Lotus Fest's 20th anniversary B-town party



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


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?

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


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


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.


Debo Band


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


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


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

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 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

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.


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.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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