Archive for the ‘Songwriting’ Category
One of the songs created in workshops at Djarindjin-Lombadina Remote Community School evolved slowly, and was the amalgam of three different musical ideas. It took us a couple of sessions to work out how to make it all fit together.
One section was purely instrumental music created by half the group. Playing chime bars, metalophones and violins, I got them working in E minor and inventing melodies by getting rhythmic ideas from favourite songs. The violinists were total beginners (as am I on the violin) so we worked on open strings and established a simple rhythmic accompaniment.
Another section of the music was a guitar-driven section that used G major and C major 7 chords. Tony had taught the students how to play E minor and A minor the day before and they were keen to expand on this.
Together, we added lyrics to this progression and it sounded like a chorus. The lyrics were in the local Bardi-Jaawi language and listed the names of different family members.
Nyami, mimi, goli, garlu, [grandmother(mother’s side), grandfather (mother’s side), grandmother (father’s side), grandmother (father’s side)]
Budda, tidda, jaji [brother, sister, cousin]
Birigul, gulamor (mother, father]
My lian feels good when I belong in my buru [my heart feels good when I belong in my country]
Lian burr, lian burr [heart place, heart place]
A third section was created by one of the students working with one of the Aboriginal Teaching Assistants. Together they wrote lyrics about belonging to country, feeling the presence of the ancestor spirits, and the sense of strength and belonging that comes when you are in your own land.
Have a listen! One of the short melodies was inspired by Macklemore’s Thrift shop. See if you can spot the connection.
Working creatively within a different cultural environment to your own can be many things – intriguing, inspiring, surprising, and provoking are just a few words that come to mind. As a project leader, you can’t predict all the responses, or the challenges that might arise. I think that’s why I am attracted to these kinds of projects. I like the creative immediacy of thinking on your feet, and being surprised by unexpected turns. This story is about a song that provoked such turns.
In the community school of One Arm Point, the ‘maps of the heart’ drawn by students on the first day suggested that culture and cultural learning were important parts of the children’s lives. Their maps included particular skills (such as spearing fish, or knowing the local language of the Bardi Jaawi), as well as the lore and laws of the traditional society, which, they explained, were often taught through stories.
We loved the song we wrote! It was dramatic, it had flair and punch, and it described a situation that the children spoke about with great eagerness. It felt like it had strong currency for them and therefore for the community. We completed it the day before our concert, and sang through it several times to start committing the lyrics to memory.
When we arrived at the school the next morning, the day of the concert, several concerned faces greeted us. “I sang the song to my mum yesterday, and she said it wasn’t appropriate,” said one of the girls.
“We’re not allowed to sing that song,” others confirmed, looking anxious. “I don’t want to sing it,” another stated emphatically. I got the sense that their song had caused quite a bit of discussion in their homes. “Maybe we can change some of the words,” I suggested, looking at the lyrics on the whiteboard. But the children still looked uncomfortable, so I went to seek further advice.
In remote community schools, there are Aboriginal Teaching Assistants employed as well as teachers. Some of the teachers are also Aboriginal. I asked the principal if there was a community elder among the staff who could advise us on the best thing to do. He directed me towards two women on the teaching staff who came to the music room to see the lyrics of the song. I watched as they read the words, exchanging glances with each other but not saying anything until they had read everything and had time to think.
“Yes… I can see why there are concerns,” said one of the teachers.
“It’s a good song,” said the other. “But it wouldn’t be okay for the children to sing it.”
“Is it possible just to change some words?” I asked.
“No, it would be better to find a new story,” the teacher replied. “Maybe you could use one of the stories from the ‘Our World’ book, because they are already published, so have approval.”
‘Our World’ is a beautiful book, created by the children and Cultural Program teaching staff at One Arm Point. It describes community life at One Arm Point – called Ardiyooloon in the local language – and all the traditional cultural skills and knowledge that the children develop in the Culture Program. Fortunately, I’d bought myself a copy of this book in the local shop the day before. Even more fortunately, it was in the car! I ran to get it, and the teacher-elders looked through it, and suggested one of the stories that we could use as an alternative.
I decided not to get started on writing a new song straight away. This was our concert day, and we’d started it with a very unsettling problem to solve that had distracted the children and disrupted the positive, excited momentum that is an important part of working towards a performance in a short project like this. We began our workshop with one of our familiar warm-up games, aiming to shift the slightly gloomy, deflated cloud that was hanging over lots of people’s heads, then we rehearsed one of our other performance pieces and recorded it.
