Choral directors, students discuss cultural appropriation in music

As is common to many student organizations, academic departments and campus-wide conversations this year, those involved with the St. Olaf Choir Program have engaged in increased dialogue regarding cultural appropriation in the program. During the protests against institutional racism in the Spring of 2017, many students brought forth concerns regarding tokenization, appropriation as well as euro-centrism on the St. Olaf campus. More specifically, students discussed how these ideas are mitigated in the context of the college’s music program and annual Christmas Festival. Students, faculty and staff seem to be navigating the task that is ensuring concert repertoires include the voices of many cultures without appropriating or tokenizing them.

“If we’re going to look at it from a religious perspective … to have voices that represent a global church is really important,” St. Olaf Choir director Anton Armstrong said. “Some of the strongest proponents [of the Lutheran church] are in Africa, in Tanzania for instance, in Latin America. It’s at the heart of where justice needs to be served and people need to be served.”

Songs that more frequently bring these questions into focus include Spirituals, which originate from slave songs, pieces written in languages other than English and World Music in general. “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” a popular Spiritual, is set to be performed by the St. Olaf Mass Choir for the opening of the 2017 Christmas Festival.

The song details spiritual devotion and the hope for freedom in Heaven, and is being directed by Associate Professor of Music Therees Hibbard, who serves as the director of the Manitou Singers and St. Olaf Chamber Singers. Hibbard emphasized the importance of approaching songs like these with extreme care and intention, contextualizing the song within its respective history.

“We do it to honor, to respect and to keep alive the ideas that they were sharing. Those of hope, those of strength,” Hibbard said. “The first step is to find common ground and to start a conversation so that … when we try and expand our own knowledge of world culture … that we are doing it as appropriately as we can with guidance from those people who are grounded in the tradition.”

Hibbard has taken a pedagogical approach to directing this piece, so that members of the ensembles understand the weight and importance of its meaning. With similar inquiries regarding other cultural contexts, students have also brought into question what it means to perform songs from different countries and in different languages.

“To sing a song in a different language, I think it means something else,” Nyagua Tut ’20 said. “For the most part I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it but it always gives me something to think about. Why are we actually singing the song, what is the meaning and why is it that a choir that is predominantly caucasian, why is it okay that we sing it?”

Tut drew on her point, making clear that she believes these issues never arise with ill intent, but rather give members of the choir something new to consider. She finds it particularly complex to rationalize singing songs in languages that the majority of the ensemble and audience will not understand, citing a potential for lost meaning.

Kaci Campbell ’19, a member of St. Olaf Choir and the Assistant Music Director of the St. Olaf Gospel Choir, emphasized that performing Spirituals, gospel music and world music is something that must be done with care and intention. She noted the problems that arise when, in some cases, these songs are viewed as a fun “buffer” in an otherwise serious program.

“It’s important that people realize what they’re actually singing about because … a lot of times gospel music, spirituals and world music are seen as a fun piece that we’re doing that’s a break from the norm. I think it’s important for ensembles to realize that a lot of these pieces do have gravitas and other contextual baggage that comes with it,” Campbell said. “This music is meant to be shared because if it wasn’t no one would know about it. But you do have to stay true to its context and not make a mockery of it.”

Armstrong and Hibbard reflected on their careers and how they have experienced other cultures and people across the world through music. Armstrong recalled the St. Olaf Choir tour in New Zealand and Australia in 1997, when the students spontaneously gathered in a small town and began singing a Maori song.

“You can’t just do an arrangement of Maori music,” Armstrong said. “You have to go and seek permission from the tribe of the people who own [it]. The kids were in a little village and I don’t know how it started … but a bunch of them started singing [and] this woman came out of one of the shops and she looked at me and said, ‘Are you the chief?’ … I said, ‘I guess I am the chief.’ She said, ‘You know our music, you know our souls.’ That always struck me.”

Armstrong, Hibbard, Tut and Campbell all asserted the importance of taking music that does not come from one’s own culture seriously, and that in these situations, the performance must be meticulously well-informed and rehearsed. Vowel shapes, pronunciation and movement are all aspects that contribute to the perception of the music by both the performers and the audience. Armstrong and Hibbard commented that when done well, learning the music of other cultures can forge incredibly strong connections and cross-cultural understanding.

“Everybody says, ‘music is the universal language,’ and it’s kind of trite but it is very true,” Hibbard said. “I’m of a philosophy that the reason we sing is because we want to join together in a way that we can’t just by speech. And that’s why we sing when we march.”