Indiana has a secret. Hidden in one of America’s great small towns — complete with idyllic courthouse square and thriving main street — is an unexpected hub of global culture. From Tibetan monasteries to Afghan and Burmese eateries, Bloomington goes beyond the laidback cosmopolitanism of most Midwestern college towns.
The cornerstone of Bloomington’s global side is the annual Lotus World Music and Arts Festival (Sept. 26-29). An annual, nationally recognized world music event celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Lotus transforms Bloomington’s quaint downtown into something that combines the elements of a street fair, carnival procession, and massive block party. The music — ranging from meditative solo performances to high-energy Swedish hip hop or Balkan funk — powers the evening, drawing together town and gown, and the entire surrounding region.
“The thing about Bloomington is its small size and its big contingent of arts and culture and academics,” festival communications director LuAnne Holladay said in a press release. “Indiana University acts as a magnet that draws people from all over the world anyway. You can be completely disinterested in the arts, but still understand that there’s more here than the usual Midwestern culture.”
Lotus has boosted the power of Bloomington’s cultural magnetism, bringing in internationally acclaimed artists as diverse as red-hot pranksters Balkan Beat Box and electro-cumbia club stars Bomba Estereo, soul icon Mavis Staples and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Afropop stars like Baaba Maal, Habib Koite, and Vieux Farka Toure. In short, the festival has hosted nearly every major name and every possible sound.
This eclectic, open-eared musical approach has deep roots. Bloomington has long been a music town, from the days when native son Hoagy Carmichael penned his classics, to IU’s stellar Jacobs School of Music and Archive of Traditional Music (second in size to the Library of Congress for traditional recordings), to the present flourishing of indie rock labels with international clout (Secretly Canadian, Jagjagwar, and Dead Oceans, darlings of the indie rock world, are all based in Bloomington). Yet the scene has its distinctly global element, inspired by and inspiring Lotus. Bloomington is home to Salaam, an Iraqi-American ensemble able to shift from centuries-old Bagdad modes to moving original pieces; Ghanaian master xylophonist and educator Bernard Woma, who has played for the likes of Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton; IU world music percussion professor Michael Spiro, world-renowned for his Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian performances and recordings; and Irish flute player Grey Larsen, highly respected in Celtic music circles.