The elders then returned, with the one of the community’s most senior decision-makers and elders. He too read the song lyrics, then without making comment, looked at the ‘Our World’ book. He turned some pages, discussed with the two teachers, and they then turned to me and said, “This is a good story to base the song on.”
The story they suggested was a different one again, about Kangaroo and Hermit Crab having a race, which Kangaroo is confident he will win. It is very like the Aesop Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, but with a small twist, because Hermit Crab plays a trick on Kangaroo in order to win the race.
This was clearly a safe option! We thanked the elders for their help in solving this challenge, and set about creating the new song. We split into two groups. One group went off with Tony to play guitar (writing lyrics can be a slow and painstaking process and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), and a small group stayed with me to figure out how to retell this new story in the structure and melody of the original song.
Here’s what we came up with (red words are verse 1, black/blue words are verse 2, and the audio of the song is on the Soundcloud player below):
I am not going to share the lyrics of the original song. It is not my story to share. This is something that became very clear in our discussions with the children, the elders, and others in the community later on. Stories may be heard, but hearing a story does not mean you are the right person to re-tell that story. The story in our original song was one that the children knew a lot about, but it wasn’t a story for children. It wasn’t appropriate that they should sing about this story, nor was it acceptable for them to sing it in a public concert. Moreover, children are given stories. The stories are passed on to them according to traditions or decisions or community/adult choices that are underpinned by thinking that we, as outsiders to the community, are not party to, and should not make assumptions about.
We performed our new song at the concert that afternoon. It was received extremely well. The children listening recognised the story (and I introduced it as coming from the ‘Our World’ book). We taught the audience our two-part chorus and invited them to sing with us.
Walking back to school after the concert with the music group, I asked one of them if she was happy with the concert. “Yes,” she said. “I liked all of it. And I liked the new song. I think it’s better than the first one we wrote.”
That’s an ideal outcome. I think all the children felt safer with the new lyrics. No-one had seemed uncomfortable with the original song the previous day when we’d composed it. But they were happier to sing the new song. For Tony and I, it was the opposite – we liked the original song better!
We were fortunate to have people in the school who were able to help us solve the problem quickly. It was also significant that we – Tony and I – are attuned to the challenges of working in cross-cultural situations. Like the experience of the burglary in East Timor, we instinctively handed the problem over to the community leaders to solve for us. We knew that we needed their advice and endorsement, and that they had the knowledge and authority to solve this quickly and calmly. There was no anger towards us – people knew we had not tried to provoke discussion about controversial things or inappropriate topics, that these had simply emerged through the openness and trust we had engendered in the workshops. Rather, it was approached as something that needed to be solved, and people stopped what they were doing that morning in order to help us solve it.
Culture is so much more than artefacts or tangible products. It is also about the way things are done. Our original song strayed into the wrong territory, and the community leaders were the right people to guide it back and ensure a positive, welcome outcome for everyone. Had it gone the other way, had we stood our ground and cajoled the children into singing the song that we thought was musically stronger, it would have undermined all sorts of trusts and authority. Firstly, we would have been putting the children in an uncomfortable, even untenable position. They had told us with their voices and their faces that the original song was no longer okay for them. We needed to respect this. And had we gone ahead with a performance of the original song, we would have been undermining, and positioning ourselves beyond or above, the authority of the community and its elders. This could have had far bigger repercussions for ourselves and Tura New Music who run these Remote Residencies each year. We might never have been allowed back!
Intangible culture, like the ways to solve problems, or the knowledge of where a boundary has been crossed, is part of the glue that keeps communities strong. Interestingly, this was a line that came up in our original song! When the structures that support the way that things are done get weakened, many other parts of that culture will also be weakened.
So the most imperative advice for an artist working in these kinds of settings is always “Ask. Don’t assume. And accept the advice and decisions of the elders”.
At St Mary’s College we asked the participants (all members of the primary school choir) what they’d like to write a song about. I wrote all their suggestions on the board and put it to a vote. During the voting process we realised that themes like “Broome’s multicultural mob”, “Broome culture”, “the Common Gate” [a part of Broome’s history from the time when the Aboriginal people were restricted from entering the town centre], and “Pearling industry” could all be incorporated into a song about community and history. We organised the different broad ideas into verses, chorus, and bridge, and assigned smaller groups the task of writing lyrics for one of these.
