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Intercultural Journeys seeks to promote understanding in pursuit of peace among people of diverse faiths and cultures through dialogue and the presentation of world-class music performances and other art forms.

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Creating our own content: Rajna Swaminathan and Anu Yadav

Carly Rapaport-Stein

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!

INTERCULTURAL JOURNEYS PRESENTS WORLD PREMIERE PERFORMANCE OF STORYTELLERS

Carly Rapaport-Stein

Philadelphia, January 30, 2017 - Accomplished mrudangam artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan joins forces with acclaimed playwright/actor Anu Yadav and South Indian percussion ensemble RAJAS to debut their compelling political and personal performance, Storytellers, on February 19. Building on their prior collaborative work for Yadav's work, Meena's Dream, the artistsreflect on their standpoint as South Asian Americans against a backdrop of racially charged conflict and other "isms" swirling around our society.  Combining musical improvisation with community-engaged theater, Storytellers acknowledges our differences, transcends boundaries, and addresses the urgent need for compassion and humanity in these times. 

On Saturday, February 18, Intercultural Journeys, in partnership with the Asian Arts Initiative, will host a free workshop led by the artists. Blending music, movement, and theater, Swaminathan and Yadav will guide participants through an exploration of building collaboration, community, and courage by listening across differences. The workshop is appropriate for adults and teenagers.

                                    

PERFORMANCE

Storytellers

Sunday, February 19, 2017 - 7pm

Ibrahim Theater, 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 http://www.IHousePhilly.org/IJ or call 215-387-5125, ext. 2.

 

WORKSHOP

The Rhythm of Home

Saturday, February 18, 2017 - 3pm

Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street

Tickets for the free workshop are limited to the first 40 registrants, and are available online at: bit.do/rhythmofhomeIJ

 

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Rajna Swaminathan is an accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist, a protégé of mrudangam legend Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman. She has performed with several renowned Indian classical musicians, most notably mentor and vocalist T.M. Krishna. Over the past few years, she has been studying and collaborating with eminent musicians in New York's jazz and creative music scene, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Miles Okazaki, and Amir ElSaffar. Rajna leads the ensemble RAJAS, which collectively explores new textural and improvisational horizons at the nexus of Indian classical and creative music traditions. She is also a composer-performer for dance and theater works. She has toured widely with the acclaimed company Ragamala Dance, and has collaborated with playwright Anu Yadav. Rajna regularly teaches workshops on the South Indian rhythmic perspective, most prominently at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music, and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. Rajna holds degrees in Anthropology and French from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Music at Harvard University. www.rajnaswaminathan.com 

RAJAS brings together contemporary musicians from the Indian classical and jazz/creative music scenes in New York City. The Vedantic term "rajas" refers to the inner human energy that compels us to act, to pursue our passions, to create, and to preserve ourselves. Spearheaded by mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan, the project provides a forum to collectively contemplate new possibilities for musical concepts and sensibilities stemming from the Indian classical idiom. 

 

Anu Yadav is a critically acclaimed actress, writer, educator, and producer dedicated to untold stories, social justice, deep laughter and connection.  She tours her solo plays ‘Capers and Meena’s Dream, and founded Classlines a storytelling project on wealth and poverty. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Safdar in Delhi, and Beijing’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts, among others.  Her work was covered by MTV, the Washington Post, WAMU-FM, and the documentaries Walk with Me, Chocolate City. She is a 2016 DC Artist Fellow, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and holds an M.F.A. in Performance from University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently at work on ISM: A TRAGICOMEDY, and recently partnered with the Institute for Policy Studies as a Catalyst Grant recipient. www.anuyadav.com

 

ABOUT INTERCULTURAL JOURNEYS

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.

 

ABOUT ASIAN ARTS INITIATIVE

Asian Arts Initiative is a community-based arts organization and exhibition space in the Chinatown North neighborhood of Philadelphia that engages artists and everyday people to create art that explores the diverse experiences of Asian Americans, addresses our social context, and imagines and effects positive community change. Created in 1993, Asian Arts Initiative was a response to community concerns about rising tension between two racially diverse communities with the mission to create community through the power of art. For the past 23 years, Asian Arts Initiative has provided an inclusive and safe space for a diverse population of artists, youth, and community residents to voice their experiences of cultural identity and heritage and claim the power of art-making; all of which reflects our longstanding commitment to civic and community engagement, strengthened by our exploration and pioneering of new strategies to further community informed and engaged art.

Homeland: Cultural Migrations Through Artistry

Carly Rapaport-Stein

Intercultural Journeys is pleased to announce its 2016/17 Season, Homeland: Cultural Migrations Through Artistry. The season consists of five diverse, compelling concerts featuring local and non-local artists is the second season curated by Alex Shaw.

The artists featured in the season include two-time GRAMMY nominee and 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Rahim AlHaj; the Philadelphia debut of Brooklyn-based Alsarah & The Nubatones; previous IJ artists Keisha Hutchins, Udi Bar-David, and Hanna Khoury; and South Indian mrudangam master Rajna Swaminathan and her ensemble RAJAS in concert with playwright/actress Anu Yadav.

Intercultural Journeys is also pleased to continue a new programming tradition, Food for Thought. Prior to each concert, guests are invited to join a free community potluck and discussion designed to explore the social themes connected to the concert and the season. Remarks are provided by a local scholar or community organizer, and attendees are encouraged to bring a food item to share with the group. Each Food for Thought event takes place in the East Gallery at International House two hours prior to the show.

