Why Should People Learn Songs from Other Cultures?
by Suni Paz
I believe music, songs and poems help create or reinforce friendships, animate a classroom, dispel bad humor, increase self-awareness and expand understanding of other people and worlds. Through comparison and contrast, we learn who we are with respect to the rest of the world. We learn how we are much the same and how some customs are very different. In the process we enrich ourselves. For example: With just two little words in Armenian, “Bari Luys,” which is a greeting as well as a blessing, I made a friend and received a whole meal for the $1.50 I had at the time, having forgotten my purse. “Bari Lus” was my greeting and my passport to a great meal and a new friend.
A new language or culture increases our awareness of who we are, how we act, what we like or favor about a person from another culture. It is important to know something of other cultures. For example: Argentines give coffee to little children. Here in the USA, it is seen as a bad action. I was thrown out of a restaurant because I requested three coffees: One for me, and the other for my children ages 4 and 6. My unfamiliarity with American culture and the waitress’ lack of knowledge of my South American culture created the clash. Had we known a little about each other, we would have had a great time and maybe become friends.
In my presentations, I start with a “Hello” song in at least seven languages: Spanish, English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Armenian and Arabic. The children feel challenged and love the novelty, the gestures, and the dance movements. I can see their smiling faces and concentration when repeating my lead. Fun! Then, in the future, when they meet other people from those cultures they will approach them with interest and curiosity instead of prejudice and suspicion
Most importantly, we bring values to the songs:
- The love for the grandmother (“abuelita”)
- The love for mom and dad on their birthdays (“para tu fiesta mamá y papá”)
- Respect and pride (orgullo) for the family and yourself
- Saying “Thank you" (Gracias) to the Farmworkers (“Campesino”) for the fruits of their hands
- Learning to get along well with others (“Llevarse muy bien”)
These are just some of the subjects of my songs taken from Folklore, the lyrics of Cuban-American author and poet Alma Flor Ada, or my own lyrics and music.
I also enjoy using Dancing Songs from Brazil translated into Portuguese, then into English and Spanish. We sing and dance a Mexican Hat Dance from Mexico, adapted for children. I’ve adapted those lyrics into English so we can have another bilingual song from two cultures
Songs from other cultures allow us to travel without leaving the room! They open our hearts and minds, enrich our lives, and open up our curiosity while helping schools expand their curriculum.
How to Teach Multicultural Songs or Dances
I teach songs using everything at my disposal: percussive little instruments, a joke, a tongue-twister, a dance, a ronda or circle-dance, adding each time a new word (animal, thing) in the line that follows. I make sure the steps or movements are easy to follow, different, funny and then I repeat the whole song or dance again.
When I have to select a new child to come to the stage to play with me, I ease into the invitation by using an Italian-Spanish nonsense song similar to the way American children chant “One Potato, Two Potato” to select who will be “It” for a game:
Lori, bilori, vicenti, colori.
Lori birin, contra barin,
Afuera chicote! (You’re out, big kid!)
"Wow," I say to the child: "You are my chicote!" This brings great laughter, so that instead of feeling rejected because I did not choose a particular child, the children feel the verse selected the next child to dance and sing, not me. Happiness reigns with smiles and good humor.
The instruments I use are from Spain, Africa, Brazil, Indigenous Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Cuba and Argentina. This allows me to explain that in Mexico Spanish is not the only language spoken. There are more than thirty indigenous languages and dialects, some of which are being spoken by children in our classrooms and by their families. I have had Zapotec parents bringing their children to school speaking in pre-Columbian Zapotec.
Too often I have seen children’s cultural heritage--their language, customs and origin--marginalized; they can feel ashamed of their origin or parents. It is important that we help by recognizing and celebrating who they are and where they come from with pride and good feelings!
I want to encourage our readers and our teachers to open their minds, satisfy their own curiosity about others and open up their curriculum. It is easy to learn new languages and vocabularies with music. By comparison and contrast our minds take new words and subjects more easily, they are remembered and fixed in the mind and thus, layers of culture are added. Later on, children will be curious to open and read books that show those cultures they have heard about through singing or dancing.
I want to thank CMN for all they do and have done to present and support artists and authors from many cultures and disseminating songs, poems and dances in many languages.
About Suni Paz
Suni, a long-time CMN member, has been creating, composing, writing and performing nonstop since 1968, with her sons joining her in performances by the time they were seven. She has written more than five hundred poems and songs including melodies for the works of bilingual poet-authors Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy. Her own poems and songs have been published in the U.S, Mexico and Australia in Language, Math and Literature programs which were also recorded in numerous Long Plays (now becoming popular again!), CD's and books. Her sons, now accomplished musicians and composers in their own right, frequently perform and record with Suni today. She uses as many rhythms from as many cultures as possible including Spain, Latin America, Europe and the Caribbean. She has translated many popular traditional North American folk songs into Spanish. Her latest recording of these songs, Tu Eres Mi Flor, sung with children’s folk artist Elizabeth (“Liz”) Mitchell, is due for release near the end of 2017 through the Smithsonian Folkways label.
CMN's Multicultural Songbook is an anthology of some of the best songs originating from (or about) countries beyond the United States, often sung in languages other than English. In sharing songs of other cultures, we broaden the global understanding of our children so that they might see themselves as part of a larger world of people, not so unlike themselves, who hope, dream, play and learn in far-away lands sometimes in unfamiliar--but equally interesting--languages.