The choir divided into four lyric-writing groups – 2 groups for verses, one for the chorus, and one for the bridge. Tony and I moved from group to group, asking questions and helping them develop sentences. I asked them to start with sentences first (rather than trying to fashion their ideas into full-realised verses, and risk getting blocked or stuck too early on),and then we sculpted the sentences into verses, adding words or removing them to make each phrase scan and fit with the melodies that were evolving as we went.
Here’s what they wrote:
The Europeans came to Australia and messed with the Aboriginal law
They started big wars, families were divided
It was a very bad and awful time…
We go to the beach to see the prints
Of the dinosaurs from long ago
The landscape that it used to be is now Chinatown – busy and free!
Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome
Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome
Japanese worked their breath away
Lifting pearl shells everyday
People came from all over the world
And now we’re stronger in every way
Broome’s become a place for people to stay.
We celebrate, we live the life
We stand as one, side by side
We look at the ocean, we see the light
We gaze at the sun with everyone.
Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome
Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome
I’m Aboriginal – Spanish, Greek
I’m Aboriginal – German, Italian
I’m Aboriginal – Malaysian, Chinese,
(Repeat chorus and fade out)
The theme of Broome’s multicultural community arose because of the many different cultures represented in the choir population. There were several that didn’t get included in the song – Filipino, Indian, Maori, Japanese.
An interesting discussion emerged when the different lyric-writing groups came together to share what they’d written and set it to music. One or two people raised concerns about the accuracy of what had been written in the first verse, with regard to the idea of “laws”.
“You see, when the Europeans came to Australia, the Aboriginal people were just living in the bush,” explained one girl. “They didn’t have any laws.”
“Oh, they did have laws,” responded Tony. “It was a different system of laws, but they definitely had laws.”
“Laws don’t have to be rule-books,” I added. “Laws are really just about how a society organises itself so that it can live in harmony and everyone knows what’s expected of them. The Aboriginal people lived here in harmony for thousands and thousands of years. They must have had laws!”
At this point one of Aboriginal students in the group took up the argument, and spoke very emphatically. Firstly she stated, “It doesn’t matter if things are written down or not. They are still laws. You can just tell people the laws. They are still laws.” She went on to talk about the ways that the Aboriginal population suffered under the European systems and beliefs. “They judged everyone on the colours, the colours of the skin. And people whose skin was lighter were taken away. They were stolen, and they didn’t know their families or country after this.”
After this there was no more discussion about the first verse of the song. Later, the teachers expressed their interest in the conversation, and in the lyrics that were written. They said wryly that there would certainly be people in the Broome community who would take issue with the line, “it was a very bad and awful time”. Here in Australia, that is what is often called a “black arm band version of history” (ie. a version that focuses on negatives, rather than seeing the colonial era as a time of prosperity and important growth) – particularly by the previous Liberal-National Coalition government. I don’t hold with this view at all – colonial eras may have been prosperous times for some, but for the colonised, they were times of frequent brutality, force, coercion and extreme differences in power, when traditional ways of life were destroyed or hugely compromised and traditional knowledge and skills were undermined.
By the end of the day our song was ready to be recorded. In the recording we made on the portable Zoom H4n, you can hear the school bell ringing in the second-last chorus – we took it right up to the wire on this project!
In City Beats this week we created music about The Desert. Four groups from four schools came to ArtPlay over two days, and each group created four sections of music – a song, a melody, a soundscape and a rhythmic groove. At the end of the workshop we discussed how to structure and order the four sections of music, and finished with a recorded performance of the whole piece.
This was our first City Beats project for the year, so we will see the children and their teachers 3 more times across 2013. I see the first workshop as a time for all of us to get to know each other, and for the children and teachers to get a sense of what they will be doing each time they come to ArtPlay for City Beats. We started the session with introductions, with the MSO musicians introducing ourselves and demonstrating our instruments. Then we did a quick rhythmic warm-up, including a name game in which everyone had to say their name in turn (thus demonstrating to the groups that their voices and contributions mattered), and a fast-clap-around-the-circle, which quickened the group’s responses and got them relaxed and laughing.
