Musical Migrations: Young Peoples’ Perspectives on Sustaining Musical Cultures in (Re)settlement Contexts

Vast migrations and displacements of populations have demanded urgent attention from human rights organizations, researchers, and governments concerning the integration and wellbeing of displaced persons. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that over half of the 25.4 million refugees are below the age of 18 (2018) and it has been widely acknowledged that forced migration has a negative impact on young people (Barowsky, 2010; Brough et al., 2003; Carlson, 2012; Goodman, 2004; Montgomery, 2010; Motti-Stefanidi, 2015). However, although children are often the face of the refugee crisis, their perspectives on critical issues around displacement are seldom heard. This presents a substantial double-bind when children are viewed as innocent victims, whilst they are simultaneously denied voice or power over their situation. Given the globally accelerating patterns of forced migration, many countries are grappling with the complexities of integrating refugee children into host societies and supporting their wellbeing (Berry et al., 2012), which the World Health Organization defines as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (2018). Increasingly, wellbeing studies focusing on child-centred participatory approaches acknowledge that young people’s own subjective understandings of wellbeing must be developed in order to formulate context-specific and culturally appropriate indicators and assessments (Crivello et al., 2009; Lippman et al., 2011) and many have looked towards how children are resilient when adapting to significant challenges (Güngör & Purdu, 2017; Motti-Stefanidi, 2018; Theron et al., 2015).

The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage stresses that “processes of globalization and social transformation” present a “grave threat of deterioration, disappearance and destruction” to musical systems around the world (2003). Forced migration has a major negative impact on intangible cultural heritage when music traditions are lost as communities are displaced. As such, music programs for refugee children demonstrate the pronounced connections between music sustainability and wellbeing; as music programs seek to bolster and support young people in adapting to the adversity they face, they simultaneously support the sustainability of endangered intangible cultural heritage. This connection underpins recent scholarship on musical sustainability which argues that musical systems must manage and adapt to change (Kagan & Kirchberg, 2016; Titon, 2015).

At present there are many programs around the world that employ music as a means to promote the wellbeing and social integration of young people who have undergone various forms of migration. Research about music and migration has found that music is useful in maintaining cultural continuity, developing communities of belonging, relieving stress, and assisting with social integration (Bailey, 2010; Baily & Collyer, 2006; Diehl, 2002; Jones et al., 2004; Harris, 2007; Hemetek, 2001; Kiruthu, 2014; Ladkani, 2011; Lennette & Sunderland, 2016; Marsh, 2102, 2013, 2015a, 2015b; Marsh & Dieckmann, 2017; Pesek, 2009; Schramm, 1989; 1999; Storvse et al., 2010; Zheng, 1990). However, few studies have centred the perspectives of children and young people when analysing how, if, and why music programs may support their wellbeing and how music programming can assist in connecting young people to the myriad of communities they engage with through processes of migration. In this paper we examine the perspectives of newcomer children on the social process of making music in a choir and the micro musical moments, or musical underlife, of the choir members. In particular, we highlight the ways their participation challenges views of young people as merely receivers of cultural knowledge, and acknowledge their complex and significant roles as connectors, creators, and perpetuators of musical traditions.

