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Posted on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 12:39

I spent the summer working with refugees through a museum in Erie, PA .

In honor of World Refugee Day, we organized a kind of pageant that featured dances from Buhtan, story telling from Sudan, an exhibition of Iraqi Art, songs from Burma. The audience was as mixed as the performers. No one spoke the same language and at no moment did all people seem to know what exacty was going on. Some of the audience members sat still during the performances, others chattered and still others got up and danced. And each etnicity responded to the music of another in a different way. At some point the Nepalese started singing and chanting in the quiet of the library and I turned to a man from Morocco and said, "You know, this is what heaven is really like with all those nations up there- Sheer chaosos!" And yet it was also shared experience in those moments where sound superseeded culture and language, like when the entire room was stilled by the beauty of a Bosnian sevdalinka (a song of love and loss).

On another occassion the museum decided to pair up our artists in residence- The Barnstormers (an old timey band with fiddle, banjo, washboards and this weird instrument that exist only in Erie that includes a bicycle horn)- with some various refugees who had also participated in an artist in residence program that brough the songs of their homelands into the dayvcares of Pennsylvania. We all sat in a circle and in the same democratic style as Shape Note Singing, each individual selected a song and sang it. Well, when we got to those old timey musicians, they thought it'd be a good idea to pass around those horns and washboards and have the other folk play along while marching around the room. After all, that's what they'd been doing with the kids in the daycare. They launched into a well known favorite- When the Saints Come Marching In. Now those Africans (from Rawanda and Sudan) weren't much for sitting and singing, but handed a perussion instrument and asked to march (which to them meant to dance) caused an explosion of energy and sound.  Those Africans created a rythmn cycle that wove in o a call and response with a counter-melody. I thought those Barnstormers ears were going to start to smoke! And better yet, nobody could make them stop- they just kept singing, dancing and beating out rythm.

That was the summer I knew why I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist.



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