Music is a powerful thing. It can lift moods, motivate, and even aid in healing. It also has the power to connect and cultivate understanding among cultures.
This is something Loneka Wilkinson-Battiste, assistant professor of music education, has witnessed firsthand.
Her first teaching job was in a school in Louisiana. The students were from mostly all African American communities and had little experience with people outside these areas.
“I heard them talk about popular stereotypes of different groups and it was disturbing to me,” she shared. “So, I decided to start teaching them music from other cultures.”
Battiste quickly learned that just listening to music wasn’t enough to change perspectives. She needed to bring in historical and cultural contexts to provide a deeper and more meaningful understanding.
She then witnessed a transformation.
“The conversations changed, and I saw their mindsets broaden,” she remembers.
A lightbulb went on for Battiste, too, who realized that she could have a greater impact in fostering this intercultural understanding by teaching future teachers. She began instructing at UT in 2014, and has since continued to be dedicated to her passion of fostering understanding by studying and sharing different kinds of music.
As a 2018 Fulbright scholarship recipient, this passion is now taking her to Brazil, a place she has never been, next May through September to study a somewhat mysterious form of music called “coco de roda”
Battiste is one of two recipients of the U.S. Department of State’s prestigious Fulbright scholarships from the School of Music this year.
Conny Zhao, a senior majoring in music with a concentration on music and culture and minoring in Chinese, is the other.
“We are so proud of our Fulbrights this year. The work of Professor Battiste and Conny exhibits our school’s connection between performance and research, and the comprehensive approach we take with music,” said Director of the School of Music Jeff Pappas, adding that this is the first time the School of Music has had two Fulbright recipients in the same cycle. The university as a whole had a record number of recipients, as well.
Coco de roda is an African-influenced musical rhythm that originated in Northern Brazil. It’s believed to have origins rooted in the slavery-era. According to Battiste, the dance is performed by people wearing brightly colored clothes and playing instruments, some made from the coconut—hence the name coco.
The dance is performed in both rural and urban communities but they differ. For example, in cities, the dance is performed with male and female partners. In rural areas, it is done in a circle with an emphasis on individuals. Some evidence shows that the performance is conducted in exhibitions while other evidence points to it as an everyday practice.
“There are conflicting stories about the origin of coco de roda and the information on it is very limited,” explained Battiste. “It is associated with people who might be poorer, so it doesn’t seem to have the same respect as other music that is popular there.”
With the help of a Portuguese interpreter, Battiste hopes to give the tradition the respect it deserves by shedding light on its historical and cultural roots. She’ll do this by attending dances and interviewing community members and performers. The end result will be research materials documenting the practice that can be shared with students studying music.
“It is important for all musical cultures to have scholarly attention so that we have an understanding of the political and cultural influences of the people,” said Battiste.
“Music is a reflection of the culture and culture is not static. So, through music we can see it change and evolve.”
Battiste will be sharing about her own culture while in Recife, Brazil. The professor grew up in an African American Baptist church where gospel music was at its core. She’ll educate students at the Federal University of Pernambuco and community members about the techniques and performances of gospel music—particularly, those related to arranged spirituals which she spent her youth traveling around the world performing.
Battiste is excited to continue her mission of leveraging the power of music to bridge cultural divides; and showing others that music is more than just a series of tones. It is a representation of the culture.
“We do no good to introduce people to music in a superficial way—in a way that doesn’t provide a background of where it came from,” she expressed. “We need to contribute to a body of work that gives a true in-depth look at the musical culture.”
That’s what other Fulbright recipient Zhao is doing. From March 2019 to January 2020, Zhao will be living in China, studying an Inner-Mongolian style of folk music called “long song.”
Zhao discovered long song after doing some research into her family’s own folk traditions.
She grew up listening to her aunts and uncles perform Chinese folk music. Through some internet research, she happened upon long song and became enthralled.
“On the base level, I just really like the way it sounds,” shared Zhao. “Vocally, it is very challenging. There’s a lot of complexity which is interesting to me as a singer. But it is also interesting to me from an ethnomusicology standpoint because of its cultural significance to Mongols in both Inner Mongolia and Mongolia,” she said, adding that the tradition is not commonly studied among Western scholars and musicians.
The genre is called long song because one word can be stretched to over thirty seconds. For instance, a five-minute song may only have ten carefully chosen words. Rooted in Mongolians’ nomadic culture, the vocal technique of long song allows the voice to travel over grasslands and requires a mixed register of voice.
Zhao will audit classes at Inner Mongolia Arts University (IMAU) in Hohhot and take private lessons to learn to sing the complex tradition which requires immense breath control and a wide vocal range.
Zhao is up to the task. She has studied a multitude of vocal traditions both within and outside of the Western art canon, including with UT’s Middle East Ensemble and even traveling to Bulgaria in 2016 to learn local folk styles.
“My training has enabled me to develop flexibility in my stylistic abilities, allowing me to emulate vastly different vocal styles,” she said. “Also, I have a classical foundation that has prepared me to tackle the breathing techniques and virtuosity of Mongolian folk singing.”
In fact, Zhao has already traveled to the area twice to study and take private lessons with an IMAU long song professor who she will work with again during her time in China.
“Under Professor Qiqige,’s guidance, I will study techniques and aesthetics essential to Mongolian vocal music such as breathing and belt techniques; vocal quality and placement; and ornamentations,” said Zhao, who is a heritage Mandarin speaker studying Chinese.
While abroad, Zhao will also travel to other regions within China to work with both professional and amateur nomadic singers on weekends and school breaks.
The end result of her trip will be a three performance concert series where she’ll perform in different areas of China to various audiences, a musical album of her performing, and an educational website to disseminate traditional Mongolian music to a wider audience.
The website will include a blog about her time abroad, and long song technique, pedagogy and various styles; videos of performances and lessons; long song history; instructions as to how to sing it; and an archive of different long songs with text translation. The site is an extension of her McClure Scholars’ senior project which she began working on during a trip to Mongolia and Inner Mongolia this past spring.
“The goal of the Fulbright artist grant is to foster mutual understanding between cultures, so I hope to fulfill that by disseminating these underrepresented musical traditions through my performances and website,” said Zhao.
“I hope that my work will be a platform for empathetic and critical listening, giving scholars and musicians a tool for cross-cultural collaborative performances, research, compositions, and education.”
Zhao’s efforts are important now more than ever because the nomadic-inspired tradition has begun to erode away in recent decades along with the land and nomadic lifestyle.
“The prairies of Inner Mongolia have suffered immense ecological damage in recent years, and many government policies have unfortunately forced nomads to adopt urban lifestyles,” explained Zhao. “Despite the cultural significance, the performance and education of long songs have unfortunately begun to decline. Performing and teaching are urgently needed to preserve these traditions.”
Zhao’s Fulbright experience is a perfect fit for her since she will be doing exactly what she wants to do upon graduation in August of 2018—combining research with performance and travel.
“I love to travel. I love to do field work. I love to perform,” shared the senior who aims to continue her study of the Mongolian tradition after she returns from her Fulbright travel.
Her professor and academic advisor, Rachel Golden, says Zhao’s study abroad experience will be invaluable for her professional and personal development.
“Students have the opportunity to develop unique performance skills, learn repertories that are under-represented or unrepresented here in Tennessee, obtain and practice language abilities, and re-evaluate their assumptions from alternative points of view,” she shared.
Thus, the work Zhao and Battiste are doing is much more than just music to our ears—it’s harnessing the power of music to make our world a better place.