Then we brainstormed ideas about the desert (things you might see, hear or find there) and divided into smaller groups to start the composing process. I took charge on the songwriting groups.
There were many memorable and special moments across the two days of workshops. I loved seeing the way the children I worked with took charge of things. In the first group, we made the mistake of setting the pitch of our song much too low for the children’s voices. I waited to see how they might solve the problem. One girl started to sing the song a fifth up – it sounded cool! – then said to me, “We need to change it because it doesn’t… feel -” she hesitated to find the words, so I said, “Because it’s too low? To make it higher?” “Yes,” she said emphatically. “It needs to be higher.” I got her to sing it on her own, matched her chosen pitches on the clarinet, and we found we had a much more effective melody than the one we’d started with.
I asked a girl in one of my groups to hold my clarinet for me while I wrote lyrics on the whiteboard. “You just have to be careful of the very top of it,” I assured her. “That’s the only bit than can break easily.” She took it from me carefully. As I wrote I could hear the other children in the group whispering to her, “You’re so lucky you get to hold it!” “Can I have a turn?” I imagined them leaning toward the clarinet to have a closer look. I wondered if the little girl would be warning them off, or examining it for herself. I didn’t turn around to look. When I’d finished writing, I turned to her and she passed the clarinet back to me, holding it at exactly the angle it had been at when I’d passed it to her. I felt truly touched at the care she’d taken. “Thank you for looking after my instrument so carefully and so beautifully,” I told her.
Some children sought out possible rhymes for their lyrics. A good rhyme can make a song catchier and easier to remember, but a forced rhyme can feel very cumbersome and awkward, so I don’t tend to put too much emphasis on rhyming in a fast-paced songwriting session. However, these children initiated the idea. In one song, we had the lyrics:
Rattle, rattle, rattle, the rattlesnake goes
Swish, swish swish the wind blows the palm trees.
One of the group said suddenly, “Can we cross out these words?”, pointing to “the palm trees”. “Sure,” I said, but then realised why – it was so that the line would end with “blows”, in order for it to rhyme with “goes” in the previous line. I hadn’t noticed that possibility. Once we had the shorter line, we realised it needed an extra word to make it scan properly. It was easy to add an adjective at that point.
I love the set-up of the verses of the song above – I think the idea of having a ‘sound’ word repeated three times as a way of introducing a feature of the desert is a very 10-year-old approach – and therefore highly appropriate – to lyric-writing! They tried some others – “walk walk walk, the camel goes”, but they weren’t as convincing. If they’d said ‘spit’ or ‘bump’ I may have been persuaded :-).
One of the groups came from an English Language School (an intensive English language-focused school for children who are newly-arrived in Australia; students can spend 6-12 months at language school before transitioning to mainstream school). Their desert song was the only one that featured Australian desert animals like dingos and kangaroos.
The City Beats ‘Desert’ workshop structure felt very effective and time-efficient – I think I may use it as a template for the remaining City Beats workshops. Dividing into 4 small groups gives us a range of musical responses that can be ordered and combined, and it means that over the course of the year, the children will gain skills and confidence in different group-composing approaches.
Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song – – that I have used in some recent projects. Continue reading
This term at the Language School, we are focusing on the theme of ‘homes’. We explore this in different ways with each of the three classes, but the starting point is the same – I ask each child to draw a picture of their home in their country of origin, and interview them about what it shows. I use the words from these interviews to create song lyrics.
Sometimes the process throws up interesting challenges. For example, in Middle Primary, the students had been learning lots of ‘house/home’ vocabulary and had little pictures of various kinds of dwellings stuck to their desks. When they started on their drawing task I realised that many of them were copying these archetypal images (square plus triangle plus small rectangle equals ‘house’) rather than drawing a picture of their own home. Did they worry that their real home might be considered ‘wrong’? Or were they just keen to copy a picture? Also, some students had been in temporary housing and countries (refugee camps, second countries) for so long they had only vague memories of their home in their country of origin. For some, recalling these temporary shelters was unpleasant as life had been hard – even awful – there.
Lower Primary painted their pictures – large, brightly coloured images that filled the corners of the page, and the detail led to two verses – one about kinds of houses (lots of apartments, reached by going in the lift/elevator, and pressing a button to go up, up, up…), and one about the people and things they left behind and now miss (grandparents, toys, even a baby brother and an older sister).
