I love Bloomington’s annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. More than just a music festival, it’s a celebration of the common ground to which music can bring us – across languages, cultures, all manner of divides both geographical and sociological. One of the things I love most about it is that you can have pretty much whatever sort of musical experience you want to have. If you feel like dancing your butt off in a tightly packed crowd (or to stand in back where there’s plenty of elbow room and enjoy watching said tightly packed crowd), you can usually find that in one of the outdoor tents. If you feel like sitting quietly and contemplating something softly acoustic, head for one of the churches. If you want a formal stage and a comfortable seat, go to the Buskirk-Chumley. If you’re in one venue and you find it’s not entirely your cup of tea, or if you’re enjoying it just fine but there’s also another performer you were curious about, it’s perfectly OK to duck out between songs and move from venue to venue. And on Saturday afternoon, you can spread out your blanket in the park and enjoy several different performers along with families, kids, dogs, picnics, and tents housing all kinds of fun crafts activities for the families and kids (not so much for the dogs).
So I don’t think it’s possible to “review the Lotus Festival” – everyone who attends has a slightly different experience with this kaleidoscope of music and culture. This year was apparently my year to enjoy the crowded tents and the loudly rocking music, as all of my highlights fall into that category. Here’s a bit about the performers I especially enjoyed – and I know I missed some other great ones (Fishtank Ensemble, Movits!, Fatoumata Diawara, and Vida are all performers I wanted to see but didn’t get to).
Taj Weekes & Adowa – Hailing from St. Lucia, Weekes brought the sound of the islands to a Lotus tent as Friday evening began. I sometimes forget how much I enjoy reggae, and really enjoyed the band’s mellow groove.
Hanggai – I saw these guys the last time they played Lotus and enjoyed them, so made a point of catching their set on Friday night. This Beijing-based group combines Western rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and energy with traditional Mongolian instruments and throat-singing, sometimes using Mongolian folk songs. The lead singer definitely has a rock-singer attitude, and although I don’t understand a word of Mongolian, I can understand Hanggai’s music just fine. The music is multi-textured, with drums and electric guitars creating a base for the traditional Mongolian stringed instruments, and the use of throat-singing (you know, that guttural drone you associate with monks or something) adds a really cool dimension. The set picked up intensity as it went on, and when a storm started to roll in and lightning began to flash through the translucent roof panels of the tent, it was pretty much the most heavy-metal moment I’ve experienced at a show in recent years. Utterly exhilarating.
MC Rai – A native of Tunisia, this San Francisco resident blends Algerian Rai music with a Western hip-hop groove to create a blend that is upbeat, socially conscious, and very, very danceable. The foundation of his band rests on a drummer and bass player who both look like refugees from a Led Zeppelin tribute band but played with funk and verve, the bass player bouncing and pogoing with joyful abandon much of the time. MC Rai himself is a superb frontman, reaching out and making a strong connection with the audience. I saw everyone from teenage kids to middle-aged Hoosiers dancing, rocking out, and having a great time. I caught this charismatic performer when he was last at Lotus in 2007 and bought his CD “Raivolution” at that time – it’s pretty great.
Delhi 2 Dublin – This was a wild-card choice for me. I kind of wanted to see Movits!, but I saw them last year and while I knew they were a lot of fun, I was curious about the Indian-Irish mashup of this Vancouver-based band. Plus, they were performing in the tent nearest the parking garage where I’d left the car, and I was feeling a little tired and thought I might leave early and would appreciate the proximity. Well, no, I did not leave early, not at all. Delhi 2 Dublin knocked my socks off! Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been rocked by a fiery duel between a kilt-wearing Korean dude playing the electric sitar and a phenomenally energetic blonde Irishwoman playing the fiddle, supported by Bhangra percussion and a dynamic lead vocalist named Sanjay. The Celtic-Indian mashup sounds like it would be awkward, but trust me, it’s fantastic – and just goes to show you that music really is a common language, wherever it originates. Plus, I’m partial to musicians who look like they’re having a great time, and these guys were absolutely radiant as they performed, like they almost couldn’t stand how much fun they were having. Maybe they were having as much fun as the audience was – I know we were having a blast and dancing our butts off! This band was definitely my “Lotus discovery” this year and I hope I get another chance to hear them sometime. Their performance was transcendent and honestly, there is no reason why they couldn’t make it as big as, say, Arcade Fire (whose energy they reminded me of, for no reason I can put my finger on) – their music and performance has a wide appeal and I can’t imagine going to one of their shows and not falling in love with them.