If you"ve lately found yourself seeking some uplifting solace from all the xenophobic saber-rattling, look no further than this weekend"s ninth annual Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington. Featuring nearly 30 acts from around the world and around the corner, the Lotus Festival is Indiana"s premier international music festival.
The Gangbe Brass Band, from the West African nation of Benin, is a jazz-influenced and polyrhythmically percolating 10-piece brass, drum and vocal ensemble.
Over the years, the Lotus Festival has featured everything from otherworldly Tuvan throat singing to brilliant Celtic trip-hop fusion, from atmospheric Arctic Circle ambience to low-down Mississippi Delta blues. This year"s eclectic lineup rivals them all. Musical artists from Africa, South America, Jamaica, Australia, Asia, Europe and across the United States are all heading for Bloomington. A coffee shop conversation in early 1994 was the genesis of the Lotus Festival. Three friends were inspired by large international festivals like "s WOMAD. Promoter Lee Williams, Persian music aficionado Shahyar Daneshgar and Arson Garden guitarist James Combs hatched the idea to present an event focusing Bloomington"s increased interest in international sounds. Williams, who has been booking shows in Bloomington for two decades, is now the director of the Lotus Festival. From a humble but ambitious 1994 beginning with two stages at the Waldron Arts Center and one at Second Story nightclub, the Lotus Festival continues to grow. This year"s Lotus Festival weekend features simultaneous performances on seven stages (five indoors, two outdoors), all within a short walk of each other in downtown Bloomington. In this exciting and energized setting, the Lotus Festival is enjoyed by world music connoisseurs and neophytes alike. The Lotus Festival has also become one of Bloomington"s favorite social events, where old friends gather and new friends meet while witnessing magical musical moments from around the globe. The Lotus Festival gets underway on Wednesday, Sept. 25, with a kickoff concert by the Afropop band Tama. It continues Thursday, Sept. 26 with a 7 p.m. concert at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater featuring the scintillating French jazz-pop of Paris Combo and the jazzy, percussive African brass arrangements of Benin"s Gangbe Brass Band. For the late-night crowd anxious to get the weekend started, Thursday night also features a funky late-night dance session with the Afro-Cuban hip-hop ensemble Yerba Buena at Second Story. On Friday, Sept. 27, the Lotus Festival kicks in full force for two nights of multistage showcases. Besides the Buskirk-Chumley Theater (on Kirkwood between Walnut and Washington) and Second Story (Fourth Street between College and Walnut), Friday and Saturday showcase venues include First Christian Church (Kirkwood and Lincoln), the John Waldron Arts Center Auditorium (Fourth and Walnut), the Monroe Bank Tent (Kirkwood and Lincoln), the Monroe County Convention Center (Third and College) and the Tree of Life Tent (Kirkwood between College and Walnut). Additional festival events will be held at Dunn Meadow, the Monroe County Courthouse Square and the Monroe County Public Library. Up-to-date schedule and location details can be found at www.lotusfest.org. Representing the African continent at this year"s festival will be five bands distinctly different in sound and presentation, proving the rich diversity of African culture. From the West African nation of Benin hails the Gangbe Brass Band, a jazz-influenced and polyrhythmically percolating 10-piece brass, drum and vocal ensemble. Also from West Africa, Niger"s Mamar Kassey is an eight-piece contemporary roots band that grafts the present with the cultural traditions of the past while also serving a unifying role in their country"s socio-political landscape. Deep African roots with an ear to the future also inform the sound of Tama, a multicultural band featuring Malian vocalist Mamani Keita and British guitarist Sam Mills. Unfortunately, Tama will only perform on Wednesday night, but the previously mentioned Afro-Cuban hip-hop band Yerba Buena will perform three nights in a row beginning Thursday night. This New York City-based group creates a bold and fresh fusion that should be the buzz of Lotus Festival, at least among the dancing crowd. The Amsterdam-based band Fra Fra Sound has its roots in Ghana, along with a strong nod to American jazz improvisation spiced with Caribbean influences. Lotus Festival 2002 is particularly heavy with Eastern European music. Like their African counterparts, the festival"s Eastern European bands represent a diversified sampling of music nearly lost to the steamroller effect of homogenized global pop culture. The talk of the town is a very large Serbian band, the