We all know that one of the best ways to connect across cultures is through music. Its power to connect and blend cultures is second perhaps only to food. A recent piece on NPR about the Australian singer Gurrumul has led me to reflect on other musical blendings I have encountered recently. Listening to the music of Gurrumul at first gives you the impression that it could be North American folk music. In fact, it’s clear that his work is within a universal folk tradition. But he rarely sings in English. Mostly he sings in the indigenous language of his people, the Yolngu, of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It’s not just the language that’s distinctive. He sings about the everyday life of the Yolngu. He has written, for example, wonderful songs extoling the orange footed scrubfoul (a strange bird indigenous to the region – see clip below) or about the rainbow python, who in the Yolugu mythology created the world. One of his rare songs in English is “Gurrumul History (I was born blind)” in which talks about himself and his family and about his experiences as a blind man, including traveling to New York City.
Another amazing blend of styles, cultures, and languages is represented by the music of Abigail Washburn, an American claw hammer banjo player and song writer. As she explains in a TED talk, she originated wanted to study law in China, but decided instead to pursue a career in music. She has spent a considerable amount of time in China and sings in both English and Mandarin. Shortly after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Washburn and Dave Liang of the electronic group The Shanghai Restoration Project, went to Sichuan and created Afterquake an album to raise awareness and funds. She recently created a theatrical work entitled Post-American Girl in which she explores her connections to China and to different types of folk music. She also has created a shadow puppet version of her song “Ballad of Treason” with puppeteers from the ancient Muslim quarter of Xi’an:
A final blending is the music of Bostonian Shannon Heaton, who plays Irish style flute, sings, and composes. She also sings in Thai, having studied abroad in Thailand. She does an amazing job combining Irish traditional music and Thai folk styles in a rendition of the Thai song Lao Dueng Duen (By the Light of the Full Moon):