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Overcoming the challenges of multicultural music sessions

A look into the challenges facing music practitioners working with young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and the way in which we have made headway in overcoming some of the specific challenges we have encountered.

When writing the aims and objectives for our Music Matters  project, one of the main aims was to recruit and integrate with the large Roma community that resides in our town.  Many had tried before with varying success, we thought we had the magic ingredient, the one thing that unites all, music.

To set the scene we are based in a really nice attractive space in the heart of the community.  The youth groups that run in the centre are 96% Roma.  The community have a great passion for playing music and often perform at events around the town and for the youth centre, however they have a reputation, rightly or wrongly for lack of integration and keeping themselves to themselves. This led to the first challenge we faced, recruitment, unfortunately the centre has a reputation for only catering for Roma youth, although the centre does cater for a large percentage of Roma people it is keen on integration and is working hard to lose the tag.  In some way we have overcome this through music as a common language, but more so in adjusting our aims to cater for musicians interested in Hip Hop, Rap and Grime genres and finding ways of incorporating this into our sessions.  In order to do this we have incorporated more technology based sessions, using Reason and Pro Tools and we have two volunteers, one Roma one English who are both respected for their music in the local community.

Though incorporating the more modern musical genres has gone some way to integration it did throw up a further barrier, that of language, not only in the way that the group mainly have English as their second language, but also that they have several languages spoken amongst the participants which has led to inner tensions within the group through the use of explicit language aimed at other member, with us being unaware of the problem before it reached  the point of the threat of violence.  The formal musical language is difficult to convey both due to the language barrier, but also to the fact that many though exceptionally gifted musicians have learned through the true folk tradition of music being passed down through the family.  This in turn leads to difficulty with tracking progress and quality assurance as we have no real measure aside from our observations, further to this there is great difficulty in communicating with parents as they have less English than their children.  The other on-going and problematical experience we have encountered is the attitude to time which can make planning difficult, due to the nature of the Roma culture they will often disappear for weeks at a time , returning expecting that we will just fit in with what they want, showing no consideration for the other members of the group.  This also makes any ensemble work difficult as there is no notice given, leaving members of their musical group without key members for rehearsals.

Though there are a number of negatives the positives outweigh them through the way that we are breaking down barriers, we have a volunteer form the Roma community working with us, only the second person to do so in the ten year history of the centre working with the Roma people.  Tutors and learners have both been exposed to a wealth of music that we would not normally have access to and in turn have adapted this through combining traditional folk tales with Hip Hop and Grime.  The sheer joy of learning music for learning sake and the quality of musicianship shown in the young people along with their willingness to pass it on to both cultures is something special. 

So how have we overcome the challenges, we have added in extra sessions so that we are not disadvantaging any other learners through catering to the lack of adherence to any sort of schedule even though we have in turn been let down ourselves a number of times by this.  We have introduced video and audio diaries to compensate for the lack of being able to write in English or with some members not being able to read or write.  The most important and effective method we have employed is through giving them as much ownership of the sessions as possible, they decide what they want to work on and we judge whether  this is measurable or not before agreeing, this gives us the opportunity to withdraw the session if they fail to participate, but more importantly they police themselves and will ensure that they don’t let others down, this is extended to all the young people and not just the Roma youngsters which helps with integration and also the breaking down of many barriers with friendships being forged across the cultural chasm.