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Diversifying Your Repertoire: Avoiding Cultural Appropriation in Music

There are many times when a choir or ensemble may choose music from another culture or a song in another language to use in the liturgy or at a special event within their church community. In doing so, it’s important to center that choice in respect and ensure you’re avoiding cultural appropriation in music.

Perhaps it’s the feast day of an important saint in the community, or you want to highlight the diversity of the community with a parish festival, or your ensemble is singing at a quinceañera Mass. These are all beautiful opportunities to diversify your repertoire, if done in a respectful way.

By definition, cultural appropriation involves a majority group taking or using elements of a minority culture without proper understanding or appreciation of it. There are many examples of cultural appropriation in music, in fashion, and in other areas of modern society.

When choosing cultural songs for liturgy, these steps can help ensure you are engaging in cultural appreciation and not cultural appropriation.

Seek to understand the cultural context

Understanding the context of any piece of liturgical music can be helpful, but especially so for cultural pieces sung by a group not predominantly from that culture. Understanding the cultural context and why the song has been chosen for that day is a key component in respecting another culture’s music rather than appropriating it.

When was the piece written? By whom? What was happening at the time that it was written? If it’s a more modern written piece, is it drawing from an older tradition? If the inspiration for the piece isn’t clearly stated, what can be either researched or inferred about it? If the song is in another language, finding a translation or a summary of the message can help with understanding the context of the piece as well.

Ensure proper pronunciation

When singing a piece from another culture, proper pronunciation is a critical component of respecting the culture and the piece of music. This includes using softer consonants and paying careful attention to elisions in Spanish, following any guidance given for pronunciation in an African American spiritual, and practicing any unique sounds if singing in an indigenous language. There’s a fine line between singing a cultural piece as it should be sung and taking pronunciations or inflections too far, which could be perceived as inappropriate when sung by individuals outside that culture.

Pronunciations can make some singers a little uneasy, if they are not used to singing in other languages or are concerned about ensuring respect and not appropriation. Allow some extra time to work through the pronunciations to ensure both accuracy and comfort. Some songs in other languages include a pronunciation guide in the notes. For others, you may need to listen to a recording in the original language or work with a speaker of that language to ensure proper pronunciations. Start with speaking the piece together in short phrases and then move to singing the piece.

Invite members of the culture to advise or participate

If there are members of your community from that culture, start a conversation with them. Share with them why you want to use a song from their culture and ask if they would be willing to help the musicians understand the context and meaning of the piece. It’s a great opportunity to deepen connection to the community and to learn together as a group. You may even have some members of the culture who would be willing to join you as a special guest.

In asking someone to advise or participate, beware of asking them to speak for the entire culture. Recognize their individuality within the culture and ask questions about their personal experience to help you better understand the piece of music.

Get off the page

While getting off the page is always good advice for vocalists, getting off the page has a deeper meaning when it comes to cultural music. In many cultures, music wasn’t written down – songs were structured as call and response or as verse and refrain that made them easy for people to learn and remember. Sometimes the notes and rhythm on the page simply can’t capture the soul of the song. When singing a piece of cultural music, you have to feel it, not just read it. That’s true of music in your native language, too, but feeling it often comes easier because it’s familiar.

Some singers may get stuck trying to perfectly count the rhythms and sing them cleanly, but cultural music may call for a different approach. Many cultures shared both songs and stories through oral tradition, so getting off the page and listening closely may help simplify the learning process. If you find yourself struggling with the rhythms or the style of the language, try putting the music down to better connect to the cultural context and the soul of the song.

Cultural music and music in other languages can enhance the liturgy and other celebrations in many ways. Understanding the cultural context, ensuring proper pronunciation, inviting members of the culture to participate, and getting off the page can all help ensure cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation in music.

Written by Linda Wesley, a CLEF volunteer and choir member/cantor at Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church in Oklahoma City. She has been volunteering in music ministry since grade school and has played clarinet, guitar, and violin in liturgical ensembles.

Copyright © 2024 Catholic Liturgical Ensemble Formation

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