Students forge connections with cultures through music


Talia Winiarsky and Julia Goldberg

Listening in on chorus classes, one may be surprised to hear sounds originating from a region that traditional Western music classes rarely explore: Hawaii. Music teacher Timothy Ho incorporates Hawaiian music into the choral curriculum because the language contains pure open vowels, allowing him to concentrate on the fundamentals of singing, and because the music native to his ethnic heritage is close to his heart.
However, learning Hawaiian songs in class also motivates conversations among students about the islands’ complex history and authentic culture, much of which has been subject to appropriation and misrepresentation, Yana Gitelman (11) said.
For many student, music in other languages acts as a vehicle to delve into different cultures, as well as maintain and strengthen ties with their own backgrounds.
For Carmel Peer (11), Israeli music is a reminder of her home country. Generally, Israeli music is like current pop, but has influences of Middle-Eastern and Arabic music.
The music evokes nostalgia, appreciation for Israel, and happiness ,and reminds her of her grandmother, who taught her Hebrew, and her cousins, who live in Israel.
“It’s one thing to just speak the language,” she said. But listening to music is a step further in forming a connection with her Israeli heritage, she said. Peer was born in Israel and immigrated to America when she was two months old, so at times she can feel detached from Israeli culture.
Similarly, Leonora Gogos (12) feels homesick when she listens to Greek music, she said. Though Gogos was born in New York and has never lived in Greece, she and her parents visit every year. With the exception of her immediate family, all of her relatives live there, she said.
“It feels weird to say homesick, because I live here, but it’s my second home and sometimes I really miss it,” she said. “Often times [the music] makes me feel connected to a part of the world I live so far away from.”
According to a scientific study conducted at Duke University in 1999, listening to music from childhood conjures memories for people of all ages, since listening to the same type of music repetitively can cause a listener to associate it with a specific period of their life.
“If it’s a sad song, it reminds me of the ancient history of Greece and my people,” she said. “If it’s more lively, it reminds me of being with my grandparents and friends in Greece, and having a big meal by the sea together.”
However, listeners don’t need a familial or lifelong connection with music in order to listen to it. History teacher Ricardo Alvarez-Pimentel, who often includes music in his Latin American history elective, believes that listening to music in other languages allows students to engage in alternative ways of thinking about the world, he said. “If you listen to pop music from Europe or the Middle-East or East Asia, you begin to see a lot of similarities in terms of people all over the world writing about similar issues and topics that are important to them.”
The students often request more of the cultural lessons he centers around music, Alvarez said. “With music especially, it really comes alive for the students. You listen to the words, to the music and the rhythms, and you begin to feel maybe a little bit of what people felt when they were first creating these new art forms.”
When Jerry Zhou (9), who immigrated from China three months ago, plays Chinese music for people who don’t understand the lyrics, the melodies communicate the songs’ messages, he said. Last week, Zhou and his friend visited the recording studio and played music for each other. “I played one of the Chinese songs that I learned back in China, and he [did] not understand a word, but he told me that he [felt] like the song [was] sad.”
Zhou listens to music that features information about Chinese art and history, he said. One of his favorite songs by the artist ZhouJieLun mentions the classic blue and white pottery of several Chinese dynasties. “It’s actually very good for learning Chinese culture.”
Because listening to music deepens an understanding of differences amongst cultures, it can counteract xenophobia, Alvarez said. “As Americans, as New Yorkers, we have so many languages that we access every day without even thinking about it,” he said. “By engaging with someone else’s perspective, and then coming back to your own with that experience, it’s like you have another layer of knowledge and wisdom that you can take into your everyday life.”
According to Ho, every cultural system values different musical elements. “In Hawaiian music, the preeminent aesthetic is actually text,” he said. “We believe that the inherent beauty of a song is actually in the words, and not necessarily in the melody line that’s accompanied.”
Listening to music of other cultures can sometimes be a surprising experience, Ho said. “If one goes into a situation believing that their own world view is the only one that exists and that it’s correct for everybody in the world, it’s going to be very hard to have a conversation with somebody else who is equally convinced that their version of the world is correct.”
Aidan McAndrew (11) uses music to connect with unfamiliar cultures. “I do think it’s important, even if you aren’t going to understand [music in other languages], or even if you don’t like it, to just hear it because you’ll get a new perspective on the music around the world,” he said.
Anime introduced McAndrew to Japanese music when he was in elementary school, and he subsequently explored the soundtracks of the shows, and later, Japanese pop songs. At first, he payed attention to the melodies rather than the meaning of the lyrics, McAndrew said.
“I was a kid, I wasn’t really thinking about whether it’s Japanese music or American music. I was just enjoying what I was hearing and wanting to sing it.”
Over time, McAndrew has taught himself about Latino and Japananese culture through music. Listening to this music has exposed him to colloquial words and phrases which the Spanish curriculum does not teach, he said.
Srijani Shreya (11) believes that listening to music in Spanish, including salsa and tango, has helped her learn the language. “In Spanish, one thing that’s very important is understanding,” Shreya said. “It’s not just talking and being able to communicate, but also being able to take in information.”
Specifically, Shreya is able to pick up on slang and different accents, she said. “It has helped me understand the cultural aspect as well, since Spanish music consists of several genres and each genre has a unique characteristic and origin of its own,” she said. “It’s interesting to make those distinctions.”
Shreya also enjoys listening to music in Hindi and Bengali, both of which she is fluent in, she said. “Classical songs are soothing and can literally put you to sleep, but the pop songs are upbeat and get you dancing.”
Despite the differences, the music is often associated with dance and is related to spirituality, she said. “A lot of the Bengali music I listen to stems from Hinduism, but it’s not necessarily pulling on the divine aspect, just the philosophy,” she said. “If you hear it and understand what it means, it talks a lot about the way life should be led and the struggles of life.”