“The Dalai Lama came back and touched a bunch of our hands, and I got to touch his hands too. I remember feeling so moved by it, and feeling that ‘this is what music can do—bring people from across the world together.'” CJ Harvey
Not only is 2020 the Year of Chicago Music, it’s also the 35th year for the nonprofit Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC), which provides business expertise and training to creatives and their organizations citywide. To celebrate, the A&BC has launched the #ChiMusic35 campaign at ChiMusic35.com, which includes a public poll to determine the consensus 35 greatest moments in Chicago music history as well as a raffle to benefit the A&BC’s work supporting creative communities struggling with the impact of COVID-19 in the city’s disinvested neighborhoods.
Another part of the campaign is this Reader collaboration: a series spotlighting important figures in Chicago music serving as #ChiMusic35 ambassadors. This week, we hear from Sima Cunningham, cofounder of avant-rock band Ohmme and a busy collaborator with Chicago artists across genres—among them Charles Rumback, Twin Peaks, Jeff Tweedy, and Chance the Rapper. Ohmme’s new album, Fantasize Your Ghost, drops June 5 on Joyful Noise Records.
This interview was conducted by Ayana Contreras, who’s a DJ, a host and producer at WBEZ radio, and a columnist for DownBeat magazine.
Ayana Contreras: What’s one of your favorite Chicago music moments?
Sima Cunningham: I was in the Chicago Children’s Choir when we sang for the Dalai Lama at Millennium Park. That was in 2007, one of my last years in the choir. I was in it from age six until I was 18.
I remember at that time, my mom was battling cancer (which she defeated), and she had gotten deep into Buddhism through her time with that. So I was learning a lot about the Dalai Lama with her, and then he came to Chicago. We were singing all of these very peace-inspiring songs. I think we sang “I Need You to Survive” [by prominent New York pastor and gospel artist Hezekiah Walker].
Then I remember the Dalai Lama came back and touched a bunch of our hands, and I got to touch his hands too. I remember feeling so moved by it, and feeling that “this is what music can do—bring people from across the world together.”
That felt like a really special moment in Chicago music history: the Dalai Lama was there, and kids from all over the city were a part of that.
What makes Chicago such a hotbed for musical invention, and a place so full of really exciting collaborations?
I think we have exceptional programs in Chicago that really work on bringing kids from different parts of the city into one space together. I know it happens some in other cities, but it’s done so intentionally and overtly here.
The Chicago Children’s Choir started as a civil rights organization to bring kids from around the city together. Gallery 37, the Old Town School of Folk Music’s open mike—so many of my friends were involved in programs like these. And Citywide Jazz, which was a big deal when I was in high school. I guess it’s the magnet idea.
I think that just carried over into my generation that got to grow up with all of those programs. And those programs have played a huge role in making this exploding music scene that’s happening now.
That’s definitely something to think about in this moment, because a lot of these same organizations are trying to figure out how to pivot . . . and it’s the same for you as a musician.
Yeah. I was just on a call with a bunch of alumni and the directors of the Chicago Children’s Choir, trying to figure out some ways to help them move through this time. The top of the list of “This cannot happen” is people singing in a room together. We’ve got to figure out a way to give that moment back to kids in Chicago, because it’s really important. It’s important for people to get out of their world, and for some kids to get out of their family space and feel they have chosen family around the city that they can collaborate with. v