Upper Primary had access to some excellent books showing different kinds of houses around the world – mudbrick homes, bluestone farmhouses, igloos, simple dwellings from cow-dung or bamboo, glass and steel mansions, even emergency shelters made from UNHCR-branded materials. Their song – slow to emerge but now progressing well – considers all the different things you can build a house from, and the fact that shelter is a basic human right for everyone around the world.
Middle Primary’s song has emerged from the interview-to-lyrics process (I typed up their words and they read from these sheets to select the lyrics), and a ‘cycle of 8’ graphic score process to create melodic material. In today’s class we sang three of these melodies and improvised with words from the typewritten sheets to come up with a chorus and three verses. I think this song is my favourite, which is interesting because it came about through the most chance-driven processes, rather than me getting things rolling with a chord progression or catchy riff.
Some sample ‘cycle of 8 ‘ scores – first we practised counting the cycle, then they colored in the boxes they wanted to clap, then they assigned pitches, then we learned to play them and decided which ones would work well as song melodies.
I’ve just finished editing two more videos from my East Timor residency, October 2010 – January 2011. These videos show footage from The Right To Play, a music and songwriting project I led in partnership with Afalyca Arts Centre in Baucau. The project was my first in Timor, and the musical outcomes were truly memorable. The songs were generated through discussions about human rights and children’s rights. The children played local instruments made from bamboo, drums, guitars, and chime bars brought from Australia.
You can read the descriptions I wrote at the time about the project’s creative process here (Day 1), here (Day 2), here (Day 3) and here (Day 4). Otherwise, please have a look at these two videos. The Right To Play, part 1 shows some of the work in progress towards the creation of the first song, Moris [Birth].
The Right To Play, part 2, is a collection of photographs from across the four days of workshops, backed by our second song, Education, where the children sing about all the things that an education offers a child.
With the Middle Primary children at Language School this term, we are creating music about friendship. Today, after getting the feel-good vibes working with a rendition of Bob Marley’s One Love, and discussing the general characteristics of friends and friendships, I asked the students to draw a picture of themselves and their friend, or friends. It could show their friendships here in Australia, or depict a friendship from their country of origin.
When they finished their drawing I engaged each child in conversation, asking about their picture and about their friends. I wrote down all their words – their phrases and sentences will go on to form the core lyrics for our class composition.
Their descriptions were vivid, and often poignant:
This is me in Honduras, at the beach that I like the most. I am with my brother and sisters and lots of friends. One is my best friend. We share things, we give things to each other, we play together, we sleep in each other’s houses. We read books, we like almost the same things. I don’t have a friend like this in Australia. Not yet.
This is me and my friend in Ethiopia. She comes to my house to play. Then in school-time, she gives me a flower, and I give to her a flower – a flower from Ethiopia.
In Australia, all in the school are my friends, but my sister is my good friend. The school here gives us good friends, and I’m not speaking my language, they are not speaking their language. We all talk in English.
This is my friend – he is Australian but he knows Vietnamese language. He gives me a hug when I am sad and sitting under a tree. Sometimes I give him a flower. Now some leaves in the tree are falling down but the sun is shining.
In Australia and in Ethiopia, my sister is my best friend. We go to school together, we [are] eating together, playing together, going everywhere together. She is my two times friend – she is my sister and my friend!
In Syria we can only go to school. No places to play. In school we can just sit and talk. Or play in the street hide and seek. I miss my friends in Syria. I have best friend, Yusef. He taught me to read Arabic, and now I know how to read and write.
Friends who share things, help each other, and – quite frequently – give each other flowers as an expression of friendship. Four of the eleven children I spoke to mentioned giving a flower to their friend, including one boy. There is a sweet innocence about this that I find very touching indeed.
I’ve just finished editing another video from my East Timor residency. This one shows clips from the songwriting workshop I led at the local English language classes in Lospalos. About 40 students took part, and elected to write a love song.
Songwriting can be a very engaging and interesting way to encourage people to use the English that they know. They discover that they know more words than they expect, and they also learn new words very quickly, because they use them in context straight away, and attach them to music (which helps embed them in the memory).
I loved the sentiment of this song. Favourite line?
I’m happy because I found another love.
We met at the market, buying some bananas.
Of course! What better place to chat up a new love interest than at the banana stall? You can read more about this project here – it’s the post I wrote at the time of doing the project.