Mavis Staples got her start in music with family. The Staple Singers was an American gospel, soul and R&B group that began performing in Chicago in the late 1940s. Since their first studio album, Uncloudy Day, the Staples Singers continued to have commercial success for over fifty years, when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
Since then, Mavis Staples has continued to record on her own. In 2010, her twelfth studio album, You Are Not Alone, won the Grammy Award for Best Americana Album. She was 71.
A World Of Music
Lee Williams is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Bloomington Lotus Festival. He booked Mavis Staples at the 2011 headlining act. I called him, to ask him a few questions. My first: Is it true that the Lotus Festival is the nation’s oldest world music festival?
“We think so,” he answered. “If you’re an intrepid reporter, you’ll want to go out there and find out. There’s no way to prove it. How do you define ‘world music?” We would come back to that question repeatedly over the course of our conversation. Meanwhile, he elaborated.
There are festivals in the United States that program, selectively, music from other countries. But they’re primarily something else. There’s a famous French-speaking festival down in Louisiana that does music from French-speaking countries, so a lot of African music is played there. So what is that? Is that a world music festival or is that a Francophone festival? And there’s a New Orleans jazz festival where they do an incredible variety of music, but they don’t in any way come close to covering the world, like we try to do. Is that a world music festival, because they do have music from parts of the world? I don’t know.
“I say that Lotus is the oldest in the United States that uses the phrase ‘world music.’ I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Celebrating The World We Know
For the director of a world music festival, some might think Lee Williams has a funny relationship with the term ‘world music.’ He says he hates the phrase. “To some people, it means ‘music from out there, somewhere else, not your own country.’ That’s what it means to some people.”
His goal, then, is to bring music from “out there,” in. But if the mission of Lotus is to introduce American audiences to music from elsewhere in the world, why is Mavis Staples, that icon of American music, its headlining act this fall? What does it mean to celebrate an American musician at a world music festival?
“As a good friend of mine said one time to me, all music is ‘world music.’ We don’t define what the phrase means. We select music from all traditions. We have always done American music, from the very beginning–just a whole host of noncommercial genres of US-based American music.”
An Eclectic Mix May Draw Electic Crowds
But though he used the word ‘noncommercial,’ it’s not a term that actually ties together every group that plays at Lotus. “I don’t know if they share anything in common, collectively,” Williams admits; Mavis Staples is hardly “noncommercial.”
But she’s actually an anomaly for Lotus. It’s a festival that prides itself on booking artists who are not known, and having an audience that trusts its programming.
It’s not a small audience, though. Last year, 11,000 people came to Bloomington for Lotus Weekend, and visitors to Lotus events contributed an estimated $800,000 to Bloomington’s economy. If the majority of that audience is people who came to Lotus in years past, maybe this year’s headliner will attract bigger, and more diverse, crowds.
“If you want to go, you should get a ticket. It will sell out,” Williams assures me. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Mavis Staples performs at the Lotus Festival September 22. The festival runs through Sept. 25. Tickets go on sale at the Buskirk-Chumley July 29.
This Year’s Lineup:
- Bomba Estéreo, Colombian cumbia, hip-hop, & electronica
- Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, Italian folk music
- Creole Choir of Cuba, traditional Caribbean choral music
- Joaquin Diaz, Dominican merengue
- Dikanda, roots music from Poland and Eastern Europe
- Fishtank Ensemble, high-energy gypsy swing
- Frigg, string folk music from Finland and Norway
- Eilen Jewell, roots Americana
- Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, Hawaiian chants, hula and song
- Luisa Maita, contemporary Brazilian song
- Mike and Ruthy, roots Americana
- Movitz, Swedish hip-hop and swing
- Nawal, original song and acoustic music from the Comoros Islands
- Orchid Ensemble, classical Chinese and jazz fusion
- Red Baraat, Indian bhangra brass band
- Staff Benda Bilili, Congolese rumba
- Mavis Staples, American blues, gospel and soul
- Tareq Rantisi and Ali Amr with Srinivas Krishnan, Palestinian and Indian classical
- Te Vaka, contemporary Polynesian music
- Abigail Washburn, Americana
More information about these performers, including the dates of their performances, is available on the Lotus Web site.
This year's lineup includes Swedish groove, Colombian cumbia, Frigg, Red Baraat, Abigail Washburn, the Creole Choir of Cuba, and the legendary Mavis Staples.
September 22-25, 2011
Tickets go on sale July 29 at the Buskirk-Chumley.