The children’s choir we are speaking about in this paper was formed in 2016 as a response to the major intake of Syrian refugees to Canada. At the time of writing, it is the only children’s choir in Canada that specifically serves the Syrian refugee community and as such is a very important initiative to collaborate with in order to collect data that may support future access to musical programming for newcomer children and young people across Canada. As families waited in hotels upon their arrival to Canada, employees and volunteers with a settlement organization started an informal choir to respond to the need for young people to have meaningful activities during this transitory period. The Choir[1] is now more formally established and provides free choral music education programs to “empower refugee children” and “to improve their languages and integrate in the Canadian multicultural environment, while at the same time maintaining a strong tie with their own heritage and culture” (choir website). Working closely with Arabic musicians, many of whom have also undergone forced displacement, long-settled Canadian musicians, arts administrators, researchers and choral enthusiasts volunteered to establish the choir, and sought donations and funding to establish a formal and ongoing program. The Choir now provides free weekly choral and music education programs in three locations that support refugee and newcomer youth to maintain connections with their cultures of origin while also fostering positive integration experiences. Presently, the choir is made up primarily of children and young people from Syria, although changes to the choir have seen it becoming more diverse over the past few months (early 2019). The choir members range in ages from 5 to 17 and for many this is their first experience singing in a choir. They receive musical training with Syrian musical experts and Western-trained musicians and meet at weekly rehearsals and perform about 10 concerts per year featuring a mix of Arabic, French and English songs. Recently introduced into the choir curriculum is an Arabic instrument program where young people learn oud, bazouk and dumbek. Through a broader applied ethnomusicological project on children’s connections to musical traditions, we have been working with the choir for over a year, collaborating with choir leaders and young people to explore how the choir contributes to the wellbeing of its participants and how musical learning in resettlement contexts supports the sustainability of musical traditions from home communities. The primary mode of data collection has been participant-observation and child-led methodologies such as soundscape recording, drawing, storytelling, and group interviews. These methodologies have formed the framework for the field of Children’s Studies that centres children’s active participation in the research process and challenge adult-centred methodologies that often overlook the child’s voice (Alderson & Morrow, 2011; Christensen & James, 2017; Emberly, 2014; Gillen & Cameron, 2010; Grieg et al., 2013; Groundwater-Smith et al., 2015; Grover, 2004; Horgan, 2017; Pérez, M. et al., 2017; Punch, 2016).

Intergenerational knowledge transmission is central to the choir’s structure and curriculum. One of the musical leaders began as a volunteer and was himself a Syrian refugee with extensive knowledge in Arabic musical traditions. He has been joined by a recently arrived Syrian refugee who has studied both Western and Arabic music. This format directly supports the maintenance of musical traditions in the lives of young people, provides familiarity and positive community connections during resettlement, and also creates wider networks among families within the community at large. A typical rehearsal for the choir is about 1.5 hours and often involves rote learning through singing and listening to songs in Arabic, English and French. Arabic songs are often ones that the choristers and their families would have heard on the radio growing up. Songs composed by the Rebhani Brothers that were popularized by Lebanese singer Fairouz, beloved throughout the Arab world, form the core of the Arabic repertoire. Many of the children remember hearing these songs in their communities of origin across various Arabic-speaking countries, and they foster positive memories of their lives before coming to Canada. Parents who often stay to watch rehearsals and attend concerts, communicate the importance of having their children maintain Arabic language skills, continue to participate in Arabic music making and showcase it to the wider Canadian public. For many, this is their first experience singing in a choir, and most of the songs are chosen from a repertoire that young people would have normally only listened to prior to coming to Canada. The songs are carefully chosen by choir leaders, sometimes in collaboration with young people, with a goal of finding meaningful musical experiences for the choristers and their parents, while also engaging a mostly non-Arabic speaking audience who may not be familiar with this type of music.

Music Sustainability and Wellbeing
Without minimizing the potential benefits of musical initiatives for newcomer children, it is important not to assume that music itself has a special power. Geoffrey Baker, who takes a critical approach to studying music programs for “vulnerable” youth, insists that what is paramount to deepening our understandings of both the benefits and the potential issues, is examining the social relations that music programs foster (Baker, 2014, p. 174). That is – the sociality involved in making music, (the process rather than that product). Considering the wellbeing (socio-cultural, emotional, psychological, physical) of children and young people as the ultimate goal, sustaining musical connections to both communities of origin and communities of settlement becomes important because “there is evidence to show that music is an intrinsic and important part of human development. Thus, it needs to be considered as a universal resource, from which implications for health and wellbeing emerge” (Raymond et al 2012, p.7). Music offers a direct means of addressing issues faced by refugee young people by contributing to social, psychological, and physical wellbeing as well as linguistic and cultural integration (Marsh, 2015a). Participatory musical activities, which have a goal of increasing social participation, can lead to an increased sense of social belonging (Marsh, 2012; Odena, 2010, Turino, 2008) and create “communities of practice” (Wenger, 1998). Other scholars suggest that musical creation can provide a sense of group cohesiveness in intercultural settings (Osborne, 2009; Turino, 2009) and promote a sense of belonging and agency (Stewart & Lonsdale, 2016). Wellbeing outcomes are particularly pronounced when musical activities build off of participants’ previous knowledge (Abrahams, 2007) because access to music that reflects the cultural experiences of children provides essential cultural connection and continuity in their lives (Campbell, 2010; Petersen, 2008; Wiggins & Campbell, 2013). Musical activity amongst refugees in particular has been shown to be a positive factor in cultural maintenance, healing from psychological trauma, and in providing a sense of belonging and agency (Diehl, 2002; Harris, 2007; Jones et al., 2004; Ladkani, 2011; Marsh, 2013, 2015a; Pesek, 2009; Schramm, 1989). However, the limited research that examines the connections between music and the refugee experience rarely prioritizes the experiences of young people (Bailey, 2010; Grossman & Sonn, 2010; Kartomi & Blum, 1994; Marsh 2012, 2013, 2015b; Schramm, 1999; Shelemay, 2006).