All performances are held at the Ibrahim Theater at International House Philadelphia. Season subscriptions are priced at $60. Single ticket prices are: $15 for general admission, $10 for International House members, and $8 for students. Tickets will go on sale shortly.

Homeland: Cultural Migrations Through Artistry

Alsarah & The Nubatones: Ya Watan (O Homeland)

November 6, 2016 @ 7:00pm

We kick the 2016/17 season off with Brooklyn-based Alsarah & The Nubatones. Alsarah is a Sudanese-born singer, songwriter, and self-proclaimed practitioner of East African retro-pop, whose music is deeply rooted in Nubian ‘Songs of Return’ from the 1960s and 70s, and contemplates modern migration patterns and cultural exchanges between Sudan and Egypt. We welcome Alsarah & The Nubatones for their first ever Philadelphia appearance, performing music from their internationally renowned debut album, Silt, as well as from their upcoming new album release.

 

Udi Bar-David & Hanna Khoury: From Tarshiha to Rabin Center - An Artistic Path to Peace

January 22, 2017 @ 7:00pm

Acclaimed American-Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David and Arab-Israeli violinist Hanna Khoury (2010 Pew Fellow), joined by Syrian-Venezuelan master percussionist Hafez Javier Kotain (2013 Pew Fellow), will recount their recent concert tour of Arab and Jewish communities in Israel amidst the ongoing tensions in the region, while traveling with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, in partnership with Intercultural Journeys. The trio will perform musical selections from their tour, and will share the challenges and hopes from their experiences through sounds and video that documented their journey of peace.

 

Rajna Swaminathan/RAJAS & Anu Yadav: Storytellers

February 19, 2017 @ 7:00pm

Accomplished mrudangam (South Indian percussion) artist and composer Rajna Swaminathan joins forces with acclaimed playwright/actor Anu Yadav to debut their compelling political and personal performance, Storytellers, against the current backdrop of racially charged conflict and other 'isms' plaguing our society. In collaboration with RAJAS, Swaminathan’s ensemble rooted in the Indian classical perspective and jazz/creative music scenes, Storytellers combines musical improvisation with community-engaged theater that acknowledges our differences, transcends boundaries, and addresses the urgent need for compassion and humanity in these challenging times.

 

Keisha Hutchins: Going Home

March 26, 2017 @ 7:00pm

In Going Home, classically-trained vocalist and singer-songwriter Keisha Hutchins examines how African-American musical art forms have functioned throughout history and across the Diaspora, and considers what it means to be Black in various homelands, where some of those living the Black experience still do not feel completely at home and welcome.  Audiences will journey through music, dance and poetry to ask “What is home?” and “What is Blackness?“, and trouble the notions both outside of and within the Black Diaspora that try to define us in easily packaged monolithic terms.

 

Rahim AlHaj: Letters from Iraq

May 21, 2017 @ 7:00pm

Two-time GRAMMY-nominee and 2015 NEA National Heritage Fellow, composer and oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj will premiere his latest work, Letters from Iraq. Composed for oud, Arabic percussion, and string quintet, Letters from Iraq is a poignant meditation on war, its aftermath, and its consequences.  Inspired by stories told from the perspective of Iraqi women and children, Letters from Iraq will feature a string quintet of renowned Philadelphia-based musicians, including Pennsylvania Ballet Concertmaster Luigi Mazzocchi.  

IJ welcomes Tim Ward, Jr. to the Board of Directors

Carly Rapaport-Stein

Intercultural Journeys is pleased to welcome Tim Ward, Jr. as the newest member of the Board of Directors. Elected in June 2016, Mr. Ward is a Manager with North Highland Worldwide Consulting and specializes in the design and delivery of digital products.

"We are delighted to welcome Tim to the Intercultural Journeys Board of Directors," said Stacy Maria Dutton, Chair of the IJ Board of Directors. "In addition to bringing his passion for music and commitment to the role that music can play as a tool for social change, he also brings extensive strategic and design experience, both of which are invaluable as we continue to position IJ as the premiere institution working at the intersection of the arts and social change." 

Mr. Ward is a graduate of LaSalle University and has spent most of his professional career providing technology and management consulting services to clients in the Media/Entertainment and Pharmaceutical industries. Outside of his consulting work, he is an avid guitar player and singer with a passion for bringing people together through music. 

My City Needs...

Carly Rapaport-Stein

Students at Parkway NW High School for Peace and Social Justice. Photo by Aidan Un. 

Students at Parkway NW High School for Peace and Social Justice. Photo by Aidan Un. 

In addition to performances, Intercultural Journeys also offers a variety of educational opportunities to youth in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. These engagements can range from one-time performances or discussions featuring our season artists to full-scale arts and social residencies. The goal with our educational programming is to use the arts to inspire and cultivate social consciousness and awareness - something that is often lacking in general education. All too frequently, youth are confronted with challenging issues in their own communities and are left with little guidance on how to process the things they are confronted with as well as their relationships with each other, their community, and the world at large. Our residency program is called Arts and Agency, and you can find updates on our various residencies under the appropriate header on our main website. 

Recently, we completed our first Arts and Agency residency at Parkway NW High School for Peace and Social Justice. The Native Portals Education Project was created in collaboration with our 2015/16 season artist, 2016 Pew Fellow and 2015 Leeway Transformation Award Winner Lela Aisha Jones. During the residency, Lela worked with the ninth grade students to to create pathways and entry points for students to continually explore individual agency, social responsibility, social consciousness, and social action through movement and creative process. You can read more about the residency, including comments from Lela and the students and watch videos documenting the process by clicking on the link below, or by traveling to the Arts and Agency header above, and select "Parkway NW High School."