Celebrating Arab American Heritage Month: Arab Music Ensembles in Chicago

April is Arab American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the heritage, history, and many contributions of Arab Americans here in the United States. We are so lucky and proud to be at the heart of the City of Chicago where diverse cultures converge. Chicago is home to a proud and vibrant Arab American community that has undoubtedly impacted culture and industry in the city by influencing all areas of the arts and education. Today, CYSO’s Social Media Team member Marisa Lin shares the stories of five Chicago-based Arab music ensembles that focus on exploring the rich stories of the Arabic world, educating the public, and creating a sense of cultural unity.

Chicago Arab Music Ensemble

Dedicated to fostering understanding between cultures and unveiling the musical history of the Arabic world, The Chicago Arab Music Ensemble regularly conducts audience-tailored presentations and performances for schools, libraries, and cultural organizations. They perform music styles from different Arabic regions using various instruments including the tabla (goblet drum), tar (frame drum), riqq (tambourine), nay (cane flute), qanun (finger-plucked zither), oud (a forerunner of the guitar), violin, and accordion. 

Watch the Chicago Arab Music Ensemble performing “Sama’i Bayati” at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2021

UChicago Middle East Music Ensemble

Established in 1997, The Middle East Music Ensemble under Director Wanees Zarour comprises of both students and faculty at The University of Chicago, as well as interested community members. They perform on traditional instruments and play classical, neoclassical, and popular music from all over the Middle East. Frequently in the presence of guest artists, The Middle East Music Ensemble presents three concerts per year, including the Turkish concert in the autumn quarter, the Persian concert in the winter quarter, and the Arab concert in the spring quarter.

Huzam Ensemble

The Huzam Ensemble explores a revival of Arabic music, uniting tradition and the modern world through new compositions in traditional styles. Its name, Huzam, is an Arab maqam musical scale that begins and ends on a microtone and is frequently used in Arab traditional music. The Huzam Ensemble consists of four skilled musicians from Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and they perform various concerts around Chicago. 

Leader of The Huzam Ensemble, Karim Nagi is an Egyptian percussionist, composer, and educator dedicated to connecting Arab tradition with the contemporary world. He has taught in several festivals internationally and was a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music for 5 years. Nagi also conducted his Arabiqa program in over 500 school assemblies across the United States, in an effort to expose young students to Arab traditional arts. In September of 2020, Nagi gave a TEDx Talk, “The Tambourine, My Partner is Diplomacy & Disruption”.

Watch Karim Nagi & Huzam Ensemble live on WGN TV Daytime Chicago

Surabhi Ensemble

Founded by Saraswathi Ranganathan, The Surabhi Ensemble performs Indo-Afro-Arab-Flamenco music and dance with a mission of cultural unity and understanding. They perform at a variety of locations, including schools, hospitals, refugee organizations and neighborhood parks. Recently, The Surabhi Ensemble was a top finalist for the Chicago Reader’s Poll for Best International or World Music Group. Additionally, this year the ensemble will be continuing its Global Peace Tour in India, conducting workshops and pop-up performances in underserved communities. 

Watch the Surabhi Ensemble perform “Scenes from the Pandemic” at The Chicago World Music Festival in 2022

East Meets Middle East

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East Meets Middle East is a musical collective honoring the traditions of the Middle East and South Asia. They present original compositions along with improvisations with a mission to encourage understanding through music about similarities and differences between Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. Members include Abhisek Lahiri (Sarod – an Indian plucked string instrument), Subrata Bhattacharya (Tabla), Ronnie Malley (Oud), and George Lawler (Percussion). Listen now to their debut album, which was released in 2016.

Happy Arab American Heritage Month! Read more about Arab musicians you should know on our blog and check out upcoming cultural celebrations across the City of Chicago with the Field Museum and UIC.

About Marisa

Marisa Lin

Marisa Lin is a violinist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and junior at Lyons Township High School. When she’s not practicing, you can find Marisa developing new recipes for her baking blog or taking goofy pictures of her dog.

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