Year after year, Lotus Festival organizers put together an astounding lineup, bringing some of the most innovative musicians in the world to Bloomington, Ind. for a weekend full of celebration and dance.
A quick scan of this year's schedule reveals plenty of highlights. Can't miss acts include last week's NUVO cover stars Delhi 2 Dublin; Beijing's Mongolian punk-folkies Hanggai; the cross-cultural flamenco mashups of Spain's Canteca de Macao; NYC's Balkan-gypsy party starters Slavic Soul Party; the jazzy Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and Swedish hip-hop and swing trio Movits! — who were the surprise hit of the 2011 Lotus Fest.
One of the most interesting artists on this year's roster is the Tunisian singer Mohamed Chaoua, who tours as MC Rai. Chaoua specializes in Algerian raï music. “Raï” means opinion in Arabic and Chaoua calls the genre the "rock and roll of the Arab world,” elaborating, "We sing about sex, drugs and everything you're not supposed to comment on in Arabic society."
NUVO: Most African artists move to Paris when they're looking to break into the international music scene. Why did you choose California?
MC Rai: When I started out at age 17 in Tunisia, I got very lucky, I became successful quickly and Tunisia started to become very small for me. I had the choice to go to France or stay in Tunisia. But then I started to think about America. Even established raï artists like Cheb Khaled or Cheb Mami — their dream is to cross over to an American audience. So I thought, I have the youth and the desire.Why not go straight to America?
NUVO: What attracted you to raï music as a teenager?
MC Rai: Raï music was the youth music of North Africa. It reflected everything a North African, Islamic-raised teenager wants to express. It was like the punk movement of the Arab world at that time.
NUVO: What kinds of things are you talking about in your lyrics?
MC Rai: I talk a lot about politics. Tunisia had a revolution about a year and a half ago, which inspired the whole Arab Spring. I was singing songs about how we can get rid of our dictatorship five or six years prior to the revolution. That led to my albums being banned in Tunisia. My songs couldn't be played on radio or television. I use a lot of metaphors; I started speaking in metaphor to protect my family. On some of my songs it might sound like I'm singing about a girl, but I'm actually talking about my country.
NUVO: Do you think musicians can play a role in instigating social or political change?
MC Rai: Absolutely. There is a reason why politicians fear artists. I think every artist should take a stance. One of my tracks called "Wake Up" played a big role in the Tunisian revolution. I did the track five years before the revolution and it was one my first songs to get banned. So I put it on Facebook and it went viral.
NUVO: Tell me about your version of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" from The Dictator soundtrack.
MC Rai: That movie created a controversy in the Arab world. A lot of conservative Muslims didn't like it; they thought it was biased against them. "Everybody Hurts" reminded me of the romantic raï songs I used to listen to, so I felt right at home with that track. It's a beautiful song of hope. It turned out well and I was happy with it. It was great to hear see the positive comments about the song from American listeners on Youtube. It has allowed me to crossover to the American audience on a bigger scale than I've ever done.
NUVO: There's a reggae influence in your music; what other styles are part of your sound?
MC Rai: When I came to America I got into electronic music and rock. I lived in San Francisco first and there was a big electronic scene with lots of fusion between east and west, that was a big influence. The low end sounds of hip-hop are also an influence.
NUVO: What can people expect from your set at Lotus?
MC Rai: I have a six-piece band. They will experience all the emotions of the Tunisian revolution. The happiness and the sadness. I put all the things I experienced during the revolution into the show, so people know where I come from and learn a little bit about Tunisian culture. I sing the whole set in Arabic, so I always work hard in America to make sure the audience hears the language as part of the instrumentation, not as an obstacle.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection spotlights classic North African raï music.
1. Rachid Taha — Ya Rayah (Barclay, 1997)
2. Khaled - Didi (Barclay, 1992)
3. Cheb Rayan & Rima - Dana Dana (Wagram, 2006)
4. Cheikha Rimitti — Nouar (Sonodisc, 2000)
5. Rachid Taha — Kifache Rah (Barclay, 2006)
6. Fadela & Rayan - N'sel Fik (Wagram, 2007)
7. Khaled - El Hamam (Celluloid, 1988)
8. Cheb Mami - Douni El Bladi (Horizon Music, 1986)
9. Khaled - Aïcha (Barclay, 1996)