In an ideal world, people would see something “like nothing they’ve ever seen before” on a regular basis. Some lucky people do. Sometimes the phenomenon is scheduled; sometimes it’s completely spontaneous.
In Bloomington, Ind., that awe is guaranteed at least once every year, one weekend in September.
This experience is the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival: a yearly tradition in Bloomington that brings in artists from all over the world and of all different genres for a spectacular weekend-long experience. Lotus is well known for its variety. One of the popular acts this year was Making Movies, an Afro-Latin band that mixes the persistent, energetic beat of alt-rock with the rhythm of zapateado huasteco, a traditional dance form from Mexico. Performing at the same time as Making Movies was the Raya Brass Band, which specializes in — according to the festival schedule — “Balkan brass with an urban edge.” Earlier in the evening was Lo’Jo (“genre-bending French-North African-Gypsy mix”), and listed later on the program was Trio da Kali (“soulful Malian Mandé griot traditions”).
Lotus was established in 1994, which makes it one of the oldest world music festivals in the country. Every year, more than 12,000 people congregate in Bloomington, where the festival is set up in the streets downtown. It’s situated primarily around the courthouse square: the intersections of Kirkwood, Walnut, College and 6th Street, blocking in the city courthouse. This square is the center of downtown and the heart of Bloomington, which is the college town home to Indiana University.
“I was excited to perform for a new audience that never saw me before,” Canadian-Cuban singer-songwriter Alex Cuba said of Lotus in an email interview. “I look forward to [lifting] people’s spirits up … and [making] them connect with beauty and happiness through the positive vibes of my songs.”
Cuba played Friday evening in First United Methodist Church, one of seven venues set up throughout downtown. All told, there were three churches, one historic theater, one club and two giant tents. The tents were set up on blocked-off streets, and had food, soda and locally brewed beer sold at their entrances.
“As a Cuban musician, it is possible that some of the Caribbean flavors are in my music,” Cuba said. “I don’t think of genres or styles when I do music. I just write the songs in whatever style they come to me and that’s how I record them. Music for me is above everything else freedom of expression.”
This was a sentiment that nearly everyone at Lotus seemed to share. The artists differed widely not only in terms of origin and genre, but also the energy level of their music. Some of the performances were high-energy and fast-paced, and some were slower and gentler, but equally invested with depth and emotion. This investment was the common thread between them — the profound care for the music and the passion of wanting to share it.
One band further on the high-energy side was De Temps Antan, a Canadian group that specializes in traditional Québécois folk.
“Fiddle music in Quebec is really lively music, full of joie de vivre,” said vocalist and fiddle player André Brunet. “We sing call-and-response songs, so it’s a lot of energy on stage, especially with the tapping we’re doing with our feet.”
The energy that Brunet and his two bandmates, Éric Beaudry and Pierre-Luc Dupuis, bring to the stage is nothing new to them. Growing up in Quebec, the three were long exposed to the roots of this “kitchen music,” which Brunet describes as “the sound of the kitchen, you know, the spirit of everyone.”
“The traditional music was there, so anytime of the year was a time to sing a song, to tap the feet, to take out the fiddle, the guitar, and sing,” Brunet said. “So we grew up there with the music and with the bands. I want to say the music is still a big part of us being here … It’s really a kitchen party where everyone is dancing and being part of the same big party. So this is what we create live on stage with different arrangements of traditional music.”
And he was right: everyone was dancing. This was a commonality that could be traced through the entire festival, but most particularly with the bands like De Temps Antan that played in the tents on the streets around the courthouse square. The audiences were made up of people of all ages, from children with their parents to high school and college students to older adults, and all of them were smiling and dancing to the music. They weren’t dancing in the same way, but that hardly even mattered — to look at them, they were all dancing.
“Everywhere we’ve been on the planet, everyone has the same reaction,” Brunet said. “Because we sing in French, so they’re like, ‘Okay, what is that language? It’s French, but it’s not from France, it’s not from Louisiana — oh, it’s from Quebec, okay.’ After a while, they understand that … all of the words that we say go with the rhythm of the music.”
This could have been some sort of an illusion, but at Lotus, it really did come across like everybody was on the same page. During the half-hour-long breaks between shows, people got food and drinks, they checked out the arts tables set up on 6th Street and stopped to catch the enlivened performances of Indiana University’s Breakdance Club. Then they filed back into the tents, churches and other venues to see the artists, and even if they had never heard of or seen those artists before, they were still perfectly excited to be there and ready to dance.
“It’s really fun when we see those reactions,” Brunet said. “Some people would say to us, ‘Wow, I just forgot all my problems for an hour and a half during your show!’ So it makes us really happy, because it’s exactly the purpose of our music in Quebec — well, traditional music from every country on the planet. The main idea is to get everyone involved and play all together, and forget about what’s going on and just have a nice hour or two of fun. So it’s really nice to see the differences, but it’s more or less the same thing from place to place.”
Lotus is a great yearly experience for Bloomington, offering a weekend of fun and togetherness for the students and faculty of IU and for the rest of the city. However, it’s also a communal experience within a broader, international context. It’s the act of seeing people connect so genuinely to music that comes from so far away from them, whether that’s Chilean folk fusion, Tuvan throat-singing or Chinese guzheng. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and arguably nothing that you could encounter anywhere else. It’s an experience that makes the word “community” momentarily mean something bigger, something that goes beyond the city itself: something all-encompassing and belonging to nothing smaller than the world.