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Honing A Heritage With The African American Arts Institute

The African American Arts Institute, located just off the Arts Quad on the IU campus, has been bringing music and dance to Bloomington for over 30 years. AAAI has three performance ensembles – The African American Dance Company, the African American Choral Ensemble, and IU Soul Revue – all of which are also courses in the department of African American and African Diaspora Studies.

From The Heart Of Soul

Professor Charles Sykes is the executive director of the African American Arts Institute (AAAI). He says the Soul Revue is the foundation of the Arts Institute. "It was an ensemble that started in 1971, so it started in the heart of the soul era."

The group specializes in popular music. "The tradition of Rhythm & Blues, soul, funk, neo-soul, neo-R&B – all of those are part of that group's repertoire."

From A Strong Foundation, New Groups Grew

As the Soul Revue's performances increased in popularity, the group found they needed administrative help to manage performances and tours. That's when the Arts Institute was created. As the department grew in turn, two other ensembles were established: the Dance Company and the Institute's second vocal group, the African American Choral Ensemble.

"The Choral Ensemble is a group that performs choral literature by African American composers and about African American culture," Sykes explains. Yet while gospel and spiritual music are part of the Choral Ensemble's repertoire, Sykes points out that the group's reach extends beyond the genre. "In contrast to a lot of other choral groups that are part of the college curricula, it is not a gospel choir, so it includes a broad range of literature by and about African Americans."

Making A Place For Black Art-Music Composers

Many people who study the art music tradition are unaware of works done by black composers. The AAAI helps raise awareness through their Extensions of the Tradition programs, which is usually co-hosted by the Jacobs School of Music. "We periodically bring composers on campus to do talks. Our goal is to present particularly new works."

The African American Arts Institute is something of a trailblazing organization. "It's unique," Sykes says. "There is no other program like the Arts Institute, to my knowledge, at any other college or university in this country."

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