Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Music: The universal language

In Lusaka, Zambia

"The March" by Robert Randolph and the Family Band is one of my favorite songs to hear performed live. The song/dance has no words, no set steps, and no rules but to move your body. In the words of Randolph, “as long as you’re moving, you’re doing it right.” Each time I see this song performed, I imagine him playing it all over the world. I imagine different crowds of people, of all colors, shapes and sizes, dancing separately but together. They might not dance the same dance, share the same beliefs or even speak the same language, but in that moment, they all share the music.

Music is an important and apparent part of everyday life in Zambia and has served as not only a common ground between our group and locals, but also as a way for many to connect and interact in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. From Catholic churches and rural villages to nearly any bar, restaurant or club, the sound of music welcomed us to Zambia in many forms.

Something borrowed, something new

Music in Zambia can best be described as eclectic. Similar to many other aspects of the country’s culture, the music embodies a mix of tradition and outside influence. Music classified as "Zambian music" incorporates distinct outside influences – from Rumba, jazz and reggae to rap, hip hop and gospel but contains few distinctly Zambian elements aside from Zambian language. Nearly all restaurants and bars are music-oriented, and clubs often house a band or a DJ playing a mix of American hip hop, European techno and other African rhythms.

Along with singing and drumming, dancing is a huge part of everything from cultural celebrations and ceremonies to entertainment. Like music, dances are a mix of contemporary and reinvented or recovered traditional styles (many traditional dances were discouraged and lost during the colonial period as they were seen as threatening to authority and evil). Zambians dance to remember their roots, to attract visitors and, most importantly, to celebrate.

The connection point

As a self-proclaimed concert addict and a former competitive dancer of 14 years, I understand the connection one can have with another person or group through music and dance. However, I never expected to feel this type of connection through music in Africa. According to Augustine Phiri, the Lusaka-based dance instructor who trained our group in African dance once a week, dancing together allows people to interact on a different, fun and less intimidating scale.

“Those I teach and I are on different levels in life, but when we dance together, we can come up or down to meet each other,” Phiri said. “While I am teaching them, they are also teaching me. There is so much we can learn from each other in such a simple exchange.”

Similar exchanges happened when the comforting sound of familiar songs appeared at internships and other locations in Lusaka, sparking conversations and music file swaps. With the expansion of new media in Africa and elsewhere, the same song can be enjoyed by people literally half a world away. This makes music an instant connection point, no matter who you are.

More than words

Although English is the official language of Zambia, communication between foreigners and locals is sometimes lost in accents, foreign phrases and, of course, indigenous languages. This is where music broke the barrier several times throughout our trip.

We visited the Kasisi orphanage and many kids were shy or did not speak English, but soon opened up when they were given the opportunity to learn a new song or teach us one of their own – it’s amazing how far a little “Hokey Pokey” can go. Similarly, many widows at the Chikumbuso compound could not communicate with us using words, but touched us so immensely with their gospel-like and harmonized songs full of hope and joy.

“Using music, whether it be song or dance, to communicate is an easy way to reach common ground when there may be a language barrier or a cultural misunderstanding,” senior advertising major Rebecca Koch said. “It just makes the world a little smaller and less intimidating when you can connect by singing a simple song together.”

Heather Farr is one of 18 students from Ohio University, who studied abroad in Zambia over winter intercession through the Institute for International Journalism.

She is a senior public relations major with a certificate in the Global Leadership Center and a specialization is sociology.

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