Philadelphia, April 24, 2017 – On May 21, Intercultural Journeys brings oud player Rahim AlHaj to Philadelphia to perform Letters from Iraq, a poignant musical journey through the letters and memories of eight Iraqi citizens. Against the backdrop of increasingly inflammatory rhetoric surrounding both immigrants and the Middle East, AlHaj’s performance serves as a timely reminder of the human face of war.

AlHaj was born in Baghdad, Iraq and graduated in 1990 from the Institute of Music in Baghdad with a diploma in composition. After being imprisoned twice for his political outspokenness, AlHaj fled Iraq in 1991. Pursued by the Mukhbarat, Iraq's secret police, AlHaj lived in both Jordan and Syria, and was eventually granted asylum in the United States. In 2014, after his first trip back to his homeland in over a decade, AlHaj began writing Letters From Iraq. Moved by the heartbreaking letters he received from Iraqi women and children, AlHaj portrays the contents of the letters -- detailed narratives of the fall of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian violence that stemmed from war -- through eight individual pieces for oud and string quintet. Letters from Iraq, by turns despairing and defiant, weaves together a picture of a country and its citizens gripped between a crisis of the present and a hope for the future.

AlHaj's remarkable story was chronicled in a 2008 New York Times piece titled "A Fabled Iraqi Instrument Thrives in Exile." Highlights of AlHaj’s performance career include 11 albums, two Grammy nominations, and a popular Tiny Desk Concert (NPR). He has performed with artists ranging from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck to jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to the Kronos Quartet. In 2015, he received the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship.


Letters from Iraq

Sunday, May 21, 2017 - 7pm

Ibrahim Theater at International House, 3701 Chestnut Street

Tickets for the performance are $15 for General Admission, $10 for IHP members, and $8 for students. To purchase tickets, visit or call 215-387-5125, ext. 2.


Rahim AlHaj, virtuoso oud musician and composer, was born in Baghdad, Iraq and began playing the oud at age nine. Alhaj studied under the renowned Munir Bashir, as well as Salim Abdul Kareem at the Institute of Music in Baghdad, Iraq. Mr. AlHaj won various awards at the Conservatory and graduated in 1990 with a diploma in composition. He also holds a degree in Arabic Literature from Mustunsariya University in Baghdad. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, Mr. AlHaj was forced to leave Iraq due to his activism against the Saddam Hussein regime and began his life in Jordan and Syria. He moved to the US in 2000 as a political refugee and has resided in Albuquerque, NM ever since. AlHaj became a US citizen on August 15, 2008.

AlHaj has released eleven CDs, is a two-time Grammy-nominee, and has recorded and performed with a wide variety of musicians including genre-busting American guitarist Bill Frisell, modern accordion innovator Guy Klucevsek, Indian sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan, and indy-rock pioneers REM. AlHaj was awarded the prestigious US Artist Ford Fellowship Grant in 2009 and received the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 2015.


Intercultural Journeys uses the arts to promote peace and greater understanding between people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and cultures with the aim of catalyzing social change and awareness. Founded in 2002, Intercultural Journeys believes that performances, done for the purpose of bringing people together that might otherwise be in conflict, give us the opportunity to play a small part in contributing to world peace.

Behind the Scenes of Going Home

On March 26, vocalist Keisha Hutchins joins Intercultural Journeys for Going Home. But what happens before the curtain rises? Read on for Keisha's insightful behind-the-scenes peak at her approach to music and programming.

Behind the Scenes of Going Home

By: Keisha Hutchins

Music has the power to stir deep emotion. To serve as a conduit for resistance, social justice, hope, and change.  To provoke and inspire us in disparate directions and calls to actions.  It held that power for centuries, and it is an apt, powerful tool today.

As an artist, I have a responsibility to bring social-justice into my practice and performance because my art is so public. If I have the privilege of holding the audience’s attention, then why not create an opportunity to share a deeply held belief or concern that affects us all? As human beings, we want to be seen, heard, and ultimately, loved. When a performance can tap into some or all of those things, that is when that incredible transformational experience can happen for the audience member and artist alike.  

