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Problems in preparing World Music

I will be giving a session “Encountering World Music” at Podium, which is the forum for the Association of Canadian Choral Communities (roughly the Canadian equivalent of ACDA). The biennial (and bilingual!) Podium will be held in Ottawa this year, May 17 through 20.

I will be touching on issues such as language, authenticity, tempo, instruments, copyright and commissioning, and participants will read through several recent arrangements from various publishers.

Most certainly, I will be mentioning how very useful ChoralNet is to choral musicians, and to demonstrate this – as well as obtain some useful information (forewarned is forearmed!) – I'd appreciate very much hearing from those of you who perform World Music with your choirs what you have found the most challenging aspect(s) (musical or extra-musical) in the preparation of this genre. Solutions are welcomed as well! (I'll quote sources when referring to specific contributions).
Many thanks,

Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on April 23, 2012 9:52pm
Great topic to talk about Donald. 
I have a community choir which sings "classical and world music".
The first challenge lies in defining world music.   Chris Rowbury who runs world music choirs in England had a wonderful post on his blog recently which addressed exactly that.
In my choir "world music" means that we sing unaccompanied songs from cultures which have a long and powerful tradition of singing in harmony.  e.g. Sub-Sahara Africa; parts of Eastern Europe like Georgia, Latvia, Macedonia, Bulgaria; Corsica; Melanesia and Polynesia.
I am not so interested in singing songs which come from countries where the music is more monodic although we have quite a few in our repertoire.
The problems we encounter on a daily basis mainly have to do with authenticity of a piece, the style of singing and the pronunciation. 
Many old songs come from geographic regions where the political lines keep being re-drawn - and claims of songs "belonging" to one group of people can too easily spill over into a mini-declarations of war from another rival group of people. 
Then there is the issue of two companies claiming copyright of an arranged piece - so you can't perform the piece because you don't know who to credit or get permission.   An example of this is the song Ma Ma Liye which is claimed by a German publishing house and a South African publishing house.    I'm searching for the original so that I don't have to go through either.
I actually really dislike most of the major publisher's versions of world music and don't understand why so many of them come out sounding so anemic - I'd give examples only then we'd all be in trouble.    But to reduce some of the complex rhythms in world music to 4/4 just so high school choirs can sing them kind of misses the point of doing them in the first place.  
The one thing we are not short of are marvellous resources at our fingertips - not only in finding original music but in general help with the whole genre.  e.g. this wonderful map of traditional polyphonic regions from the International Research Centre for Traditional Polyphony of Tbilisi State Conservatory. 
I have a host of people who I call upon to help with correct pronunciation.    But even then we run into trouble with dialects - I think I have it nailed and then someone from the same country but different region tells us we have it all wrong and it's THIS way and not THAT way.   Sigh.  But it's part of the fun to do with the incredibly complex and beautiful world of traditional polyphony.
And lastly - it's stories like these which keep those of us who love world music harmonies really excited about it:

One of the most fascinating aspects of traditional polyphonic singing is the similarity of songs of countries which are so far apart geographically.  For example, the traditional polyphony of Georgia and Corsica.  They are extraordinarily similiar.   The melismata of the lead singer – the close 2nds and 7ths -the drones -  the rhythm..they sound as if they were once at one and yet there are vast mountain ranges, wild land and a sea between the countries.

It was not until the early 1980′s that the Corsicans and the Georgians found out about the similarities between them – and what a blast and a puzzle that must have been.

In a conversation with Joseph Jordania (ethnomusicologist from Georgia) recently he mentioned that actually there are quite a few differences – he  pointed out that if you listen to the bass line there are instances of the dominant resolving to the tonic which is different to Georgian low voice lines which usually don’t.

Here is the Corsican group called A Filetta.  Their powerful harmony is just riveting and if I didn't know that they were Corsicans  I'd swear the song was from Georgia.

Hope this helps a bit Donald.



