Wednesday, August 16, 2017

World Music

“All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” –Louis Armstrong

“All music is world music. I ain’t never heard no music from Mars.” –Doug Goodkin

My 6th course of the summer—four jazz courses in Brazil, Colombia, Nova Scotia, San Francisco, then Level III Orff in Carmel Valley and now World Music in Toronto. It’s all just music and it’s all just the Orff approach to releasing music and shaping it and keeping it in company with dance, drama, community and more. But in my first day, I felt compelled to clarify the title.

The actual title is Music from Five Continents, which is more clear and specific. But “World Music” is the convenient umbrella term that allows CD stores (remember those?) and i-Tunes lists to name a genre under which to group things. Mostly World Music means all the music that a narrow Western music education has excluded. The reaction to books titled “The History of Music” that begin with Gregorian Chant and end with Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez and John Cage.

Like the work with Jazz, my role is to share what works with children and how and why and how it aligns with classical Orff practice. And like jazz, the truth is… It works beautifully. The instruments originally inspired by West Africa, Indonesia and Germany now come full circle to play music from those places. The elemental ideals of drones and ostinato are found worldwide, as is the pentatonic scale and the diatonic modes. The use of percussion instruments from throughout the African diaspora and Asia, Europe and the Middle East alike make it a no-brainer. The combination of flute and drum (recorder and hand drum) is as old as humanity itself and found in every corner of the globe. The marriage of music with dance and body percussion and story and ritual is not even up for discussion in most culture’s folk and classical movements. The invitation to improvise and create varies in degree and kind, but is mostly alive and well in folk music cultures worldwide. Like I said—Orff Schulwerk and World Music are meant for each other.

So in a mere three days we’ve travelled sans passports to Ghana, Uganda, Bolivia, Chile, Virgin Islands, Slovenia, Japan, China, Java, Bali, Thailand and soon to go to Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Azerbhaijan and beyond.

The discussions that have arisen spontaneously from the activities have been rich, vibrant and meaningful. Getting out of our narrow framework and tasting different tunings, timbres, voice qualities, languages, postures, gestures, relationships to gravity. Giving up our inherited point of view as THE correct one and expanding our notions. Yes, the pentatonic scale is universal to some degree (though not all cultures use it), but listen to the tuning of the Javanese gamelan we played today at the Indonesian Embassy! Isn’t that different? And thus, refreshing and intriguing. Listen to the east-west “aye” sound of Bulgarian voices singing a major second. Quite different from the Western “ooh” singing in thirds and viva la diferance! And where the heck is the 1 in this polyrhythmic Ghanaian drum piece? And can we live without a 1?

If, if Joseph Campbell claimed, there is one archetypal hero with a thousand faces, then perhaps there’s also one song with a thousand voices. We’re all swimming in the same waters of a shared human mythology and non-partisan vibrations and thus, each cultural voice is partly our own. Such pleasure for me to help release sounds and gestures and the particular vibrations of diverse cultural styles and then let the music do its magic, let the textures and melodies and rhythms speak for themselves and go to work on our reservoir of feeling and emotion. And thanks to my own short studies in diverse musics, years of listening and knowledge of how the Orff approach can lead us close to the center of each style, I can do this work without apology for not being of the people that created it.

But when one of our Chinese students today shared a song in Mandarin that she learned from her father as a child and her whole body changed and face opened up and you could feel the community of ancestors behind her, well, that was a special moment. I stepped out of the way, let her first sing for us and then lead us and it was a beautiful reminder that even as we stretch ourselves to the full measure of connection with the world’s music, it is the one we absorbed as our mother tongue that will affirm a large part (but not all) of our identity. The one we sing without effort because it is wholly and indelibly a part of us.

And so two more days to keep the dance going between the particular and the universal, our ethnic identity and our human possibility. I can’t wait!

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