As I prepared for Going Home, current events swirled through my mind. The prison- industrial complex, the brutal mass killings of Black bodies in this country, oppressive systems that are still hard at work—centuries of policies based on biases and unchecked assumptions that have been harmful and downright dangerous to humanity. It is for this reason that I also intentionally chose pieces that reflected my sorrow and grief around these systems, while also trying to open a space for light and hope.

In preparing for this concert, I have thought deeply about what each song I am performing means to me as an artist and what it could mean for my audience. Not all of the pieces are songs of resistance, per se. Rather, the act of resistance for some pieces is in just performing the pieces at all–for instance, being a Black performer singing a piece of classical music, my voice inhabiting an aria from a role that was never intended to be played by a Black woman. I challenge both myself and my audiences to consider the biases we all have around what it means to both Black and a performer: who has the ultimate say as to what art is? Who determines what Black art is? And why does it matter? Or does it? Who can say who can play?

I am a citizen-artist hybrid: I draw attention to social justice issues as one of many ways I can add my support to the movements of positive change by lifting up different struggles and offering my support through song. And I feel a greater urgency, now more than ever, to use my platform as an artist to engage more often and more intentionally in social justice. Using one’s art form to engage oneself and her audience around these issues can only deepen connections and create spaces for growth and a shared vision for collective peace and ultimately, change.


Philadelphia, March 2, 2017 - Identity. Race. Gender. Throughout the last months, these issues have boiled to the surface in the national debate around our identity as a nation. On March 26, Intercultural Journeys dives into these issues with Keisha Hutchins' powerful concert, Going Home.

Vocalist and singer-songwriter Keisha Hutchins debuts Going Home, a soaring and timely artistic exploration ofbeing a Black, female artist in America on Sunday, March 26. Seamlessly moving from arias to jazz to spirituals, Hutchins blends together a vibrant, thoughtful concert examining persistence and resistance, guiding the audience through a profound personal and historical roadmap that considers what it is to be Black in America. Hutchins is joined by guest artists Lela Aisha JonesDouglas HirlingerAshley Phillips, and Neil Podgurski.

Artist Keisha Hutchins states:

"As I prepared for Going Home, current events swirled through my mind. The prison- industrial complex, the brutal mass killings of Black bodies in this country, oppressive systems that are still hard at work—centuries of policies based on biases and unchecked assumptions that have been harmful and downright dangerous to humanity. It is for this reason that I also intentionally chose pieces that reflected my sorrow and grief around these systems, while also trying to open a space for light and hope."

In conjunction with Going Home, Intercultural Journeys presents Intersections: Art, Identity, Home, a panel conversation around how Black, female artists navigate nationhood, citizenship, and homeland. Keisha Hutchins is joined by Valerie Gay (Executive Director of Art Sanctuary), Yolanda Wisher (Philadelphia's Poet Laureate), and Lela Aisha Jones (2016 Pew Fellow) in a discussion moderated by Dr. Pia Deas. The program is free and open to the public, and presented in partnership with Art Sanctuary.


Going Home, Sunday, March 26, 2017 - 7pm

Ibrahim Theater at International House, 3701 Chestnut Street

Tickets for the performance are $15 for General Admission, $10 for IHP members, and $8 for students. To purchase tickets, visit or call 215-387-5125, ext. 2.



Intersections: Art, Identity, Home, Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 6 pm

Art Sanctuary, 628 S. 16th St

Tickets for the panel are free and available online at:


Trained at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory, vocalist Keisha Hutchins has been exploring, blending, and bending genres from Carnegie Hall to the clubs of Philadelphia, and her sound today is a smooth, heady blend of folk, soul, and alt-country.  In addition to her first group, the trip-hop electronic artists Vanishing Peoples of the Earth, the soprano has performed with the Philadelphia Singers, the former resident choir of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for seven seasons, and has collaborated with artists as diverse as hip-hop producer Justin Gilmore of KRU records, dance music producer and DJ MacGuyver, New York composer Andrew Shapiro, and New Orleans composer and trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe.  Her eclectic talents extend offstage: she is a music educator, serving as the Lower School Music Teacher at Abington Friends School and has received the Leeway Foundation’s Art and Change grant for women who use their art to create social change. Keisha recently collaborated with dancer, choreographer and 2016 Pew Fellow, Lela Aisha Jones and her company Flyground, in the premiere of the company’s piece, Release Mourning Clearing, presented by Intercultural Journeys (2016).

