythms?
Tinari:I play a drum set. In a traditional Mauritanian group the musicians play a bowl drum called the t'beul. The t'beul has a bass drum sound, and often it will be accompanied by someone playing this sort of metal plate. So as I tried to adapt these rhythms to the drum set I saw the plate as the hi-hat and the t'beul as the bass drum. So what I'm playing is an unabashed adaptation of that, but adding the snare and other sounds that give the drum set its color.
NUVO: I often hear the term psychedelic applied to West African music, and as I listened toAzawan I certainly heard aspects of the music that could be deemed psychedelic. Is that an overt influence on the band's sound?
Tinari: Someone recently just called our music "desert psych blues" and I like that. I think the music in Mauritania is just naturally very psychedelic to the Western ear. It has a very distorted and aggressive guitar style.
I think our guitarist, Jeiche, is someone who is interested in being sort of psychedelic. But the connotations psychedelic music has in the West are not something these musicians are identifying with. Certainly not the hallucinogenic drug thing, which is implicit in psychedelic music.