For young people in resettlement contexts, wellbeing and musical sustainability is linked with the ability to participate in their specific ethnocultural heritages, and to feel that they are socially-valued and included within the country of resettlement (Correa-Velez et al, 2010). Music programs have been reported to have demonstrable therapeutic, educational and confidence- and community-building effects and provide a sense of belonging and cultural continuity for refugee and newcomer youth, while also increasing potential for social integration, language development, and agency (Dokter & Glasman, 2000; Hunt, 2005; Marsh, 2012, 2013, 2015a, 2015b; Marsh & Dieckmann, 2017). In refugee camp settings research demonstrates positive health and wellbeing outcomes, particularly in understanding how music-making facilitates the maintenance of cultural identity, feelings of agency and the formation of inter- and intragroup relationships in ethnoculturally heterogenous contexts (Bergh, 2010; Kiruthu, 2014; Lennette & Sunderland, 2016; Storsve et al., 2010). As people transition into resettlement, music continues to support cultural maintenance, and also assists with integration and adaptation in new environments (Lennette & Sunderland, 2016). Thus, it is important for our research to address how participation in the choir supports wellbeing because increased wellbeing may also support the sustainability of musical traditions as they move between contexts.

Young people and choir participation
In the choir, like many music education programs, the process of music-making is highly structured and adult-led. However, the discourse surrounding these types of musical programs for children often overlooks the ways in which children are active creators of their own musical cultures, activities and outcomes in these programs. Music is an expressive space where children not only consume but also generate culture. Emberly & Davhula note this “has often been overlooked in the dominant adult discourse that positions children as receptacles and receivers of knowledge, diminishing recognition of the agency they deploy as creators and propagators of their dynamic music traditions” (Emberly & Davhula, 2016, p. 349). Such omissions risk perpetuating notions of children, and especially children who have undergone forced displacement, as vulnerable victims in need of adult intervention to shape them into particular types of citizens. How young people are agents employing their own types of music making within the choir supplies better insight into what young people understand as the best types of music-making to support positive outcomes. As choir members have stated in response to questions about how singing impacts their wellbeing:

“Singing helped me improve my voice…like be louder in singing, be louder in talking, not be afraid to make a mistake. The point is that people should not be afraid to say what is right…I think I will stay singing for a long time, but if I don’t I’m probably going to stay confident” (Dec. 12, 2018, Yelina Age 9).2

“The songs bring that feeling of home to us” (Nov. 24, 2018, Jana, Age 15).

“Almost everyone there speaks Arabic and I feel like I am part of something…I don’t really like singing…it’s the atmosphere of the choir. I feel happy, like I am in a team or something. I like being a part of something” (Nov. 24, 2018, Maher Age 16).

