Chicago Immigrant Orchestra brings global influences to its music

Featuring everything from the Chinese ruan and the Indian veena to Afro-Peruvian percussion and Mongolian throat singing, the music troupe offers an incredible merging of sounds from across the globe.

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Chicago Immigrant Orchestra

Chicago Immigrant Orchestra

Courtesy Chicago Immigrant Orchestra

From the New York Philharmonic to the Golden State Pops Orchestra, it’s commonplace to find a resident ensemble in most major cities across the U.S.

Yet, few boast something as eclectic as the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra. It was formed in 1999, the idea of Michael Orlove, former senior program director for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (DCASE), to be part of the city’s first World Music Festival.

Though the orchestra later disbanded in 2004, it regrouped in 2019 with a renewed purpose to “provide a platform for musicians in the immigrant community to collectively explore, research, create and perform music encompassing all global musical traditions.” They do so through songbooks and original works, commissions and recordings, as well as live shows such as an upcoming gig at Evanston’s SPACE on Jan. 22.

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CHICAGO IMMIGRANT ORCHESTRA

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 22

Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston

Tickets: $20-$40

Info: evanstonspace.com

Featuring everything from the Chinese ruan (a traditional Chinese string instrument) and the Indian veena (a long-necked, pear-shaped lute), to Afro-Peruvian percussion and Mongolian throat singing, the music troupe offers an incredible merging of sounds from across the globe, performed by a rotating cast of 30-plus members who are all bonded by a common experience.

“There’s a unique thing about the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra; it’s a kind of tapestry of the cultures that exist in Chicago. We come from a wide array of backgrounds but there’s something that really connects us, which is our immigrant experience in the city. That’s proved to be a very powerful thing for us,” says the group’s co-director Wanees Zarour. 

Zarour, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who was born in Ramallah, Palestine, just outside of Jerusalem, and migrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s, is also behind the 60-person Middle East Music Ensemble out of the University of Chicago and has a touring jazz fusion group called East Loop. 

In late 2019, he and fellow Chicago Immigrant Orchestra lead Fareed Haque (a classical and jazz guitar virtuoso) got a call from Carlos Tortolero, DCASE’s cultural affairs coordinator, and World Music Festival curator/producer David Chavez, to re-form the ensemble ahead of a headlining spot at the 2020 edition of the annual fall fest. Those plans were shelved as the festival’s live concerts were canceled due to the pandemic. Fast-forward to late 2020 when the orchestra was contacted to perform at a virtual incarnation of the fest — the next day.

The festival would be the orchestra’s first gig since re-forming, and Zarour recalls it being an organic success. 

“Essentially, we formed the orchestra from a large roster of musicians who are within the immigrant community, and picked 12 of these people to put together [that particular concert],” Zarour says, noting it happened very quickly.

“We just met with the musicians the night before the show. So those videos on YouTube and that we have on our website, those were the product of meeting for the first time the night before [a major festival].

“We almost instantly spoke the same language, understood the same challenges, had the same experience within the music scene here in the city, where the musicians in Chicago who perform world music are just top-notch. … We don’t have to think too much before we do things and create and produce.”

Today, the group is an independent 501(c)(3) organization with headquarters in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood. The rotating lineup of 30-plus members meet at least once a month to work on ongoing projects.

“The Chicago Immigrant Orchestra is an amazing ensemble of different cultural representatives and ambassadors, with so many great instrumentalists involved and compositions that are top-grade,” says Tortolero. “The fact that we can highlight so many cultures and celebrate immigrant contributions to society and music is great.”

The concert at SPACE will feature 12 to 14 members of the orchestra and world-renowned Chicago jazz singer Grazyna Auguscik, who will perform songs from her native Poland as well as some Brazilian tunes, says Zarour. The program will also include Hindustani music, Arabic songs and some Persian songs.

“There are a couple original tunes we wrote for the group that we’ll perform as well,” he adds, noting that at least a third of the group’s material now is original works. “Everybody composes for the group.”

Zarour shares that audiences at their concerts are as diverse as the group itself,

The mission of the orchestra is represented visually by a company logo depicting a large tree with deep roots.

Says Zarour, “We wanted to include the roots to say that we do have our roots in our own cultures but we’re growing something new here. … The important consideration for us is how can we carve out a place for this type of music to thrive and grow?”

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