Monday, March 07, 2022

Singing songs of support across different cultures

When Russia recently invaded Ukraine there was an outpouring of support and solidarity. From money and arms, to thoughts and prayers.

Svitych youth choir, Nizhyn Mykola Gogol State University, Ukraine

Many choirs have chosen to sing Ukrainian songs as a demonstration of their support. How does this help?

singing songs in solidarity

There have been many occasions in my community choirs when we’ve sung songs from different cultures, in the original language. I always say to my singers: “Assume there will be somebody from that culture in the audience.” Amazingly – no matter how unfamiliar the culture – it is often the case.

We had a Japanese lady come up to us in tears because we sang Sakura, sakura and it reminded her of home.

We have joined in with some South African lads singing Nkosi sikelel’i Afrika, much to their surprise and delight.

Two young women came up to us after a performance of ┼átomi e milo from Macedonia. Although they didn’t know the song, they understood the words so they were able to join in with the choruses.

In each of these cases the people concerned felt they had been seen. That their culture had been acknowledged. There was a moment of sharing across different worlds.

They were pleased that somebody from another culture had taken the time and effort to learn one of their songs. It was a demonstration that we had recognised, acknowledged and celebrated their culture.

When a country is at war, or has suffered a natural disaster of some kind, that recognition is even more important. It demonstrates to those people (and to the rest of the world) that they are being seen and heard and haven’t been forgotten. Their desperate situation has been noticed.

Of course, singing doesn’t help in any practical way, but it does highlight awful situations, brings it to the attention of others in our own culture, and helps to support and raise morale for those who are suffering.

choose your songs carefully

There are lots of posts going around Facebook at the moment of the kind: “Does anybody know any rounds or warm ups from Ukraine?” “We’re got a concert coming up and we’d like to programme a Yemeni choral piece. Any ideas?”

People are even sharing recordings of songs which aren’t from the culture they think they are.

Do your research, of course. Get the song and the language right. Double check the meaning (it might not be appropriate to be singing a celebratory song of war at this point). Be meticulous about your sources. For example, people are sharing old Cossack songs at the moment, but current Ukrainians’ relationship with Cossacks is problematic to say the least.

Don’t wade thoughtlessly into a culture you don’t know (ask somebody from that culture). And try not to be superficial (a warm up from Ukraine is not as good a demonstration of support as a carefully chosen song).

Chris Rowbury


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