The UNT College of Music is one of the most inclusive and diverse music programs in the country, along with being one of the most prestigious. This is never more clear than when looking into the Ethnomusicology graduate program. This program, which began in the spring of 2016, features areas of study in music from all over the globe and gives students the opportunity to be exposed to different music styles and the cultures that created them.
Their graduate recital “Hear the World” was a representation of this philosophy. Featuring students performing music from Mexico, China, India and Africa, the event was a night of cultural exploration and celebration.
While I had very little exposure to these styles of music prior to attending this event, I didn’t feel as out of the loop as I expected to feel. Music is music and no matter where it originated, it has the power to connect and make people come together. And that’s exactly what these four extremely varied music types did, they came together and put on a great show.
The first group to perform was the Modern Mariachi group headed by Jose Torres, a graduate student and professor. He told of how mariachi tradition has evolved over time and that the modern costumes that have become synonymous with this style of music are actually borrowed from the Mexican Charro culture and hold very specific symbolism and rules. He told the audience to get loud, stand up and show them that their enjoying the music, as is tradition in Mexico, and the crowd listened. While I have heard authentic Mariachi before while visiting family in El Paso, it was a different experience hearing the traditions and the stories behind the songs sung in a language I can’t understand. He told about the heartbreak and emotion that the composers put into every song and how they all tell a story, making them more than just a pretty song you hear over dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
Second up was the traditional music of China, directed by graduate student, Yuxin Mei . She began this section with a pipa (pronounced pee-paw) solo, an instrument that resembles a guitar but sounds much pluckier. She played a fairly long piece that she explained told the story of an emperor whose favorite concubine killed herself and thus resulting in his own tragic suicide. You could hear the passion in every note, she put her heart into that piece and transformed it into something so much more than just a woman on stage playing music. You felt the pain and heartbreak and the passion of the notes. Her hands fluttered around the strings so fast your eyes couldn’t keep up, all the while she made it look as effortless as telling a sad story to a group of friends. A few more people joined her for other pieces but none as beautiful or resonant as the first.
Third was music from India and a change of pace. The contrast of the fiery, loud instrumental music from China to the softer vocal-heavy traditional Indian music really highlighted their unique differences. Thanmayee Krishnamurthy was the vocalist and lead of this trio and her voice truly was the centerpiece. With the help of two others playing variations of drums, her voice filled the recital hall and demanded attention. Each “raga” they performed had a story and her voice told that story in a powerful way. The first song ended with a long drum solo that really let the two drummer’s – one of which is a high school student, the other a professor – talent shine. The contrast of the instrumental Chinese music and the lyric filled songs from India worked to show that no matter the style or instruments, music is powerful and beautiful.
The night ended with a short performance by the members of the African Percussion Ensemble directed by Nate Ash-Morgan. They played two songs and while entertaining and interesting, lacked the uniformity and precision of the other three groups. The highlight of this performance, ironically, was not a musician but rather the traditional African dancer who showcased a war dance and then a lively “recreational dance”. While the drummers drummed, looking slightly confused and bored, she was the one who brought the culture and communicated what these songs are meant to say.
Overall, the night was one of eye-opening musical experiences that really explored all that this program has to offer while sharing their passion with the crowd. I had never heard of “ethnomusicology” before this but now I know that our university is better for having them as part of our community as they truly embrace the diversity that makes our school great.