Hutchins’ debut solo album, Dedicated, moved the Philadelphia City Paper to name her one of its Great Unknown Artists in 2006.  Her latest album, Press Play, draws on a wide range of influences, creating a mesmerizing work that defies categorization.  

Creating our own content: Rajna Swaminathan and Anu Yadav

Rajna Swaminathan and Anu Yadav light up the stage in Storytellers, a powerful, political, personal work that intertwines music and text. The artists shared some of their artistic journey with Intercultural Journeys' managing director, Carly Rapaport-Stein. Read on to hear from the artists all about their art, influences, and practice.

Carly: Anu, what's your earliest memory of falling in love with the theater? And Rajna, what's your earliest memory of falling in love with music?

Anu: The first thought that comes to mind actually is a trick I played on some schoolboys walking by my apartment building. I had recorded myself playing different voices as if in a TV show and commercial. I blasted the stereo out the window and then they laughed and threw pebbles at the window. I didn't anticipate that reaction, and was afraid they would throw bigger rocks!  They didn't, thankfully. I think what I loved about the moment – before the rock throwing – was the secrecy and escapism of hiding behind character. Little did I realize that acting and theater is not about hiding so much as revealing the truth of who you are. I thought I loved to hide onstage, but really, what I loved was letting down my guard and fear of the boxes I knew other children put me in. It was step towards being more myself.

Rajna: I used to sing a lot of nursery rhymes as a child, and loved making up my own songs while I played. I remember finding joy in belting out whatever came to mind! Later, I used to compose little melodies, and felt delighted as I worked them out on the piano, neglecting whatever Mozart of Tchaikovsky piece was assigned by my piano teacher. This inclination for composing continued into my teenage years, when I sat almost every afternoon, either with the piano or a toy guitar, writing songs to deal with some angst and the experience of being bullied. I suppose that such early experiences intermingled – at some level of consciousness – with my more formal training in Indian music. I think both of those early discoveries – finding beauty in shaping musical sounds and experiencing their catharsis and intimacy – continue to inform my music today.

Carly: And speaking of your artistic influences, I’d love to hear more about each of your cultural and artistic influences. How did you come to focus on your particular artistic tradition?

Anu: I grew up with an Indian heritage in Iowa, then Kansas, and moved to the DC area after college. Theater has always been a part of my life from an early age – to be honest, I think the arts are naturally part of what it means to be a young person. As young people, we don't identify as an artist, a painter, a musicmaker, etc, but we try different things because that is what it means to be alive. Something about theater just stuck and I've been finding a way to do it ever since.

I have been drawn to writing more from a place of performing my own text. I was frustrated with the stereotyping in theater, and raged at the idea of waiting for someone else to decide what role I should get, in plays that never really considered me to begin with. Racism, ableism, sexism, all these different oppressions play a role in what plays tend to get more production. Creating our own content can get us farther in a more liberated way.  Lately I have been also open to being in traditional theater, but there is so much more room in getting to have the tools of creating your own performance as well.

Rajna: Although Anu and I had different paths to becoming artists, there is one thing that resonates with me: creating our own content. I grew up in a very artistically inclined family – almost everyone in my extended family plays an instrument, sings, or dances. In that way, I was always on the path to having music be a fundamental part of my life, if not my profession. I have studied mrudangam, Western classical piano, and South Indian classical dance and vocal music, for various lengths of time. I gravitated toward the mrudangam because my father plays, and also because I began studying with Umayalpuram Sivaraman, an illustrious percussion legend. I was in awe of what he could do with the instrument, and I especially noticed that he was able to play in various contexts – traditional Karnatik music or collaborations with Western classical and jazz musicians –  with incredible dexterity and sincerity. I spent some years immersed in traditional Karnatik music, performing in India frequently as well. At some point, I needed to reconcile being a young American woman and how that identity morphed as I moved through different spaces in my life. In my search for answers to some difficult questions, I eventually found a second home (along with several wonderful mentors and friends) in the creative music and jazz scene in New York, and my approach to music achieved new depths for understanding who I was and how I wanted to sound. I began "creating my own content," as Anu so succinctly put it, and that's when I started RAJAS, a project that has, since 2013, been a fertile experimental sounding board. I still play in 'traditional' South Indian music settings, but that experience is now infused with an abundance of ideas that came from engaging with other musical perspectives.   

