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Indian American Jazz Artists Create Their Own Sound

by Pawan Dhingra

I once saw Ravi Coltrane play in a small club in New York City, about 15 years ago. I knew he was John Coltrane’s son and I thought it interesting that he had an Indian first name. I learned soon after that he was named after Ravi Shankar. John Coltrane had a deep respect for Shankar, and while they met various times, Coltrane passed away before he could take lessons from Shankar. Still, Indian music found its way into John Coltrane’s albums, and this trend grew – American jazz musicians would learn and borrow from Indian classical music. It would have varying degrees of an exotic quality – respectful yet invoked partly because of the sound’s foreignness.

Today, the practice of American jazz musicians invoking Indian classical music continues. But, it is now South Asian Americans who are doing this, and to remarkable effect. Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Rez Abbasi, Sanjay Mishra, Asha Putli, Sachal Vasandani, and others who immigrated when they were younger or grew up in the United States have made a living as jazz musicians and singers. For these artists it is less an exploration into “the other” and more into the self. In the words of Mahanthappa, “Indian-American identity reigns supreme in my work.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Pawan Dhingra at the Blues Alley.

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Pawan Dhingra at the Blues Alley.

These musicians bring together various musical styles in subtle ways, such as by incorporating a particular Carnatic rhythm that would be hard to discern as overtly Indian to the novice ears. Yet, such blending of styles requires years of research and has earned significant praise. Looking at the websites of these musicians will reveal almost countless laudatory reviews.

Last week, the Embassy of India co-sponsored a week’s worth of South Asian American jazz artists at the Blues Alley. I had the pleasure of seeing Rez Abbasi play guitar in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto-saxophone quartet on Friday night. It was an electric performance. Each member sounded out in turn and in concert, and Mahanthappa played along a couple of electronic, computer-led jazz episodes as well. This is cutting-edge music, with references to an Indian past and to a high-tech future. The lines between real and recorded are blurred, as they are between East and West both musically and personally.

Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2012 in Entertainment

 

Culture Sampling: South Asian Hip-Hop Concert Celebrates Desi Artists

Painting by Art Under Pressure

Painting by Art Under Pressure, commissioned by Subcontinental Drift and acquired by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program for "Drift Elemental," D.C.'s first South Asian hip-hop show, 9-23-11.

by Aditya Desai

The District’s cultural nerve center in the U Street corridor was host to a South Asian hip-hop concert last month, showcasing performances by Indian American MCs, rappers, beat-boxers, and dancers.

The concert, dubbed Drift Elemental and hosted by local South Asian arts organization Subcontinental Drift, drew a heavy crowd on Friday, both Desi and non-Desi, all present to support art and bust a few dance moves.

As they took the stage, the MCs paid tribute to the old school hip-hop that they grew up listening to, each song set an emphatic homage to the culture of back-door hip-hop clubs. That night, New York’s DJ Insomnia and his crew of turntable maestros backed up the vocalists. In between acts, they took center stage and mixed a live dance set, allowing the crowd to not just witness, but in a sense “re-live” the same experience the artists were paying homage to. Filled out by a performance from breakdancers, the night overall stayed very much in the world of one-mic MCs, scratching vinyls, heavy bass beats, and subliminal lyrics.

Vocal acts from Raja Wilco, Ko the Timeless, and Navi & The Whole Damme Delegation set the tone for the night, with lurid rhymes that didn’t wax too poetic about the usual immigrant strife, but still carried the weight of cultural tensions.

And really, why make a big deal of it? It was a South-Asian event, the crowd was mostly populated by brown faces. The show was full-on embrace not of the Indian ancestry, but rather the heritage that these Desi MCs have created in the States.

Just as these MCs grew up with Run DMC, Notorious BIG, and Doug E. Fresh, other Desi kids across the country are striving to be rock legends, pop divas, or symphony stars. Though offhand it would seem that there was too much emphasis on the “Western” aspect, artists would engage with the audience between songs to give background and perspective on encountering these musical styles. For example, an R&B-influenced ballad was always framed in response to Bollywood romance numbers.

The hope is always, of course, that the Indian background is able to bring a fresh spin to the art – not only to keep the Eastern traditions alive, but also to bring a new vibrancy to the Western. Such collaborations aren’t uncommon – Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, Jay-Z and Punjabi MC, Snoop Dogg and Pritam – but perhaps to think of the new horizon: the two musical styles embedded into the single artists.

Perhaps symbolic of the notion was the live-painted mural done by graffiti artists in the concert venue. Though the subcontinent looms in the background, the hijab-donning woman is looks out at us, spray-can in hand, ready to make her mark on the rest of the world.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Culture, Entertainment

 

SALGA Artifacts Acquired

SALGA Postcard

SALGA Postcard

Through the joint efforts of the Asian Pacific American Program’s HomeSpun Project and the National Museum of American History (NMAH), The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) recently donated a variety of materials to the Archives Center, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

Founded in 1991, SALGA is a New York City based organization promoting the civil rights of all South Asian Americans through awareness, empowerment, and the provision of safe spaces. SALGA participates in a range of activities ranging from HIV/AIDS awareness, to immigration advocacy, to support groups, to book clubs, to social gatherings.

