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Uptown Sitar Player Shanta Nurullah Wins $30,000 Grant To Bring World Music To The Masses

Shanta Nurullah brings African-American improvisational music and world music to fans across the country. A grant from 3Arts will help her share that work with more people.

Shanta Nurullah, 71, has been performing professionally since 1971.
Lauren Deutsch
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UPTOWN — An Uptown musician’s efforts to bring improvisational and world music to larger audiences has received a big boost thanks to local nonprofit 3Arts.

Shanta Nurullah was one of 10 local artists this year to win a 3Arts Award, which comes with an unrestricted $30,000 cash grant. Local arts-boosting nonprofit 3Arts gave nearly $1 million in grants to 134 artists at its award show Nov. 1.

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Shanta Nurullah

The grants help artists — mostly women artists, artists of color and artist who are deaf or have disabilities — launch projects, promote their work and develop their craft.

Among the other artists to win a 3Arts Award is South Side street dancer Charles “Poppin’ Chuck” Bledsoe.

In Nurullah’s case, the grant will help her bring her unique brand of African-American improvisational music to more people.

“I describe myself as a storyteller and a musician,” she said. “I hope to spread peace and joy through my music, reverence for my ancestral past and hope for a brighter future.”

Nurullah, 71, is most widely known for her playing of the sitar, a string instrument from India. She also plays bass and mbira, a rhythmic “thumb piano” originating from Zimbabwe.

Nurullah learned to play the sitar while on a college study abroad trip to India. After learning the basics of the instrument there, Nurullah returned to Chicago and incorporated the sitar into African-American music styles, including blues and jazz, she said.

The end result is a improvisational style of music that draws on worldly and American influences.

“It’s the music that I grew up with,” said Nurullah, a South Side native who has lived in Uptown for 10 years. “It is the music that expresses who I am.”

Nurullah has performed professionally since 1971. She is also a professional storyteller and teaching artist, including in the early childhood program at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Her next live performance is Saturday at Constellation Chicago.

The grant is a boon for Nurullah and other artists who have lost work during the pandemic. The $30,000 award has no strings attached, but Nurullah and other winners do have to meet with a financial planner before spending it all, she said. Her plan is to put more funds toward marketing her work and her bands.

“I broke down and cried,” Nurullah said of learning she won the grant. “It was a perfect time to get some good news.”

To learn more about Nurullah and her work, click here.

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