A Guide for Choosing Multicultural Music

by Janet Morgenstern, R&S Chair for Ethnic & Multicultural Music

April 19, 2010

Once upon a time, choral literature was almost exclusively European or European-American in origin.  As time has progressed, we educators have begun to push for a broader array of musical styles that envelops as many cultures as possible, hence the term, “multicultural.”  Defining what multicultural music can be very difficult.  If we take the term literally, it refers to music from many different cultures.  In practice, however, the term is used to describe any type of literature that isn’t strictly classical or even European in origin or descent.  

J.W. Pepper separates what I would consider multicultural music into three different categories:  spirituals and gospel, folksongs, and multicultural and world music.  I believe these categories are misleading and confusing.  For example, J.W. Pepper lists the Kings’ Singer’s arrangement of Toto’s song Africa under its multicultural music list.  Though I love that piece, it is no way a song with an ethnic origin and would be better placed under the pop music list.



The heart and soul of any type of multicultural music is the folksong, and virtually every culture since time began has had individual folksong traditions.  For this reason, rather than sorting music by confusing categories, I have only two:  folksongs (of any cultural origin) in their original form, and folksong-inspired arrangements.  I then define subcategories by region of origin and style.





To help surf through the many pieces of repertoire that claim to be multicultural, here are some pointers:



The more specific information a piece of music has regarding the origins of a folksong, the better.  Don’t lump enormous regions together.  A good example of this is Africa.  Many of us are good about telling our students that they are singing an African piece, but do you know what tribe created the song?  The region of Africa from which a song comes greatly affects how it should be performed.  The same is true of Native American music.  The High Plains tradition of singing and drumming is completely different than that of the Southwestern tribes. 



If the music you would like to perform does not have region or tribe-specific information, chances are the arranger didn’t do his/her homework.

Remember that whenever styles of music are transplanted from one region to another that it will affect both the original musical style and the style of music in the new location.  Musical styles are in constant flux in today’s mass media.  Mixing style points from several different origins is both creative and fun, but these works should never be passed off as strictly Celtic, West African, Korean, etc., and care should be taken to note where liberties are taken and where styles differ from the original.



If you decide to begin incorporating folksongs, be careful to ensure that you use songs from a wide variety of regions.  Two of my favorite types of folksong include those from the Appalachian region and songs from Western African.  I have to be careful to incorporate the different styles of Native American, South American, Slavic, Middle Eastern, and Asian music, as well.



If you are branching out and using a piece from a region that is new to you, see if you can find a recording of the style to help you decide how to teach it.  Using strictly classical technique and diction on every piece can be a turn-off for students, but showing them how to change vocal production to better reflect the style makes the pieces more fun and allows you the opportunity to broaden their vocal techniques.  It is also best, if possible, to find pronunciations from native speakers of the piece’s language.



Best of luck to you all as you incorporate varying styles into your repertoire!




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