on April 25, 2012 3:49am
Totally with you on this Jane. Couldn't have written it better myself!! And big thanks for referencing my blog.
I too "dislike most of the major publishers' versions of world music". As you point out, these songs come from cultures with long traditions so the type of harmonising must respect that. Also, most of them are LIVING traditions. I remember somebody talking about hearing amazing unaccompanied singing in a South African church. Somebody notated the arrangement for singing later. But when they came back the next day, the arrangement was totally different!
Suffolk, UK
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on April 24, 2012 5:40am
What a learned and interesting reply from Jane!  I could never hope to have so much to offer, however I will say that aside from the obvious language problems, my biggest issue with music from unfamiliar cultures is the rhythm.  The notation is usually approximate and if I haven't heard the song performed frequently by several different native performers or groups, I'm intimidated about even attempting it.  I feel the whole time I'm doing the piece that I'm making some horrific mistake that I'm not aware of but  would embarrass me terribly if someone from that culture ever heard our performance.  For example, we're coming to Quebec this summer singing your arrangement of "Ah Si Mon Moine Voulait Danser" and you can bet I'm worried about that!!!!  
As far as language pronunciation goes, I always try to get a first generation speaker to come to my rehearsals and/or to make rehearsal CD's for my children's choir.  I don't have access to anyone from Georgia so I would hold off on doing a song from there until I had native help with it.  I don't trust Youtube but it can be helpful to reinforce if we've already had first generation help at rehearsal.
I must say, though, that sometimes I love the music so much and something in it speakes to me so clearly that even if I've unwittingly transmuted it, I can't resist sharing it with my children.  Hence "Ah Si Mon..."!
Thanks for your beautiful arrangements, Donald.  My choir loves "J'entends Le Moulin".
on April 24, 2012 10:11am
Friends:  Isn't this (very interesting to me) discussion about world music just a continuation of our earlier discussion about whether white choirs can ever do Black spirituals properly and with proper tribute to their originators.  Seems to me we're talking about exactly the same things!
I believe quite firmly that any musical genre that is rooted in "the people" rather than in some arbitrary (and necessarily ephemeral) idea of "ideal sound" or "ideal style" or "ideal rhythmic feel" or anything else is going to have so many subtleties that very few people who have not grown up in that culture will ever HEAR them all, let alone MASTER them all.  Musical notation itself has changed drastically over the years, but it remains at best an approximation of the real "music" which is realized in time and space and never on paper.  So in interpreting unfamiliar styles, whether by eye or by ear (which is always a much better way to do it) we are left with a choice between imitation and caricature.
But isn't that equally true with ALL performances of music in ANY genre that is not native to the person or people performing it?  A fine jazz performer interprets the dots on the page differently from a fine classical performer, and a classical performer trying to imitate jazz style can sound, to someone who understands and feels the style, like a caricature.  Equally, a late 19th century interpretation of a baroque or renaissance piece in late 19th century style can sound like a caricature to someone more familiar with the authentic original styles, and would probably be unrecognizable to someone from those previous centuries who had grown up with and within those styles.
Does that mean we can't or shouldn't attempt to perform music of other cultures or other times or places?  Of course not!  But we also have to admit that in doing so we are reinterpreting it in terms that our own cultures (and of course sub-cultures) can understand.  And I have no problem with that, any more than I do with attempt to make interpretations based on knowledge of the originals.  It's all music, it will speak to us in its own terms, and it will survive our attempts because it is strong enough to do so or it won't.
All the best,
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on April 24, 2012 10:15am
I sing with Kaia, an 8-woman vocal ensemble dedicated to world music. We have used some arrangements from choral publishers but they stray so far from the source that it's hard to know how many generations away you are from the original song (try YouTubing Las Amarillas and see the dramatic difference between the traditional Mexican tune and what Stephen Hatfield's done with it).
We try to use field recordings and oral traditions wherever possible. We live in a university town so we've got great libraries to draw upon, as well as native speakers. We always research the cultures we're drawing from, whether through conversation with natives or extensive web research. YouTube is indispensible.
"Authenticity" is an issue that came up a lot when we were first getting started, but over the years we've come to peace with the idea that we "Kaiaify" any piece we work on. The written sheet music is just a jumping off point. We are not traditional Bulgarian singers. We never will be. We've invested considerable time and money learning to sing in a Bulgarian style but we will never be as adept as singers who grew up with that style. So we take our delight from the fact that we are sharing this music through our particular creative lens with people who otherwise would likely never hear it.
It's my personal opinion that, aside from liturgical works or music that is otherwise sacred to the originators of it, music belongs to the human race. There is no single "authentic" style these days -- everyone's been influenced by the people they learned it from and then by all the other media they've come into contact with. World music is constantly evolving. I think it's great to use field recordings as a touchstone -- and it's also great to create something that expresses how you feel the piece. We sing a shape note song in the style of Radiohead, for instance. That ticks off a lot of shape note singers, but it's how we feel the piece ("Wood Street"). And I think it is a legitimate creative choice.
I think it would be really important to have these discussions with your choirs and keep engaging the topic over time so that kids realize that this music comes from *somewhere*, not just from some sheet of paper. It helps to respect the originating culture as much as possible. And then to take the responsibility for the fact that your interpretation of it is not going to be the same as a native singer's interpretation. Those are valuable conversations for kids to have. It connects them with the broader world and helps them make the connection to the music they listen to on their own time, which is heavily influenced by other genres and performers (to the point of sampling other artists' tunes to create a new one).
Whew! Big topic. Glad to see you're taking it on. Good luck!
- Cairril Adaire
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on April 25, 2012 5:19am
1) Tell the story behind the music
2) Get the pronunciation as close as possible, no bland North American vowels
3) Add movement when appropriate
and very important for World Music
4) Memorize
For more on the issue of authenticity see the THOUGHTS section of my website.
Nick Page
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on April 25, 2012 2:02pm
Oh good one Nick!  Memorize.   
It is indeed a sad thing when we see youtube clips of choirs in robes and wooden faces peering down into their black folders attempting to sing the vibrant songs of another culture.  
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on April 25, 2012 4:45pm
Do you want to be pure or be practical? For those of us in the education world, we try to learn the best we can from as authentic a source as we can, and then we approximate.  If I wanted to provide an authentic cultural experience for every culture I want my students to know about I would go broke bringing in musicians.   I have studied Native American music in depth as a non-native person.   I have taken lessons with native singers/drummers, organized field trips for my students' families to attend Pow-wows and used hand crafted authentic instruments.  But at the end of the day my own example and the performance of my students is not going to be authentic.  
There are choral ensembles and colligium musicum type groups that have as there core the goal of recreating purely authentic performances.  I favor the more practical approach.  
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on May 11, 2012 7:31am
Good Day All,

Many thanks for all your wonderful responses– right from Jane Becktel who introduced me to herself and to Chris Rowberry, through John Howell’s ‘holistic’ insights and finishing with Jack Senzig’s wisdom with regards to practicality.  You have ALL answered a lot of questions for all of us, I am sure, and each of you has contributed valuable insights.

In particular, I appreciated so much Nick Page’s valuable four-point response to the question (what are the challenges?), plus a fifth response gained by reading his wonderful essays (all twelve of them!) at
These should be required reading for anyone in the music field! The opening essay on “Rethinking Multicultural Authenticity” is replete with so much wisdom that I wondered how I’d not heard of it in the past 6 years since he wrote it. A couple of gems include expansion on “the authentic music of every culture is actually a fusion of other cultural traditions” and amplified reference to A. J. Palmer’s “spectrum of authenticity”. It’s wonderful reading. Thank you, Nick!

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