Indiana’s Best Kept Secret: Lotus Fest Brings the World to Bloomington

(All photos courtesy of C. Castle Photography.)

Every fall for the past twenty-four years now, the college town of Bloomington has come together to put on Lotus Festival, a weekend event hosting all sorts of different artists from around the world. This past year was my first time getting down to the Indiana city for the world music and arts festival, but I can already tell you that I will most definitely be back for the twenty-fifth annual Lotus Fest.

Both nights Lotus Festival brought in acts from all over the world for the evening showcases. I arrived in downtown Bloomington just in time for the kick-off of night one, and began my weekend with some traditional Georgian choral polyphony courtesy of Iberi Choir. The Georgian sextet’s matching attire and sometimes somber, sometimes joyful, but always rich, vocals was a religious experience. Friday also boasted the fun and stylish Ethio-jazz of Meklit, the party jazz of Indian-American singer-songwriter Subhi, and the stark but intriguing contrast provided by the Iranian string and percussion duo of Sahba Motallebi and Naghmeh Farahmand.

The highlight of Friday evening, however, came with the back-to-back performances from Latin artists Alex Cuba and Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna. The Cuban singer-songwriter brought his own ska-tinged blend of semi-acoustic folk rock to the same Methodist church where the Georgian choir and Iranian duo performed just hours before. Cuba’s set was mostly stocked with upbeat selections from his extensive discography, but when his trio did slow it down occasionally, they did not disappoint. The final act of the night, Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna, continued the Latin flair with their high-octane fusion influenced heavily by both the Orient and the West. Ilabaca and company knew how to acquire and retain the audience’s attention, who looked to be having the time of their lives. Their time onstage left many Lotus Fest attendees walking away wishing they could hear more from the Chilean folk collective.

In between the two evening showcases was the free Lotus in the Park all afternoon on Saturday, including performances from folk fusion groups, the British-Canadian The Outside Track and the Pan-American LaDama, and workshops with traditional Tuvan vocal ensemble Alash and the Iranian duo from the previous night. Both acts provided their own unique blends of “folk,” while the insightful workshop with Alash really shed light on the otherwise mystique of what many mistakenly call “Tuvan throat singing.”

Many of Saturday night’s phenomenal sets came from the Ivy Tech Community College Tent. Whether the Afro-Latin alternative rock of Kansas City’s Making Movies that brought a fiery political message, the bright Balkan street brass of Raya Brass Band that continued playing on and on but still seemed to end too soon, or the impressive traditional Québécois of De Temps Antan, there was a consistent stream of great music flowing from that tent in particular. Before I headed out I was able to catch a bit of the Afro-Gypsy Lo’Jo and the Afro-Venezuelan Betsayda Machado y La Parranda el Clavo, and I once again was not disappointed.

The great music and art didn’t stop at the stages either. Between Lotus in the Park and the Festival Arts Village, both free and open to the public, anyone and everyone in downtown Bloomington had the opportunity to expand their horizons and broaden their perspectives as global citizens, making it a memorable weekend for all, myself included.

(Note: due to circumstances out of her control, Claire Castillo, the photographer I teamed up with for this festival, was unable to get down to Bloomington until Saturday evening, where she captured a few of those performances. She was a pleasure to work with, and if you like these shots you should check out some of her other work.)