Making music across cultures

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It was a pleasure to make music with students and tutors at the Dhow Countries Music Academy. Some folks say that music is a universal language, but I would beg to differ. There are many genres within music and artists have many different ways of expressing thoughts and feelings through the medium. Most of us can make decent sounds with our voices or on instruments, but those sounds can signify a wide variety of things, depending on culture and context.

The singers I performed with in my project were fine with learning melodies and were very keen to find out about exercises that could help in building vocal technique. The challenges came from issues related to language and words. I created my libretto/script and outline score, thinking I was going to a place that is part of Tanzania – a nation that is a member of the Commonwealth, as far as I know. What I discovered is that Swahili is very much the lingua franca of Zanzibar and many folks there only speak English on a very basic level.

Some singers with fine voice placement were sometimes intimidated by words in the libretto in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. I have worked in the past with large groups of people in places where Spanish was the lingua franca. In those situations, I was mentally prepared for the idea of communicating with the support of an interpreter and I was able to pace myself accordingly. The situation was less defined in Zanzibar, because many of the performers understood some English, but only a little. I was lucky to have one or two folks in the groups who understood English well enough to get my points across succinctly to all involved.

The instrumentalists were able to learn melodies by ear, but in some cases were unfamiliar with chord charts, so there was some work to be done in discovering ways to follow chord sequences.

I look forward to doing more work with the DCMA, because there is a great deal that we can all learn from each other. Watch this space.