Building intercultural engagement through music
A new framework aims to celebrate and generate opportunities for cultural exchange and the expression of new cultural identities through shared music
On 30 January 2023, the Australian Government launched its much-awaited cultural policy, Revive, which aims to support and enhance the role of arts and culture in our society.
This is welcome after years of neglect and in the wake of the crisis experienced in the creative and performing arts sector from 2020, with people and organisations barely able to manage their way through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Existing studies show that the arts (music in particular) play key roles in creating a sense of community, shared identity, and an appreciation and understanding of difference.
These are factors that intercultural psychologists underscore as fundamental to a cohesive and pluralistic society.
So, respecting and supporting First Nations cultural protocols and the rich diversity of other cultural and linguistic practices in an effort to strengthen social cohesion and inclusion is vital.
Acknowledgement of our cultural diversity is reflected in Revive, particularly Pillar 1 First Nations First and Pillar 2 A Place for Every Story.
As a nation consisting mostly of migrants, non-Indigenous Australians are guests of the world’s oldest living culture.
The arts play a vital role in not only preserving heritage, but also generating opportunities for cultural exchange and the expression of new cultural identities.
Music is well-placed to do this, as an embodied and often collective mode of expression.
Working with a range of community collaborators, our team at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music has been exploring new frameworks for intercultural music engagement to support respectful, safe and inclusive opportunities for all participants.
Intercultural music engagement refers to the act of encountering either multiple cultures, or a culture other than one’s own, through engaging with music. This could be playing in a band with people or instruments from a different culture or listening to a song in a different language.
We propose Intercultural Music Engagement (ICME) as a conceptual framework highlighting the sociopolitical implications and pitfalls outlined above, and that might be considered when designing new programs and experiences.
The ICME framework draws on the idea that music has the unique ability to highlight our shared humanity, while also celebrating our cultural diversity.
For example, music simultaneously reflects universal human experiences across cultures – we all have music for celebration and we all have music for mourning. It also articulates our diversity – mourning music might sound very different tonally and rhythmically across different cultures.
This offers rich opportunities for exchange and understanding between different cultures.
However, it’s important to note that this exchange requires humility and a willingness to learn from others to avoid othering, appropriating, or traumatising individuals and their communities.
Our hope is that the framework for intercultural music engagement offers a valuable starting point for individuals and organisations to think about potential risks of intercultural music engagement and how to effectively navigate them to achieve positive outcomes for everyone.
An important first step is understanding that both artists and participants need an appropriate, safe and supportive environment to engage in cultural music practices.
In practical terms, this can mean providing the necessary space and time to develop materials, prepare for a performance, especially when using fragile acoustic instruments like a sitar or koto.
It also means acknowledging that cultural minorities may have had negative experiences with intercultural music activities in the past. So, creating a place for safe and autonomous sharing of culture and expression is critical.
An extension of thinking about providing space is the need to be aware of how historical, political and other contextual factors can impact an intercultural music experience.
The complex factors considered to influence an individual or group’s attitude towards engaging in music from a certain culture, in a given setting, should inform the way any initiative is approached.
For example, combining refugees from the same country of origin into a working group, despite any entrenched ethnic, religious and cultural tensions that underpinned their forced migration in the first place has the potential to undermine the process.
The beginnings of the ICME framework also advocates for embodied and experiential learning through direct engagement in musical experiences, as opposed to text-based or didactic methods of learning.
This is preferred as it builds on the understanding that certain actions or experiences related to culture can’t be easily recreated in a classroom, as well as a more general recognition of the value of whole-body somatic experiences when exploring the arts in terms of wellbeing.
Our work also emphasises the importance of creating a framework that is responsive and adaptable. This includes creating opportunities for community feedback and making changes where necessary to ensure that it addresses the needs of the intercultural music practitioners in their work.
In fact, our research approach is predicated on including community music practitioners and industry professionals in collaboration.
Recent community round-table discussions have generated further insights – leading to further developments in our framework and targeting improving practice in industry and government.
We are optimistic that Australia’s new cultural policy will support efforts to further strengthen social cohesion using the arts and culture, and that the proposed Multicultural Framework Review will support the types of enquiries we have been undertaking.
Research clearly shows intercultural music engagement can foster empathy, understanding and social cohesion but the need for a framework to guide us towards these goals in contemporary Australian society is critical.
Australia needs to evolve beyond the current box-ticking of ‘Diversity Days’ and ‘Cultural Showcases’ where representatives of cultural minorities are often asked to ‘perform’ their culture in sub-par conditions for ‘exposure’ rather than payment.
These approaches do little to appreciate, celebrate and draw strength from the amazing breadth of musical experiences on offer from the First Nations and immigrant communities of our country.
With the rise in interactions between different cultures, the need to have a framework in place that promotes respect, safety, and inclusivity for all participants is important.
We hope that the ICME framework develops into a resource that not only promotes safety and inclusivity, but also a shared understanding of our innate, shared humanity, and how we can access and celebrate this through our music.
On 16 Feb 2023, the Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative (CAWRI) and the Creative Arts Music Therapy Research Unit (CAMTRU) are hosting the Performing Creativity, Culture and Well conference at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus. Register to attend.
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