SALGA Newsletter

SALGA Newsletter

The materials will join the Archives Center Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Collection (click to download PDF). This collection contains publications, advertising ephemera, posters, and other materials related to the LGBT community throughout the United States. SALGA newsletters, flyers for events, and outreach materials inform its members and non-members of critical issues facing primarily LGBT South Asian Americans. These materials helped connect people in an age before the Internet, facilitating their adjustment to life in New York City.

SALGA has gained prominence within New York City’s Indian American community. It has worked collaboratively to be able to march in the annual Indian Day Parade in New York City. They are widely known and acknowledged by mainstream gay and lesbian communities as serving a demographic otherwise unattended.

2000 Parade

2000 Parade

The organization’s generous contribution of artifacts and documents, only some of which are shown here, helps HomeSpun include the multiple voices of the Indian American community and helps the Archives Center house a more comprehensive LGBT collection. The SALGA materials housed at the Archives Center will provide researchers with an opportunity to learn about the experiences of the South Asian LGBT community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is part of the Smithsonian’s larger effort to represent LGBT communities in terms of civil rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and visual arts. People who have lived through an era are able to have their history documented for future use by researchers through their organizational records. The SALGA materials are a precious primary resource documenting the history of an important facet of the LGBT experience.

Gay City Newspaper Feature

Gay City Newspaper Feature

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in IAHP Updates, Identity

 

Reflections on 9/11

Sikh Americans in Chicago after 9/11

Sikh Americans in Chicago after 9/11. Photo from sikhcouncilusa.org

by Pawan Dhingra

It is impossible to tell “The Story” of 9/11 for the nation or even for a single community. Yet, given HomeSpun’s role as helping tell the stories of Indian Americans, it is important to give voice to some part of this experience, so here I share part of my own. I was living in Pennsylvania then, a few hours from New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, PA. Some of my closest connections – my brother, sister-in-law, and future wife – were in Manhattan at that time. They all lived and worked away from the World Trade Center and I was able to make contact with them quickly. A friend from New York City was on a bus to visit me, and his whereabouts were clear. I was lucky – no threats to my personal world. My major task was to walk into my college classrooms and figure out how to teach students the course material while incorporating the unfolding events. The students made that easy on me with their earnest and inquisitive outlook on the tragedies surrounding us.

Others, obviously, were not so lucky. New York City was immersed in the need to make sure no one was forgotten. On my visit to Manhattan a few days after 9/11, I witnessed the spontaneous outdoor vigils in Washington Heights, in Washington Square Park, and elsewhere throughout the city. The sharing of hugs, of poetry, and of food and drink affirmed a beauty that may only be possible after tragedy.

But other types of tragedies continued after 9/11. We learned of an increase in violent hate crimes against Muslim Americans and those mistaken for Muslims. Deportations rose. Mosques were attacked. Others reported more minor incidents of harassment, undue attention, and a general sense of fear. Entire communities felt under surveillance. In the years since 9/11 not all of those concerns have disappeared. At the same time, many individuals have stepped up to assert their faith in the nation and its efforts to safeguard the population and build stronger international ties.

More broadly the past 10 years have been a story of how we as public citizens understand the multiple layers of difference that divide not only people in diverse parts of the world but also neighbors from each other. The political, economic, cultural, religious, and other dimensions that seem to only separate us also connect us, although not always in harmonious ways. There is much that joins groups living across borders, that joins immigrants to the nation, and that joins those who have lived side by side for generations. Yet, trying to create unity when our histories and futures do not align is our greatest challenge. I hope that HomeSpun can play its role in this endeavor, of recognizing a community and its various places in this country. As the curator I hope to facilitate the telling of multiple stories, all with the goal of furthering the respect and appreciation we have of one another. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is as good a day as any to recommit myself to that cause.

Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Current Events, History

 

Dalip Singh Saund Artifacts Acquired

by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program is proud to announce its successful effort to secure the donation of Dalip Singh Saund campaign items by his grandson, Eric Saund, to the National Museum of American History. Saund was the first Asian American, and first practitioner of a non-Abrahamic faith, to be elected to Congress.1 He is, to this day, the only Sikh to be elected to the national legislature.

Dalip Singh Saund Artifacts

Dalip Singh Saund campaign artifacts. 1956 and 1960 bumper stickers, thimbles, ribbon, and a mechanical pencil.

Beyond the symbolism of his appointment, Saund’s life story and accomplishments in office is a story worth preserving. Born in 1899 in Punjab, India, Saund graduated from the University of Punjab in 1919 with a degree in mathematics and came to the U.S. in 1920 to pursue his studies at the University of California Berkley. He received both his Masters and PhD in mathematics but decided to pursue agriculture, like many of his California Punjabi peers, and start a lettuce farm in Westmoreland, California.

