Friday, September 22

Essential education


Festival of World Music helps students enhance studies through performance

African drums dance their polyrhythmic dance and a Javanese
gamelan meditates in its eternal cycle. Somewhere in Bulgaria, a
women’s choir sends their mesmerizing dissonances ricocheting
across the hills.

These are not sounds often heard in the United States, but
during April and May, the UCLA Ethnomusicology Department’s
Festival of World Music will bring the work of 12 student ensembles
““ representing music from across the globe ““ to Los
Angeles for free.

Things haven’t always been so easy. A few years ago, this
diversity was nearly lost.

Mired in the budget cuts that were then diffusing throughout
academia, students and faculty found themselves without any means
to perform.

Reflecting on her own experience as an ethnomusicology graduate
student of UCLA, current Department Chair Jacqueline DjeDje knew
that this festival gave students opportunities too valuable to
lose.

“I was a student in the ’70s, and much of my
experience here was playing in ensembles. Performing with these
groups provides the ability to collectively engage
tradition,” DjeDje said.

Determined to do just that regardless of the budget, the
department made a move that would forever change the face of the
festival.

“The Hammer Museum was contacted about performance
opportunities for world music. They hosted a weekend series, and
since it was so successful, (they) asked for us to come
back,” DjeDje said.

Despite a stabilized financial situation and restored
accessibility to campus venues, the Hammer’s constituency
decided not to let the festival go. Now split between performances
at Schoenberg Hall and the Hammer and Fowler museums, the
festival’s audience continues to grow.

Rarely will a radio dial stray across anything that sounds like
the Festival of World Music, nor are there many venues where these
forms of music can be experienced.

Professor Ali Jihad Racy, director of the Near East Ensemble,
attributes the resonance of UCLA students’ personal endeavors
in cultural music to the combination of world-class instruction by
master performers and the multiculturalism of Los Angeles.

Various forms of music are meticulously researched and molded by
musicians from across the globe, like Racy himself. Students insert
their own musicianship respectfully into another tradition, doing
their best to perceive with native ears. Whether or not music is a
universal language, the act of respectfully learning and
understanding the music of another culture certainly sends a
universal message.

“The community appreciates the efforts of students
performing traditional music done well. The diversity of Los
Angeles provides a lot of support for these performances,”
Racy said.

Comparing performance opportunities for young ethnomusicologists
to lab work for budding chemists or engineers, Racy said such
ensemble work is a crucial aspect of education in ethnomusicology.
It is a testament to this research that the ethnic communities to
which these forms of music belong understand that these
performances are more than an imitation.

“We aren’t trying to create a conservatory for world
music,” Racy said. “The ensembles are a way for
students to participate in the traditions that they
study.”

More than simple participation is involved in the process of
preparing for the festival. A unique aspect that the study of
ethnomusicology presents is the complete cultural immersion it
requires in performance. While students of classical music
specialize in an instrument for its own sake, ethnomusicologists
seek astute observation above virtuosity. Shifting instruments to
more completely understand the music they study, students assume
varying roles in their ensembles.

“In these groups, students are not pressured to choose one
instrument, unlike orchestra,” DjeDje said. “A student
does not become just a violinist.”

While the desire to perform authentically and research musical
understanding may be admirable, it needs another step before
unfolding into a product.

Fortunately, students are instructed by masters of the musical
forms they study. Having gained experience and renown in their
respective traditions, the performers ensure the authenticity of
the students’ work.

“They demonstrate what works ““ the right rhythm, the
right melody. And the push to performance gives some impetus to get
it right,” DjeDje said.

Yet the Festival of World Music is not only an exercise in
multiculturalism or academic ethnomusicological research
experience.

Assuming the role of a performer can bring a student more deeply
into his or her own culture, just as it can provide a deeper
understanding of the cultures of others. Some of the student
performers have grown up with traditional music in their household,
while others have discovered their roots for the first time through
music. Each way empowers students with a new grasp of their
cultural foundations.

One such student is David Villifana, a second-year student and
member of the Music of Mexico Ensemble. Performing traditional
songs with a group made up of guitars, trumpets, violins, vocalists
and other indigenous string instruments, the ensemble draws upon
rhythms and song forms from across Mexico.

Focusing mainly on mariachi repertoire, the ensemble highlights
the varied forms of such music from an inside perspective. What has
been so valuable for Villifana, however, has been the opportunity
to study Mexican music in such an authentic way.

“The festival helps you learn more about your own roots,
and by performing in it you actively seek and experience a culture
that may or may not be part of you,” Villifana said.

For the price of transportation, the festival affords an
opportunity to try various musical traditions on for size. Whether
or not one’s musical roots span continents or are limited to
the American mainstream, Villifana feels the festival will provide
a step out of the ordinary, however “ordinary” may be
defined.

“It’s a chance to groove to other people’s
music,” Villifana said.

A complete festival schedule is available at
www.hammer.ucla.edu/programs/20.

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