One can certainly value the connections with the choir’s intended aims voiced in these children’s statements, particularly as they relate to cultural continuity, language retention and empowerment. While we may assume that these quotes refer to the structured activities at the choir, what we also must consider are the ways that young people also produce musical learning opportunities through their own music making to create these outcomes in the midst of rehearsals and performances, through what Campbell calls a “musical underlife.” She states:

In the nooks and crannies of home, school, and neighborhood, and even within the times and places reserved for musical study, there is a steady current of children's own music-in-the-making that underlies the various activities in which they engage. Sometimes they are unaware of this music making as it flows almost in a stream-of-consciousness way from their voices and bodies. Yet it is also made by children with the full intent of preserving a song, rhythm, or game buoyed by music” (2010, p. 13).

Campbell argues that this “informal music making” (2010, p. 14) is an important site of cultural production, communication and meaning-making that takes place in the midst of structured activities, and sometimes in defiance of rules and adult-produced protocols. Children’s music-making often takes the form of musical bits and pieces such as vocalizations, gestures, clapping games, chants, and short melodies sung during rehearsals and performances.

The 15-20 minute breaks during rehearsals are filled with this type of musical underlife. One can see young people playing and teaching each other rhythmic handclapping games in the corners of the room. Choristers can also be found using their phones to share videos of Arabic music and North American pop, and sometimes they create dance videos which they upload to the popular app Tic Toc. Others sit at the large piano playing, making up and teaching each other songs, and experimenting with sounds. The wider space of the room is filled with musical remnants – bits of sung melodies, chants, and vocalizations – that are accompanied by movement as children run, do cartwheels, and semi-dance motions and gestures with others across the floors. On one occasion a child brought a long elastic band and played a rhythmic jumping game she called the ribbon game. Her mom had learned it as a child and had recently taught it to her; different children joined in to reminisce about playing this game before moving to Canada, and the different ways it was played in Syria versus Lebanon versus Dubai, and other young people taught those who had not played before.

This free form music making also spills outside of breaks and into the times centred on rehearsing and performing. Many choristers have indicated a desire to move and dance freely, and while it is difficult to incorporate this spontaneity into performances, they find ways to carefully embody these desires. There is a continuous diversity of quiet clapping, tapping, slouching, turning, swinging, moving and swaying taking place. At one dress rehearsal, a young person jumped up and down joyously for the entire song, expressing the music as she wished to. In addition to being personal forms of expression, these movements are also communicative and used to form and foster friendships. Friends often chat in small rhythmic hums and whispers, leaning towards each other, singing while looking at each other, and communicating through a perfectly timed giggle, and shared clapping and tapping.

In the mix of sound produced by the choir during the more formal rehearsal times, young people can be heard softly experimenting with their voices in higher or lower registers than the song prescribes; they sing in faster or slower tempos and often repeat back different words or rhythms than the conductor requests. A poignant example of this comes from a recent rehearsal where some young people were starting to learn instruments; one girl was given the dumbek drum and taught a specific pattern to repeat over and over, while others sang. As the leader initiated the song, the drummer played something completely different. Thinking she might need help, she was shown the beat pattern again - she quickly noted that “I like to make up my own” (Feb. 26, 2018, Rana, Age 9) These are poignant examples of young people’s use of what Whiteman calls “creative aversions and subversions… [that] reshape musical norms to their own desires” (Whitman 2013, p. 476).

These examples of musical underlife demonstrate the importance of social processes during music-making. Firstly, they communicate how young people shape their musical worlds, and it is largely spontaneous and participatory, much different than the structure and uniformity that performance protocols might dictate. Secondly, their music making actualizes many of the goals of the choir and their own ideals: choristers form friendships, maintain and produce cultural connections, learn, play and become leaders and teachers among their peers. The musical underlife of the choir is communicative, relation-building and an important site for the articulation of agency. Their music-making centres young people as pedagogues, creators and transmitters of their own musical cultural lore. This informal music-making compliments the more formal and knowledge transmission between choir leaders and young singers, and each contributes to the positive outcomes that support young people’s participation in their cultural heritages and their wellbeing in their new community.