Boban Markovic Orchestra. Championed by its fans as "the B-funk," this 12-member band of Gypsies definitely gets down in 3D with wild celebratory dance music in tones ranging from clarinet to sousaphone. Another variation on Gypsy musical traditions will come from the strictly traditional Transylvanian/Hungarian band Szaszcsavas, who revive nearly extinct village music. Yet another Gypsy band at Lotus is Les Yeux Noirs, who fuse traditional Gypsy music with Klezmer and Django Reinhardt style French Gypsy jazz to connect the dots between Gypsies and Jews - two cultures that have experienced shared suffering over generations and especially targeted by the Nazis. The stunning vocal trio The Bisserov Sisters represent Bulgarian vocal traditions at this year"s Lotus Festival. Before forming their own group, The Bisserov Sisters had years of experience in the large state-sponsored vocal ensembles of Filip Koutev (the sound heard on the unusually popular 1994 4AD release Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares). As a trio, The Bisserov Sisters have stripped their traditions down to the essentials while retaining a mystery sound that is both transporting and transcendental. Also well-represented at this year"s Lotus Festival is the western part of Europe. Cristina Branco combines Portuguese folk with blues influences in a style known as fado. Spanish flamenco stylist Miguel Poveda will present his update of these upbeat and romantic traditions. Returning Lotus performers Lo"Jo are a French band that turned heads at the festival in 2000 with a winning and fearless fusion of French cabaret flavor, dub reggae grooves and Moroccan trance influences. Celtic music lovers have a feast in store this year, with Lotus director Williams" passion for British Isles traditions evident in the booking of Scottish legends The Tannahill Weavers; young Irish fiddle sensation Johnny B. Connolly and guitarist Aidan Brennan; and from Wales, Crasdant, a trio featuring Robin Huw Bowen, the world"s leading master of the Welsh triple harp. A sampling of other bands from far-flung places round out Lotus Festival"s offerings in international sound. The Waifs are an engaging and original pop/rock band with years of touring experience in their homeland, Australia. Swedish folk fusioneers Vasen return to Bloomington for the third time. The Srinivas Krishnan Ensemble makes its annual visit to the festival, presenting meditative Indian classical music. Always wise to draw an audience into the Lotus Festival with a strong compliment of American roots and folk music, Lotus Festival has outdone itself this year. Dave Alvin (Americana/roots rock), Rory Block (acoustic blues), C.J. Chenier (Louisiana zydeco), Janis Ian (folk/singer-songwriter) and Tim O"Brien (folk, Celtic, bluegrass) bring a diverse range of roots music to the lineup. The Bloomington music scene provides three groups for Lotus Festival 2002. The Monks are exuberant purveyors of old-time fiddle music with decades of collective musical experience. Salaam will present their stirring combination of Middle Eastern and North African traditions. And as always, the annual Lotus Dickey tribute kicks off Lotus Festival"s Friday night with an extended musical family gathered to honor the namesake of the festival, the late Orange County songwriter Lotus Dickey. The Lotus Festival also features a number of free performances. Saturday, Sept. 28 brings a Lotus event for children to the Monroe County Public Library at 10:30 a.m. featuring African-American storyteller Deborah Asante and drummer Kwesi Brown. Saturday is also the day for the annual Festival Latino in IU"s Dunn Meadow, this year featuring Conjunto Urbanos, Cool Chilies, Abacaxi and Tresuno-7. The festival always closes Sunday afternoon with a free concert at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. This year"s "World Spirit" concert features encore performances from Cristina Branco and Boban Marcovic Orchestra, along with Global Rhythms and Frank London"s Klezmer Brass All-Stars. The best way to approach the plethora of music offered by the Lotus Festival is one step at a time. Savor each moment of musical illumination, without worrying about what you are missing around the bend. Nevertheless, keep moving, because there"s bound to be something awesome up ahead. Advance tickets for Lotus Festival showcase nights are $25 per night or $40 for both nights in advance and $30 per night or $45 for both nights when purchased at the festival. Discounted tickets for adults over 65 and children under 12 are $12 per night in advance and $15 per night when purchased at the festival. Tickets are available at various locations in Bloomington and Nashville. Ticket outlet information and credit card orders are available by calling (812) 339-6741. For an up-to-date schedule: www.lotusfest.org.