Musique to Their Ears
Study abroad provides an adventure in continental culture
Melissa DeSica analyzed musicians’ locations and musical styles along the city’s 15 Metro subway lines.
Ethnomusicology master’s candidate Uʻilani Bobbitt, seated, called a Paris halau different, but good
Tiffany Jeng studied damman with Iranian recording artist Saeid Shanbehzadeh, accompanied by Shanbehzadeh’s 12-year-old son Nagheib
Reactions to the semester in Paris were as diverse as the students themselves, but many enjoyed a field trip to Versailles with instructor Jane Moulin (center). Participants, from left, are Hayley Allen, Rosanna Perch, Uʻilani Bobbitt, Melissa DeSica (kneeling), Tiffany Jeng, Jesse Clark and Cari Wharton. Photo by Jacques Moulin
In fall 2005, a handful of University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students studied in a pretty interesting classroom… Paris. They listened to a string quartet in a 12th-century chapel, tap-danced while singing Gershwin with a French studio musician, watched a Balanchine ballet in a historic opera house, sang along in a famous Montmartre cabaret and beaucoup, beaucoup more.
The students—three music majors, including a temporary transfer student from Kenyon College in Ohio, and six Mānoa undergraduates from other majors—were enrolled in one of two 400-level music classes offered through the UH Study Abroad Center. Parisian Soundscapes focused on urban ethnomusicology; Music in World Cultures offered a more general approach to ethnomusicology theory. Every student also studied French at Sorbonne University, and some took additional classes in art history or French civilization.
Both ethnomusicology courses were taught by Jane Freeman Moulin, professor of ethnomusicology and chair of undergraduate studies in music. Fluent in French, her specialty is the music and dance of French Polynesia, particularly Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Her syllabi read like programs you can’t wait to see on the Discovery Channel—exploring "the important link between music and the society that produces it" with "special attention to the musics of Francophone cultures" and traditions observable in Paris, or "how the theories and methods of ethnomusicology and urban fieldwork can help uncover the rich tapestry of cultures and traditions that contribute to Paris’s reputation as an especially vibrant musical city."
That rich tapestry gave the students an unexpected additional cultural lesson when riots flared in suburbs populated largely by African immigrants. "It was obvious to every student that our musical readings about disapora, deterritorialization, social identity and post-colonial worlds link directly to the tensions behind the very real social problems that France is facing right now in the suburbs," says Moulin. "I loved the way they made the connection."
Each student chose an individual project. Moulin challenged them to soak up one musical culture of their choice, "interacting with either the musicians or the audience or thepeople who sell this music" even if their French skills were still rough. Music major Rosanna Perch joined a Swedish church choir and political science/French major Hayley Allen took flamenco lessons. Andrew Vallejo-Sanderson, a history/French major investigated the evolution of Jewish klezmer music in Paris.
Cari Wharton chose jazz while Elizabeth McGonagle pursued capoeira, a Brazilian form of music, dance and martial art and Melissa DeSica traveled the Metro subway talking to musicians from around the world who play for coins in the acoustically resonant tunnels.
Senior Jesse Clark investigated rai, a form of pop music that originated in the former French colony of Algeria. "It was the sound that got me," he said one night sitting in a huka bar, notebook in one hand, the long tube of the water pipe in the other. The scent of fruit-flavored tobaccos and the sound of rai filled the air.
Research into rai lyrics at an Algerian cultural center in Paris taught Clark that "the music speaks out against an established power, whether it’s the constraints of religion or the power of the former colonial power." Interested in the assimilation of Algerians in France, the anthropology/French major explored the degree to which music is a solidarity issue and how it affects immigrants’ morale.
Tiffany Jeng, the visiting student from Ohio, studied Iranian drum and flute in weekly lessons with Saeid Shanbehzadeh, an internationally recognized recording artist. Sitting on the floor in his living room, she learned rhythms on the dammam and melodies on the neyjofti.
She came face to face with cross-cultural customs when Shanbehzadeh put the long reed of the neyjofti entirely in his mouth, demonstrated a melody line, then handed the instrument back to her so she could play the same notes. She gamely played the flute. "It wasn’t slobbery or anything,’ she later told her classmates with a grin.
More than music
More palatable was the evening of music and food she and two friends enjoyed with Shanbehzadeh’s family and other guests. Shanbehzadeh taught Jeng’s friends to play a rhythm on cymbals, while she and her teacher played the damman. "It was lots of fun," she says.
Jeng wasn’t the only student to enjoy dinner with people involved in her project. Uʻilani Bobbitt, an ethnomusicology master’s candidate and kumu hula, visited weekly with the one hula hālau in Paris. She was surprised to observe the women munching on food, sipping wine and even inviting boyfriends to practice. This was definitely not what Bobbitt was used to in Hawaiʻi.
"It’s surreal, you know," Bobbitt told her classmates during a class discussion on topics in ethnomusicology. "I’m not saying that’s wrong, it’s just different. And you know what? They’re pretty good," she continued.
"It’s really neat that this kumu (Hawaiʻi-based Kilohana Silve) started this hālau in order for her daughter, who’s Hawaiian, to learn her culture halfway around the world."
Appreciating the experience
Students tackled some intriguing questions: Why is music a marker of identity? What constitutes a musical instrument? Should pop music be taught in class? What differentiates high art (classical music) from folk art (folk and pop music)? Is world standardization of musical notation a good thing?
The students’ reactions to their semester in Paris were as diverse as the students themselves. One was so intoxicated by the city that she had yet to start on her project halfway through the semester. Bobbitt suffered occasional fits of homesickness, sometimes crying when she played a certain Hawaiian song.
DeSica considered staying. "I might teach English here," she said one day, swerving along on the Metro. "I love the culture, I love the language, I love the art. This feels so new and diverse. It's such anadventure. I don’t want it to end."
Mānoa’s Study Abroad Center sends faculty and students around the globe. Trips scheduled for 2006 include Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Australia, Japan, China, Italy, Spain, Denmark, France, Germany, England and Argentina. There’s also a Summer at Sea program in the South Pacific. Students can also design their own trip anywhere in the world, subject to approval.
The center serves faculty too. Study abroad programs allow faculty to conduct research and pursue professional enrichment activities while teaching abroad, important opportunities for a research intensive institution, says Sarita Rai, center director.
"As an ethnomusicologist trying to figure out what music means in the lives of different communities, time in the field is one of the important aspects of what I do," says Moulin. "For me, this has meant the time to repeatedly meet with researchers and performers in the host country over a period of months, and when they are not on summer vacation."