Carly: You’ve both pursued artistic connections across genres. Have you also used your art to explore connections across people from diverse backgrounds?

Anu: Yes, years ago I was able to travel to India, South Africa and Brazil to learn about theater towards social change in different communities. Just recently, I traveled back to India and reconnected with a street theater troupe, Jana Natya Manch, in Delhi. In the US, I've created devised theater with various groups with a lot to say about racism, housing, healthcare, wages, in their lives, as well as with organizers, activists, educators, and with ages varied from toddlers to seniors. The greater diversity of people I get to work with, the more I learn about how to be inclusive, thoughtful, and just widen my heart for myself. It's a generous gift.  

Rajna: When I first encountered polyrhythmic music rooted in West African and Afro-Cuban traditions, I was immediately humbled. I was mentored in polyrhythmic techniques by saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, who has done a fair amount of research into rhythmic perspectives around the world. Inspired by his approach, I became keen on finding ways for musicians of different backgrounds to coexist in an improvisational context while engaging rigorously with one another's perspectives. New York was an ideal place for such encounters to take place. This informed how I developed RAJAS, but it applied internally to me, too, as I tried to inhabit various musical spaces with the mrudangam. As a freelance musician, I sought out situations where I could interact with different musical approaches as well as different artistic media, including dance and theater. Learning to play for and with people from many different walks of life has been an incredibly enriching experience. It pushes me to think about what music is and what is does for people.

Carly: What does it mean to you to be a part of Intercultural Journeys' 2016-17 season Homeland: Cultural Migrations through Artistry?

Anu: It means more experimentation and exploration and discovery.  Rajna and I have worked together on my solo play MEENA'S DREAM, and it was a very different project that culminated over a few years. This is more about working in her form of improvisation, and in tandem with her musical process. We are going back and forth and creating something in a shorter time frame, with shorter pieces of text, as well as weaving it between music that her band will create, inspired by some of my writing.  

Rajna: I am excited to perform with Anu again, and also to engage more deeply with the community in Philadelphia. RAJAS will also feature musicians that I deeply respect and love playing with: Rafiq Bhatia, Aakash Mittal, Anjna Swaminathan, and Ganavya Doraiswamy. I look forward to the music taking on new meanings and associations, and I hope the whole workshop and performance process can be a way for us to process recent events and collectively heal. I am especially touched by the efforts made by the Intercultural Journeys team to make this a meaningful and transformative experience.

Carly: What projects are you excited about completing next?

Anu: For a few years I have wanted to write and produce sketch comedy and kept getting scared or waiting for someone else to hold my feet to the fire. Just recently, I finally wrote sketches that were presented in a workshop reading at Mosaic Theatre Company as ISM: A TRAGICOMEDY, working with an all women of color cast and creative team. It was tremendous. I'm excited about the development of that piece, as well as getting to tackle some of the topics around racism, sexism and economic crisis in ways that allow us all to laugh, as well as learn more deeply about each other.

Rajna: The next thing coming up is a double bill with Miles Okazaki (who has also been a longstanding member of RAJAS), presented at MIT's Ampersand series in March. The performance is accompanied by specially curated visuals. I always enjoy having a chance to perform in Cambridge, where I have lived for the past 2 years while working on my PhD at Harvard. I am also touring with eminent Karnatik vocalist T.M. Krishna in April. I have been studying vocal music with him over the past couple of years, and have been inspired by his incredibly creative and experimental approach to the Karnatik tradition. In general, I look forward to the many creative discoveries ahead, and hope to keep learning and finding more honest ways of engaging with the world as a musician and human being.

Carly: Thanks to both of you, and I’m looking forward to the workshop and the concert!