A couple of years ago, I went to an international peace gathering in Sarajevo. Because of the place, there was a much greater proportion of people able to attend from Eastern Europe and from further east than is often the case in gatherings held further west in Europe. This was a great learning opportunity for me because I am used to being in ‘international’ spaces that are still dominated by Western culture.
When I am choosing songs to help bring many voices together in concert or demonstration environments, one of the things I consider is where the middle ground might be in the Venn diagram of potential singers.
Sometimes this is looking at demographics of age, nationality, language and other cultural signifiers, and sometimes it’s just looking at simplicity of melody so that people are likely to be able to pick it up quickly whatever cultural context they are coming from.
More often than not, I am assuming that well-tempered western tuning will be the common ground. And, more often than not, I will choose tunes originating from Western Europe, the United States of America and Africa.
Historic migration patterns (especially the forced enslavement and relocation of people from Africa by Europeans) have built strong melodic and harmonic links between the music in these places, making them easily accessible for western ears. Much of the rest of the world has retained many other tunings that can be take a little longer for western voices to tune into.
In Sarajevo, I met a German man who had co-ordinated many people to translate a Persian-language, Azerbaijani peace song into over 36 languages. The English words:
Asia, Africa, we extend our hands to you,
America, Europe, we extend our hands to you,
Black and white, we extend our hands to you,
For all the world, peace we hold in our hands to you.
And in Bosnian:
Asia, Afrika pruschimi ruku,
Evropa, Amrika pruschimi ruku,
Bjeli I cerni pruschimi ruku,
Sviz kupa za mir pruschimi ruku.
And in Persian:
Asia, Afrigha, pisch besuje sol,
Uropa, Amrica, pisch besuje sol,
Siah, zardo, sefied pisch besuje sol,
Betamma dowa pisch besuje sol.
Because the tune was grounded in the mid-point between east and west, it became a great unifying song for people at that gathering. More unifying even than ‘We Shall Overcome’ because the scale of the melody connected with a broader variety of musical traditions.
It was extraordinary to see – people from all over Eastern Europe, the Arabic-speaking world, Turkey, Greece, all instantly singing and dancing together. It was the people from Western Europe and America that had the most difficulty getting to grips with the tune. And we were wonderfully outnumbered.
Just by choosing a song with a different cultural centre of gravity, a little of the global imbalance was rebalanced. Even if just for the length of a song. And we from the English-speaking world had to work harder to catch up with everyone else. That felt wonderful to me. It felt right. And long overdue.
I came home from that gathering ready to challenge myself and my regular singing groups with tunes from further afield, helping us all learn to listen a little more closely to diverse voices, trying more of the Middle Eastern tunes that take a little longer to hear, more songs from Eastern Europe and from Asia.
This week, in the Edinburgh I call home, Shahbaz Ali, a Syrian refugee, was stabbed because he is not white.
The attackers reportedly asked him: ‘Why are you still here? Why don’t you go back to your own country?’
While I write this, he is still in a critical condition in hospital, and I hope that by the time this is printed he will be recovering.
The immediate response from many people in Edinburgh has been to gather in solidarity, to show that so many of us welcome refugees, and welcome people from other countries whatever their reason to be here.
We will be singing at a ‘Refugees are welcome’ gathering, singing in Arabic Ahlen wa sahlen, the formal ‘welcome, feel as if you are with family’ phrase spoken across the Arab world.
Hopefully, some of the people at that demonstration will recognise their home language, and know that we are taking the extra step to learn a little of their language, singing a tune that is more familiar to their first cultural context. And I hope they will feel more welcome because of it. Every little counts.