CHICAGO, Ill. — After a year of being disconnected from one another, live music is returning.
In a highly polarized time when even mask-wearing divides, an eclectic group of musicians is focused on unity. The Surabhi Ensemble is forging cross-cultural connections with each note they play.
“I'm a passionate practitioner of the southern Indian ancient acoustic instrument called ‘Sarasvati veena,’” said Saraswathi Ranganathan, who founded the Surabhi Ensemble ten years ago.
“'Surabhi' means an unending source of spiritual treasure. So, it's a Sanskrit word,” said Ranganathan.
The spiritual treasure of Surabhi melds together Indian, Middle Eastern, and Spanish flamenco influences.
“I play the instrument known as 'al oud.'”
With his Palestinian roots, Ronnie Malley says the sounds and instruments they play together are all interconnected as well.
“Today, anybody who makes a guitar or a violin or anything like that is called a luthier. Well, that European lute eventually becomes the guitar. And so, this instrument is ultimately the great, great grandfather of the guitar,” said Malley.
Carlo Basile plays Spanish guitar with the ensemble.
“Essentially on stage, let the music speak for itself. And we find commonalities in the music, and we find commonalities and the rhythms in it and in the melodies. And so, when we put them together, it just feels right,” said Basile.
“The idea is not to just lose ourselves completely, but also retain our originality, our tradition where we are from today and spread your wings,” said Ranganathan.
In a time of increased polarization and amplified division, the group hopes to represent unity and fellowship through their common language of music and art.
“We're very specific about the traditions that we present on the stage,” said Malley. “And we explain that to the audience so that they may have come to watch a flamenco show. But at the same time, they're going to walk away seeing something African, something Arab, something Indian, and learn about instruments and the journeys that they take to travel to create this dialog.”
In the wake of the pandemic and calls for social justice, they performed a song about breathing. It was one of their first for an indoor audience and incorporated both Indian and Spanish dance.
“We wrote 'Un Respiro Libre' about a free breath because of the masks, because of the George Floyd situation,” said Basile. “And the dances come together and they're almost like breathing as one. To watch it happen in real-time and to have an audience for the first time respond to it the way they did, the response was just amazing.”
The ensemble is now on a global peace tour to promote cross-cultural connections through their world music collective.
“In music, we try to find this dialog,” said Malley. “We try to represent something that we can get along and celebrate our differences.”
“I call it less fear. And then when there is less fear there is obviously less pain,” said Ranganathan. “So, those go hand in hand too, less fear, less hate, and hopefully more love.”
“We have to have to really do our best to realize that we're all in this together,” said Basile. “I mean, if this last year doesn't prove it, I don't know what does.”