by Len Lear
Chana Rothman, of West Mt. Airy, who has performed her blend of folk, reggae, world beat and hip hop at World Café Live, Tin Angel and many other Philadelphia venues, will conduct “Rainbow Train Story Time” at Mt. Airy Read and Eat, 7141 Germantown Ave., this Saturday, Nov. 22, 10 a.m.
Rothman, 39, will sing songs from her popular album, “Rainbow Train.” The concept for the album was born about 1.5 years ago. Chana applied for some grants, and last fall she conducted focus groups with people of various ages, genders, races, religions and sexual orientations.
“I asked them to talk about the landscape in which children were growing up today with respect to gender and what messages they would like to send,” explained Chana. “I wrote songs, many of which were co-writes with other artists — notably Avi Wisnia, favorite local singer/songwriter; pianist Mikael Elsila, Mt. Airy resident; rapper and Mt. Airy resident mighty FlipSide, and transgender singer/songwriter Mya Byrne, who had recently come out as a woman.
“I performed and tested the songs in work-in-progress concerts and workshops. Over the summer, I got together with beloved Philly producer/engineer Bill Moriarty, and we recorded the album. We also recorded dialogue with teachers and children about gender and … finished recording at the end of August. But the project is just getting started! The long range plan is for Rainbow Train the theater piece and video, curriculum, etc.”
In the title track Chana’s message of inclusion and tolerance is clear: “Rainbow Train, each person has their own name because we are not all the same/we are the change/we are the Rainbow Train.” And “Sometimes people tell you who to be/they try to put you on a box that you can’t even see/but we’re moving to a place where we’re free/and there’s plenty of room for you/there’s plenty of room for me.”
Chana’s lyrics are reminiscent of some of the folk rockers and progressive singer/songwriters of the 1960s like Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and John Prine: “Your body is your own/you can decorate it how you like/no matter what your body parts, you’re a beautiful sight.” And “Don’t be afraid of what you see/don’t be angry, don’t be mean/give me a chance to grow and be holy.” Or “Gender, gender; put it in a blender! … We are not all the same/we are the change/we are the Rainbow Train.”
Unlike many pop singers who fear being associated with a “message” that might turn off certain listeners, Chana insists that her message is to challenge gender norms, create dialogue based on honor and respect and celebrate a diversity of gender expressions.
After many years of living in Brooklyn and touring extensively, the Toronto, Canada, native settled in Northwest Philadelphia five-and-a-half years ago and began building a nest — literally — with husband, Rabbi Kevin Kleinman. “We moved here when Kevin graduated from rabbinical school and got a job as assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park,” Chana told us in an earlier interview. “Here’s what we liked about Mt. Airy when looking to move: lots of trees and hiking trails, a strong community-oriented vibe, food co-op and Jewish community. What more could you want? OK, maybe a cafe that stays open past 8 p.m.”
Chana previously made a captivating album entitled “Beautiful Land.” Knowing she only had time and budget for six songs (she was pregnant at the time), she sifted through her collection and chose the stories she couldn’t live without: courageous people who had inspired her, from the townships of South Africa to green mountains of Jamaica; a beloved student who died suddenly and tragically; a silly dance her partner does just for her; and even a frank conversation about her own body image.
She called up friend, producer and longtime collaborator, C. Lanzbom (he does not use a first name) and told him she was ready to record. Lanzbom had just finished working on an album for the late, legendary folk singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, which later won him a Grammy. Together they agreed to create an EP that was simple, acoustic and memorable. The result, entitled “Beautiful Land,” was a colorful six-song collection whose intimacy gives the listener a feeling of flipping through Rothman’s photo album while she shares the story behind each photo.
“Beautiful Land” takes the listener across the globe, passing through international borders and musical genres. African-inspired polyrhythms on the title track give way to playful jazz inflections on “Baby Do That Dance;” clever hip hop rhymes of “Inadequate” contrast with the slow grace and subtle vocal harmonies of “Come On Home.”
In addition to her appearance this Saturday, Chana will perform at Mt. Airy Read and Eat on Saturday, Dec. 6, 4 to 6 p.m. More information at 267-997-2739.