Saund’s political activities started while he was studying at UC Berkley. There, he stayed at a clubhouse owned by a local Sikh organization and became national president of the Hindustan Association of America. Later, he would campaign for the right for Asian Indians to naturalize and, with the help of the Hindustan Association of Imperial Valley, form the India Association of America to pursue this goal. The India Association of America was one of the biggest advocates of citizenship for Indians and supported lobbying efforts in Washington with the money they raised from Indian farmers. In 1946, Saund and his organization were successful and the Luce-Cellar Act was passed which granted Indian immigrants the right to naturalize. This Act allowed Indians to run for office and own land, which was significant for many farmers who had to rely on friends who were citizens to hold the land they farmed in trust.

On December 16, 1949, Saund became one of the first Indian immigrants to take advantage of the land ownership opportunity. He proceeded to run for, and win, the seat for Justice of The Peace of Westmoreland in 1950. However, he was not allowed to take the position when the court ruled that he could not serve since he had been a citizen for less than the required year. Saund went on to win the seat again in 1952. He served on this position until 1957 when he was elected to Congress. While in Congress, Saund was a staunch supporter of civil rights and was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee during his first term. In his second term, he was appointed to the Interior and Insular Committee. He succeeded in amending the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 which lead to the creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the entire reorganization of how the U.S. distributed Foreign Aid.2 Saund’s amendment gave the U.S. more control on how its foreign aid money was spent by reducing the lifespan of foreign aid agreements. This was meant to keep American foreign aid money out of the hands of governments that were unpopular or hostile to the U.S.3

Congressman Saund passed away on April 22nd, 1973. HomeSpun’s acquisitions reflect the contributions that Dalip Singh Saund has made to California political history, Asian American history, and American history. The materials include the 1956 and 1960 bumper stickers, thimbles, ribbon, and a mechanical pencil. They represent a victory in the Indian American struggle for citizenship and belonging, as well as the ideals of the U.S. to be led by all of its inhabitants. These artifacts will be held at the Smithsonian. They are relevant not only to the HomeSpun exhibit, but to telling our part of the story as Americans in future exhibitions.


1 http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=S000075

2 http://www.usaid.gov/about_usaid/usaidhist.html

3 http://www.saund.org/dalipsaund/website-docs/foreign_aid_ammendment_120.pdf

Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2011 in IAHP Updates

 

The Scripps Spelling Bee and Indian Americans

by Pawan Dhingra

Sukanya Roy, winner of the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee

Sukanya Roy, winner of the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee. Photos by Pawan Dhingra, Smithsonian APA Program.

Pawan Dhingra, HomeSpun curator, attended the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee to collect important stories about the Indian American life. Here, he reflects on his two-day experience and discusses the history of Indian American youths who have stood out at this competition.

Sukanya’s tall, thin frame trembled a bit for the first time all night, as she enunciated her final set of letters: c-y-m-o-t-r-i-c-h-o-u-s. Yet, her long hair continued to fall straight down, a fitting sign of control over the word she had just spelled, which means having wavy hair. With that final word correctly spelled, Sukanya Roy had just won the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Overwhelmed with excitement and exhaustion, she had an uncontrollable smile as she accepted her trophy, live on ESPN.

It had been a long night, around 11pm, that had started with thirteen finalists at 8:30pm. Each, along with the other 262 competitors at this years’ Bee, had already proven themselves formidable spellers as well as friendly competitors. As they asked one another to sign their Bee photobooks, ran through the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside of Washington DC, and went up to the podium to spell words I could not even pronounce, they seemed a focused yet joyous bunch. As one spelled a word correctly, he would be greeted by high-fives from his competitors as he sat back down. When a word was spelled incorrectly, it was not just the parents who showed signs of grief; other spellers did as well. The competition had brought them closer together.

The contestants were almost an equal number of boys and girls, came from all over the country and from other parts of the world, and ranged in ages from eight to fifteen. Of this wide range of impressive youth, one trend stood out to me: the over-representation of Indian American participants. For instance, of the final thirteen, seven were Indian American. Sukanya became the fourth Indian American in a row to win the championship, and the eighth in the past twelve competitions. The first Indian American to win was Balu Natarajan in 1985.

Answers abound to the question of why Indian Americans dominate spelling bees. Rather than focus on that question here, what is also noteworthy is the highly competitive dimension to the Spelling Bee. While often framed as simply studious or even as geeks, these contestants have much in common with athletes. They put in hours of preparation; they go through rounds of competitions; they compete on a national stage for money and fame; and they take winning seriously. It is not a coincidence that the Spelling Bee is broadcast live on ESPN. And like other major league champions, Sukanya and her family were awarded with a visit to the White House and a meeting with the President.

Spelling Bees clearly have become a significant part of Indian American youths’ extracurricular activities. For the Roy’s, however, it seems to be coming to a close. As a past winner, Sukanya cannot participate again. And as an only child, it may be another Indian American family hosting the trophy next year. In any case, the youth who take part will deserve applause and then some well-earned rest.

Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Current Events, IAHP Updates

 
 
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