Changing Landscape, Changing Choir
Our collaboratively applied ethnomusicological research has been exploring the different ways that the choir impacts young peoples’ lives and pathways for their music making to continue. The sustainability of the choir is of prime importance and there are two complex factors that the Choir must negotiate: establishing continued funding and maintaining public support through political shifts and funding cuts; and the continued recruitment and retention of choir members in the midst of changing immigration and resettlement patterns. When the choir was established they received generous private donations from the general public who were eager to support the Syrian refugee cause. In shaping itself as a welcoming and multicultural nation among wider discriminatory and exclusionary global geopolitics, Canada welcomed over 40.000 refugees in 2016 (Government of Canada, 2019). This gesture solidified Canada’s identity on the global political stage, and bolstered its multicultural identity, but also attempted to foster a national imaginary centred in tolerance and acceptance among long-settled Canadians. Indeed, the outpouring of support for the choir during its initial stages was immense, but over time, as other priorities become urgent and incentivized in the Canadian public sphere, the choir has had to find new ways of sustaining itself through various competitive grants and community partnerships. Of prime importance has been to find ways to engage public audiences through performances that support Arabic music and engage non-Arabic-speakers in ways that centre musicality and which do not perpetuate stereotypes of young refugees as disempowered victims.

In turn, while the majority of the choristers are from Syria, as global refugee patterns shift and as choristers become Canadian citizens, the Choir has had to rebrand itself, and revisit the principles of membership. The choir has recently moved beyond the Syrian community, and now has children from other Arabic speaking countries and beyond. More recently, young people from East and West Africa, some of whom do not speak Arabic, have joined and the repertoire is being adapted to create an inclusive and more multicultural environment. While the choir began as a Syrian Refugee Children’s Choir, the new choir (that no longer uses the word “refugee” in its name) has resulted from these shifts, but also through careful considerations of the implications of the word “refugee”. The choir is now open to all newcomer young people and will begin intensive phases of recruitment to establish a large and robust choir and accompanying ensemble.

While new Choir directions and expansions have been primarily the concern of choir leaders, researchers and administrators who maneuver in the current political landscape to ensure that the Choir thrives, young people also readily discuss their ideas about best practice for the choir’s sustainability and thriving music-making in resettlement contexts. Some of their concerns and suggestions overlap with choir leaders’ and others diverge and offer important insights into how young people conceptualize their music-making activities during the resettlement process. Two primary avenues for sustainability that young people express are: building a shared sense of responsibility and establishing collaborative peer teaching initiatives which foster different types of intergenerational knowledge transmission; and ensuring that choristers and audiences are thoroughly and differentially musically-engaged through the careful choice of music. Firstly, choristers indicate that building a sense of community among peers and having a shared sense of investment in the choir is essential for it to thrive in the coming years. While singers are often being taught music by older cultural experts, some suggest that being able to share and teach this musical knowledge among themselves is also important. For instance, through helping each other learn songs and assisting fellow peers, they see themselves as learning and taking on important roles as cultural knowledge holders and transmitters. Secondly, and much the same as choir leaders, young people understand the ways in which performance, cultural and educational goals must be carefully negotiated to serve the different needs of stakeholders which include audience members, choir leaders, parents and young people. Song choice, as well as carefully chosen musical activities that address diverse ways of learning, are integral for choristers and audiences to remain engaged and culturally-connected.

Almost all young people in the choir indicate that they enjoy singing Fairouz songs, and many reference her as their favourite singer. What does come up as a concern, however, is whether the mostly non-Arabic speaking audience members can appreciate and relate to this music. As one 16-year old Syrian young person states about a concert for Canadian government officials, “I would’ve picked other than Fairouz because if all the songs are Fairouz, you gotta have some different ones because English people or people who don’t know Arabic are listening to the same tone same again and again, and maybe they get bored maybe. Maybe we [should] have something sad, [then] something with some excitement, [then] something with a beat” (Feb. 14, 2018, Sherin, Age 16). Sherin carefully considers the need for combining different languages in the choir’s performances to keep audiences engaged, and also argues for the importance of structuring the program so that audience members are led through multiple emotional and rhythmic dynamics. Her suggestion is echoed by others who understand that audience support is essential for their music making to continue, as is the participation of young people from a variety of cultural backgrounds who may have different musical preferences. For instance, Hadaya, who has been with the choir for over one year, suggests that the repertoire be diversified to include a few “current” English pop songs (Dec. 15, 2018, Age 11), and Taalia argues that choosing songs that none of the choir members know would be more exciting for everyone and provide an equal ground for all to learn (Feb. 4, 2018, Age 11). How the audience responds to and understands the repertoire is still incredibly important to young people, who often go and ask audience members what they “felt” when they heard particular songs.

