Last weekend, I managed to travel the world without leaving home. “How?” you may ask. I attended the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. Over the course of three days, I was transported to places from the US to China via music.
Lotus Fest, or Lotus, as it’s commonly called, has been an annual fall tradition in Bloomington since 1994. According to the Lotus website, the festival draws over 120,000 attendees. Add to that a couple dozen or so musical acts and over 500 volunteers, and you’ve got a recipe for an incredibly fun (and educational) weekend.
Friday night I worked as a volunteer at one of the venues, checking for wristbands and helping with crowd control. Our venue hosted two acts performing a total of three sets. I was stationed right next to the stage for the first set, performed by Baltic Crossing, a band comprised of members from the UK, Denmark, and Finland. They put on quite a show, inspiring the audience to clap along with their lively music, and providing humorous commentary between songs.
One of my favorite parts of Lotus each year is the free schedule of events during the day on Saturday at Lotus in the Park, as they include workshop sessions that are more educational in nature. This year’s workshops included an introduction to Georgian polyphonic song by Zedashe. This style of music is largely based on three-part harmonies. Songs in this style were first notated in the 10th and 11th centuries, but it is believed that some of the songs come from pre-Christian times, which in Georgia means before the first quarter of the 4th century. Zedashe began by introducing us to a short set of songs representing various regions of Georgia, before teaching a hunting song and its accompanying dance to the audience.
Jessica Fichot led the next workshop session. Fichot was born to a Chinese mother and French father, and started her music career focused on songs in the French chanson style. However, she informed us that in recent years she has become more interested in music from China, specifically a style called shidaiqu. Shidaiqu translates to English as “songs of the era,” and is a fusion of Chinese folk songs and European swing and jazz. Emerging in Shanghai in the 1920s, shidaiqu gained in popularity throughout the 30s and 40s. The style fell victim to the mandates of the communist regime in China, as nightclubs were banned in the country in 1952 and Shidaiqu lyrics, which Fichot called “innocent,” were dubbed “pornographic” by the authorities. Due to the political climate in China, many shidaiqu singers and songwriters moved to Hong Kong in the early 1950s, where the music eventually morphed into Mandopop (pop music sung in Mandarin) and, later, Cantopop (pop music in sung in Cantonese).
The final workshop session I attended was led by Jayme Stone and members of his Lomax Project. For inspiration, the project looks to the recordings of American folk music collected by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, beginning in the 1930s. Lomax was inspired to collect folk music recordings by his father, John A. Lomax, who also collected recordings of folk music as well as cowboy poetry, what he called “the high art of the common folk.” Their offerings included a lively (and humorous) song, which Jeannie Roberston sang for Lomax, called “Maids When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man.” Margaret Glaspy’s vocals were just the right kind of gritty and soulful.
Saturday night was spent scurrying from showcase to showcase. Sets happening simultaneously at six venues meant that tough decisions had to be made. Highlights included: American singer-songwriter, and son of Tamil parents, Bhi Bhiman; Finnish group Kardemimmit, whose name is a play on words that can be roughly translated as “Spice Girls”; Brock McGuire Band’s non-stop, toe-tapping Irish music, with occasional forays into American bluegrass; and Lula Pena’s amazing, mournful Portuguese fado.
I wrapped up the weekend by attending the World Spirit Concert on Sunday afternoon. The audience was treated to two sets of music, from Estonia and Turkey. Estonian fiddle player Maarja Nuut blended folk tales and music into a hauntingly beautiful aural experience. One highlight included her explanation of an Estonian game, in which a black horse has gotten loose and is eating the cabbages in the field, so a wolf is called upon to come and kill the horse. Seemingly a bit extreme for a children’s game, perhaps, until she explained that the game is tied to superstitious beliefs. In Estonian superstition, if a terrible scenario is acted out successfully in a game, the “victim” will actually be protected in real life. Thus, by killing the horse in the game, it is believed that the real horse will be protected.