Surabhi Ensemble Builds Cross-Cultural Exchange Through Music

Meet the Surabhi Ensemble.

Composed of musicians of many races and ethnicities, this global music group that’s based in Chicago has a mission to make cross-cultural connections. 

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“The point was to see how we can create musical dialogue via instruments, people, individuals, rather than generalize a culture,” said ensemble member Ronnie Malley. “Let me meet you first.” 

From Indian, to Middle Eastern to Spanish Flamenco, this group of 10 uses sound to create a musical marriage that highlights their cross-cultural connections. 

“When people see so many different genres, cultures and backgrounds, they become aware of what’s different,” said founder of the Surabhi Ensemble, Saraswathi Ranganathan. “So there’s awareness. When there’s greater awareness, there’s a little bit of depth and understanding, which creates less fear.”

“We’ve taken more time with this and have a little bit more knowledge from just traveling,” Surabhi Ensemble member Carlo Basile said. “Me traveling to India and all these places around the world. We’ve kind of cultivated this palette that is a little bit more deep and rich because of the time we spent and the places we’ve gone. Even though music is infinite, rhythms and beats, there’s a few of them in all types of music that are similar.”

Their instruments have led them across the country on global peace tours, playing at local institutions in places like Senegal, Spain and Vietnam. 

“We ended up going to the National Conservatory of Vietnam, and having this amazing exchange,” Malley shares. “In this process, we’re realizing, ‘hey that instrument is very similar to mine!’ We have this discussion of tracing roots to instruments, listening to how the music worked. We showed what we had, they showed what they had and then we played together. Those experiences went beyond entertainment. This was a living cultural exchange.”

They’ve worked to create those cultural exchanges locally as well, like their current collaboration with the Sones de Mexico Ensemble. 

“As an immigrant from Mexico, it has been a part of my life process to bring together two cultures,” said Juan Díes of Sones de Mexico. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Playing in both ensembles [Sones and Surabhi] allows me to execute my truth, fully.”

Lorena Iniguez is a dancer with the Sones de Mexico.

“There’s something really powerful about being able to feel unfamiliar rhythms and sounds that you’re unfamiliar with and find that similarity and being able to relate to it in your way, and do something with it,” Iniguez said.

“If we can find common ground to realize we like the same music and food and have other commonalities, we begin to see each other,” Malley says. “The fear that comes about is because we don’t know about each other. So if we find and create spaces for us to know about each other, we will feel each other’s pain. We will feel each other’s joy as well and begin to see each other more.” 

The Surabhi Ensemble will have their first in person performance June 2 at the City Winery. 

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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