When we met the singing kids in El Vergel on Saturday (Day 15), Diego gave them some homework: to listen to the jungle for the next couple of days, and pick one sound to recreate.
I should stop here to explain a few things. In our initial emails about staying at Calanoa, Diego and I discovered that we each enjoy working with young people, each are interested in music and sounds, and each love to record and share those sounds. In my job as a teaching artist with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, I facilitate student-created music-theatre projects in Chicago’s public elementary schools. Diego suggested I do a similar workshop of sorts with the El Vergel kids while I was in the Amazon, because, you know, why not?
On Tuesday (Day 18), I spent the morning finalizing some workshop plans and looking up all the words that I’d need to know in Spanish in order to actually lead those plans. My Spanish is shaky at best, and though Diego would be there to help translate as needed, I knew the language would present difficulties. I didn’t even let myself consider the challenges of working with kids from a culture so uniquely different from my own.
We slid on down to El Vergel after lunch, and I must say, those kids really are awesome. They did their homework. They were patient with my Spanish. They played along with my singing games. They shared their animal sounds. They played along with my jungle-sound games. They found words in their sounds (if you repeat sounds over and over again, I bet you’ll find words in them, too.) They linked their words and sounds together to create an original song. They did it together. They did it all in an hour.
Diego talks a lot about art and the depth of its ability to create and maintain communities. I don’t interpret his words to mean that we USE art to make communities, just as I don’t interpret the Lyric Opera’s programming to mean that we USE art to teach classroom subjects. Rather, the art, the communities, the academics, they all support one another. The art stands on its own, but a happy side effect is the reinforcement of cultural identity, group efficacy and learning.
The simple act of listening to the jungle for sounds turned into a fun preparatory exercise for John and I…and for the kids. Shifting those sounds into a song was even more fun. We – the kids, John, Diego and I – we all giggled quite a bit during our hour together. I was right not to worry about cultural differences. Who cares about those when everyone’s laughing?
The most inspiring part of all, however, was how the El Vergel singers pulled from the roots of their Ticuna culture. They used sounds from their environment, they incorporated both Spanish and Ticuna words, and they crouched together as a united force. They did all of this in an area of the world that struggles with holding onto identity and authenticity in the midst of modern technology, modern development, modern invasion.
I left with a great new tune stuck in my head and a strong sense of hope for the futures of those kids and their community.
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