Another key concern raised by young people in terms of sustainability are issues around retention and the engagement of choristers. While choir leaders have focused on outreach and establishing a sense of community belonging, of importance to young people is solidifying their choir community through a shared sense of responsibility among choristers, and in finding different methods of intergenerational knowledge transmission. Some have indicated a desire to be directly involved in the sharing of musical knowledge among their peers. As Yelina, a nine-year old who had been with the choir for two years states:

They should tell us what songs we are doing so we can help them [new people] and not only the new people, but the actual teachers because we’ve been watching them teach us, we’ve been watching how they handle things, so I think they should let us have a turn to   do that because I think we would also be very good at that because we have been staring at them, doing their job, so that we can perform the best that we can. So, I think they should let us have a turn to do something like that. (Dec. 12, 2018)

Yelina argues that not only would it be beneficial to have older choristers assist new people, but that the choir leaders could benefit from having young people conduct and make important decisions for performances, such as programming and musical choices. Moreover, Yelina understands this as an important reversal of the typical way knowledge is transferred and sees herself and her peers as being able to teach not only each other, but also choir leaders. She advises that having such a system will help not only solidify a sense of community and responsibility among choir members, but that it will also provide a better experience for the audience. She explains that, “I think they should ask us what we think about so we can perform well, so they can conduct well and the whole audience would probably love it better.” (Dec. 12, 2018, Yelina). Others have echoed Yelina and go further to suggest that the choir be divided into two separate ensembles based on age and which could incorporate older and more experienced choristers as leaders. Of concern to some older and more experienced choristers is that the audience focus is centred on the “cuteness” of young children rather than the musicality of choristers. Thus, what permeates these conversations is a concern with not only how establishing such roles and structures will impact choristers, but how it will engage audiences so that they will “love it better” as Yelina says. This also communicates a similar desire to that of the choir team which is to create musical experiences that showcase young people as empowered and musically engaging to watch.

Singing Forward
The movement of song across place, generation, culture, and context, demonstrate the ways in which newcomer children and young people connect with their cultural heritage and diverse new communities through music. Children and young people access musical traditions in order to both sustain their traditions and as a means to musically integrate into new communities. The Choir provides a context for newcomer children to connect to their cultural past, present and future by musical learning both in formal and informal contexts. These musical moments, whether from adult to child, child to child, or child to adult, solidify children’s roles as creators and propagators of musical traditions. This chapter contributes an introduction into how participation in a choir for newcomer children in the Canadian context supports socio-cultural wellbeing by providing ongoing connection to music from both communities of origin and newly settled communities. Within these experiences, children have expressed how and why they connect through music and how these connections impact their lives within newly settled contexts. Through listening to the musical underlife of the choir, the research also suggests that children use music as a tool connect with one another and process feelings, experiences, and understandings. Our research collaboration with the choir is ongoing and as the contexts and experiences of the children in the choir shift there is no doubt that their insights about participation in the choir will also shift. Further research with the choir will provide long-term data on wellbeing outcomes from participation and will contribute to the dialogue on how access to musical activities can benefit children and young people from refugee backgrounds as they integrate into their new communities.

The movement of song across and between places, contexts, and people, demonstrates how music provides a tangible tool to connect to communities and cultures, both old and new. Thus, the musical migration of songs from one generation to the next is vital to providing a framework for newcomer children to transition into their multicultural communities. Young people’s insights about what approaches they consider best for the long-term sustainability of their music-making in (re)settlement contexts demonstrates how different models allow them to connect with musical cultures from their communities of origin and beyond.

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[1] For the purposes of this study we have omitted the name of the choir and will simply refer to it as “The Choir”.

[2] All names of children and young people in this paper are pseudonyms.