On March 12, in part of the Germantown Jewish Centre’s Shirah b’Kehilah (Music in Community) monthly music series, Jaffna, an acoustic ethnic fusion group that plays original music inspired by Middle Eastern, Hindustani, flamenco and jazz, will rock the house.
Rabbi Adam Zeff of Germantown Jewish Centre loves music and is known to play drums, piano and oud for his congregants. On March 12, in part of the centre’s Shirah b’Kehilah (Music in Community) monthly music series, Jaffna, an acoustic ethnic fusion group that plays original music inspired by Middle Eastern, Hindustani, flamenco and jazz will rock the house at GJC.
The group, which formed in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, is made up of Branavan Ganesan of Sri Lanka, Raji Malika, a South Asian American, Joseph Tayoun, a Lebanese American and Roger Mgrdichian, an Armenian American. Malika plays guitar; Tayoun, doumbek and percussion; Ganesan, drums; and Mgrdichian, oud. The band’s name comes from Ganesan’s hometown in Sri Lanka.
“I hope that it” — the concert — “opens up people’s ears to these different sounds,” Zeff said. “I think it’s an exciting thing to see different musical traditions joining together in a new and creative way.”
GJC and Jaffna have a long history together. Zeff and Ganesan know each other from graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Zeff studied Southeast Indian culture at Penn and graduated with a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1999. He eventually switched gears and became a rabbi in 2002, but believes playing music and being a spiritual leader are linked as they all involve bringing people together.
“I’m really interested in fostering a connection between Jews and different types of people,” the rabbi said. “Truthfully, I feel the most comfortable when I’m with people that are different than me.”
The group, which has been playing together for 24 years, started out at The Middle East restaurant on Chestnut Street in Old City. The Middle East, one of the first restaurants in the city to successfully spotlight the region’s cuisine, was run by Tayoun’s family, and he and Mgrdichian would jam there on Mondays in the early 1990s, when it held open mic nights.
“The thing about The Middle East — everybody was always there,” Mgrdichian recalled.
Ganesan, who immigrated to America in 1983, heard of the band by reputation. Once they all met, and their musical paths aligned, Jaffna was soon formed. The group writes all of its music, and also plays traditional pieces from their respective backgrounds.
“People ask us, ‘What kind of music is this?’ and we say, ‘It’s American,’ ” Ganesan said. “I can’t imagine if I grew up in Sri Lanka or moved to India if I would have met these guys.”
While the group has always remained together, Ganesan lived in North Carolina for a 16-year stint, until he returned in June of 2015. Since then, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in the band’s fortunes. When Ganesan was down south, they played twice a year. With his return, they are in the process of recording a third album, playing more shows and being more active on social media.
With full-time jobs and families, it can be a challenge for musicians to stay in their groove, Ganesan said. But despite — or, perhaps, thanks to — the bandmates’ very different backgrounds, they are able to share a stage to speak the same language.
“A lot of the songs, they cross borders,” Mgrdichian said. “If you get away with it, instrumentally, people hear what they want to hear.”