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Chicago Folklore Ensemble celebrates Chicago’s immigrant musicians and helps share and pass on their stories and musical knowledge through performances that interweave music and storytelling. Chicago Folklore Ensemble’s mission is to create high quality performances that bring attention to the artistic contributions of immigrants, make traditional music more accessible, deepen understanding of the music’s cultural and historical contexts, and encourage cross-cultural bridge building in Chicago and beyond. Their works, grounded in direct relationships with musicians from around the world, harness the emotive power of the combination of music and spoken word to move audiences deeply and help bridge cultural divides.

Sam, Jovan, and Lucia

Chicago Folklore Ensemble was founded in 2015 by violinists Lucia Thomas and Sam Hyson. Their initial inspiration came their experience studying music with Jovan Mihailović (1934-2022), a Serbian artist and violinist. As Jovan taught melodies from the Balkans, he also shared memories of Serbia, which added an enhanced understanding of the music’s cultural, historical, and emotional context. Lucia and Sam were inspired to seek out other traditional musicians, learn music from them in a similar way, and document their stories.

For the ensemble’s inaugural work, Lucia and Sam studied with five master musicians from Serbia, Jordan, Ghana, Argentina, and Thailand, interviewing them and learning traditional music from them. They used the material they gathered to create a show for string quartet and storyteller entitled The World In Chicago, which premiered in the fall of 2015. Chicago Folklore Ensemble performed this work many times throughout Chicago, including at Old Town School of Folk Music, City Winery, and University of Chicago, and they performed excerpts of the show live on WBEZ’s Worldview and at TEDxUChicago. In fall of 2016, they created a book and CD (also entitled The World in Chicago) with music and stories from the show. The CD includes tracks featuring each of the five master musicians accompanied by string quartet.

In 2016, Chicago Folklore Ensemble created an educational show for kids and families called Follow the Butterfly, which premiered at Old Town School of Folk Music in spring of 2016. Follow the Butterfly featured storyteller Sojourner Zenobia and presented folktales and traditional music from Nigeria, Thailand, Appalachia, Rajasthan, and the Amazon Rainforest, and included folksongs learned directly from immigrant musicians in Chicago. Chicago Folklore Ensemble performed Follow the Butterfly at the Chicago Cultural Center, Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival, and – through partnerships with Ravinia and Urban Gateways – at over a dozen elementary schools in the Chicago area.

In 2017, Lucia and Sam studied with three master musicians from Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq, and created a show for Middle Eastern ensemble and storyteller entitled Where Rivers Meet: Songs and Stories from Masters of Arabic Music, which featured the three master musicians performing as members of the ensemble on oud, percussion, and vocals. Where Rivers Meet premiered in December 2017 to overflowing audiences at the Evanston and Skokie Public Libraries, and was also performed at the Chicago Culture Center.

In 2018, Chicago Folklore Ensemble collaborated with singers Subhajit Sengupta and Swarnali Banerjee from Kolkata, India, creating a show entitled Our Gitanjali: Song Offerings of Rabindranath Tagore, which presented songs of legendary polymath Rabindranath Tagore sung in Bengali, intertwined with recitations of English translations of the lyrics and personal reflections shared by the performers. The ensemble performed Our Gitanjali at Second Unitarian Church, International House at University of Chicago, Skokie Public Library, and Old Town School of Folk Music.

In 2019, Chicago Folklore Ensemble created Lift Every Voice, a show for kids that celebrated the local history of African-American and Latino liberation movements in Chicago, combining storytelling with freedom songs performed on violin, banjo, and Mexican son jarocho instruments. Lift Every Voice was performed in city parks as part of the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks series.

In 2023, Chicago Folklore Ensemble released their second album, Praner Alap: Meeting of Hearts, presenting songs by Rabindranath Tagore that the group performed in the show Our Gitanjali. The arrangements, created through a cross-cultural collaborative process, combine elements of Western classical music, jazz, and international folk styles with Hindustani ragas and Bengali folk music. The album is accompanied by a booklet with new translations of the Bengali lyrics and original artwork inspired by the songs.

Chicago Folklore Ensemble is fiscally sponsored by Crossing Borders Music and can accept tax deductible donations to further its programming.