International House to host Funkadesi, Tsukasa Taiko at Annual Festival of Nations

By Patrick Reilly
Global Voices Interview Editor

On Saturday, May 21, International House (I-House) will host international music groups Funkadesi and Tsukasa Taiko for its annual Festival of Nations, a tradition that dates back to International House’s early years. This three-hour celebration, where students from around the world will offer up their native foods and cultures, caps off a year of inclusion, diversity among residents, and Global Voices lectures and performances in which International House plays “Host to the World.”

Graduate students Rajab Ghazzoui and Daniele Macuglia have taken the lead in planning this year’s Festival. Daniele, originally from Italy, likens it to “flying to over twenty different countries in the same afternoon.”

As guests make their way through International House’s Assembly Hall and Rockefeller Lounge, they’ll be able to sample a wide variety of national and regional cuisines prepared by I-House residents, and receive first-hand perspectives from different cultures. Rajab, a graduate student from Lebanon, is confident that these amateur chefs won’t disappoint. “It is fun to see the competitive spirits of the participants who are willing to challenge each other for the coveted title of ‘Best Food,’” he said.

To provide a soundtrack for this global experience, Rajab, Daniele, and the Festival’s other planners turned to two groups. Tsukasa Taiko, a leading community program for Japanese drumming and performing arts, will put on a half-hour performance halfway through the celebration. The main attraction, however, will be world music group Funkadesi, whose members hail from India, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and even Chicago.  Since its founding, Funkadesi has combined the diverse sounds of these members’ different cultures. Its founder, Rahul Sharma, drew from his experience in two different musical worlds. Sharma, whose parents were Indian, grew up playing blues and reggae on the bass guitar. He explains that, after graduating from college in 1992, “I traveled to India for the first time, for about three months, and I started playing the sitar…the idea of using different kinds of music was really alluring to me.”

A few years later, a performance in Hyde Park convinced Sharma that an eclectic combination of musical styles could help Funkadesi succeed. In January 1997, a month after it formed, Funkadesi played its first college concert at the University of Chicago’s (U. of C.) Hutchinson Commons. “Students were dancing and dancing,” Sharma remembers, “and all of a sudden, when I brought out the sitar, everyone just naturally sat on the floor and crossed their legs, and it turned into a totally different concert. And I remember just talking to students afterwards, and whether it was a Persian student, or a South Asian student, or an African-American student, [they all] said, ‘Wow, that was my kind of music.’”  

Two decades later, Funkadesi has performed across America, been named “Most Outstanding Group” at the Chicago Music Awards and “Best World Music Group” by the Chicago Reader, and even drawn praise from President Obama. Yet the band maintains the same diversity of styles that helped it succeed at that first college concert. Sharma doesn’t want to reveal too much about the pieces Funkadesi will perform on the 21st, but suggested that they will be “based on different cultural music trends, whether it’s Indian, Brazilian, Puerto Rican, West African.  And, of course…blues and funk will be there.” After the group’s first U. of C. concert in 1997, Sharma realized that this wide array of styles “really speaks to a lot of people,” and helps the audiences feel “ownership” of the band’s music. 
  
By building this type of connection, Sharma hopes that Funkadesi gives audiences more than just entertainment. “Maybe it’s no coincidence that so many of us are healers in the band,” he says. When not on the road with Funkadesi, Sharma serves as a Professor of Psychology at Argosy University; the band also includes an ophthalmologist and a physical therapist. Sharma thinks they also live out their healing vocations through music. “It feels almost like a cleansing,” he says of the band’s concerts…”You get this vibe of inclusivity, and this wondrous idea of the world as one family.”

This “wondrous idea of the world as one family” has also guided International House since the early twentieth century, inspiring events as diverse as the annual Sunday Supper and Candle Lighting ceremony, this month’s Latin American Policy Forum, and even a 1982 concert by U2 during that group’s first US tour. This upcoming Saturday, the Festival of Nations will celebrate the global unity that International House has fostered through these and other events. I-House residents from 39 countries, other members of the U. of C. community, and their neighbors from across Chicagoland will enjoy food and music from around the world. After several months of planning this event, Rajab hopes “to see the sparkle of pride in every resident’s eye when they show off their country to everyone else.”

This event will take place on Saturday, May 21 from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. in the International House Assembly Hall and Rockefeller Lounge. Admission is free and open to the public; tickets for food and beverages will be available for purchase at the door. For more information about other Global Voices events and co-sponsorship opportunities, or for persons with disabilities who may need assistance, please contact Mary Beth DeStefano at (773)753-2274 or mdestefa@uchicago.edu.  

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The Global Voices series is a partnership between the International House (I-House) at University of Chicago and the Hyde Park Herald to inform the community about special events hosted by I-House that are open to the public.