With immigration front and center in conversations across the country, a group of Minnesota musicians representing Eastern European and Middle Eastern traditions have come together to create collaborative songs and videos that confront dominant narratives.
The musicians were brought together through Boston-based Raga Labs (a project of the arts education startup IndianRaga), a performing arts program that brings together musicians from different cultures and artistic backgrounds to collaborate on particular pieces of music. The goal is to produce high-quality music videos to be published online, but throughout the process, founder Sriram Emani says participants end up learning from each other, while having open conversations about diversity through the music they create.
“Music and performing arts are a way where you can not only express your opinions in today’s highly divided times but, more importantly, let young people share histories and cultures in ways that we don’t really know about,” said Emani. Raga Labs are best-known for covers of pop hits like Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” and Rihanna’s “Work,” drawing on the musical traditions of India.
The program came to the Twin Cities after Emani was connected with Minneapolis musician Sarah Larsson, who specializes in Eastern European folk music. As someone who enjoys collaborating with others, Larsson was interested in working with a different group of musicians and liked the idea of having a video to document the work and reach a greater audience.
“I like the way that videos are one of the most effective but also one of the most fun ways to get your music out there,” Larsson said. “I really like the [idea] of making magic happen between people who don’t typically work together but really are all high caliber musicians and interested in being playful and really getting out there.”
After brainstorming ideas for a project, Emani and Larsson decided to facilitate not one, but two different projects in the Twin Cities centering around issues of white supremacy and the importance of celebrating diversity in a county founded by immigrants.
“Sarah and I spoke about the concept of Raga Labs, and us wanting to do a piece that brings together musicians from different world cultures expressing a sentiment that is relevant and common to all of us today, particularly in North America,” Emani said. “As different groups get called out as being immigrants in a country that was started by immigrants, we thought it would be timely to talk about finding our roots and realizing that we all have a lot more in common than we imagine.”
As Raga Lab’s Twin Cities connection, Larsson served as a hub for recruiting musicians for the project. While the artists came from different backgrounds and music scenes, they all shared an interest in exploring commonalities across their heritages.
“All the folks who were working on it were influenced in some capacity by roots music from different places — and for some of us that is connected to the experience of being an immigrant in this country and preserving music of home, and for others of us it’s more connected to growing up in a multicultural society in America and are trying to reclaim our roots,” she said. “This idea of taking visions of our roots, the longing for that and the journey that you have to take to learn something and then incorporate it into your own self and your own artistry…that was the process that we went through in creating both pieces.”
Today, Raga Labs released its first Twin Cities project, “Time Travelers’ Prayer.” The dynamic piece blends musical styles from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and North America, featuring Balkan and Persian vocals and instruments like the darbuka, setar, and bass guitar. With spoken word thrown into the mix, it’s a meeting between the past and the present.
Filmed around an old fountain, “Time Travelers’ Prayer” reminds Larsson and Emani of a time when musicians from different parts of Eastern Europe who, because they were separated by geographical obstacles, had developed their own unique styles, would gather on special occasions to share their own music and learn from each other.
“We all stand to gain from coming together — learning from each other and being influenced by each other and that enriches all of us,” Emani said. “That was sort of the vision of the video of the old broken fountain, which is reminiscent of how these used to happen in the past and what the advantages of that are.”
Raga Labs will be releasing its second Twin Cities project next week. Although the program is primarily video-focused, Larsson said the Twin Cities projects went so well that she is looking into doing a live performance of the pieces sometime in the fall. For Larsson, working with Raga Labs helped give her more faith in the collaboration process. She is happy with the way both projects turned out and is excited by the possibility to add more repertoire into the mix this fall.
Simone Cazares is a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas, majoring in communication and journalism. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.