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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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?"
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
NUVO: Was it difficult for you to adapt to the
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.
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.