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Why my choir doesn’t sing songs from India

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    The simple reason is that India doesn’t have a harmony singing tradition, and I specialise in harmony singing.


    Indian singers


    Photo by willsfca


    The same goes for most other countries in Asia.


    I’m also asked why we don’t do more Islamic songs.


    There are many branches of Islam that take the view that the only music that can be made is the call to prayer. Some groups extend this slightly to include devotional songs with words from the Koran. The Sufi tradition uses music much more than most other Islamic groups. But still the songs are not in harmony.


    harmony singing traditions

    I’ve always found it fascinating that some cultures have harmony singing traditions whereas others don’t.


    I was once told by an ethnomusicologist that there is a country in Eastern Europe (I forget which) divided in the middle by a major river running East-West. The cultures to the North of the river have a harmony singing tradition, whereas those to the South don’t!


    If the story in a song is important (i.e. the lyrics are the most important part of the music), then the melody tends to be quite simple with no embellishments and no harmonies which might get in the way of the telling of the story. This is evident in, for example, the English ballad tradition.


    Conversely, those songs which have complex tunes, rich harmonies and many ornamentations tend to have very, very simple lyrics. It is the sound of the words that is important in these cases, not the meaning. For example, the many versions of Mravalžamier from Georgia, most of which have just the one word: “mravalžamier”.


    Apparently there was a strong harmony singing tradition in Britain way, way back, but none of it survives. The more recent harmony singing traditions that we have come out of the church and have spread (via the British Empire) to Australasia and Africa amongst other places. Which is where the roots of the fantastic Maori and South African harmony singing from.


    should we harmonise other cultures’ songs?

    I’m always on the lookout for songs from unfamiliar sources and countries. In fact, I have a project which aims to collect a traditional song from every country in the world. It’s called A World in Song and has its own Facebook group.


    I would like to have as wide a spread of musical genres as possible, but always tend towards the traditional. The complication comes when a culture doesn’t have a harmony singing tradition.


    I’m really struggling at the moment whether to go with a harmonised Tamil song or an arrangement of a Sephardic song, neither of which were originally sung in harmony.


    Maybe I should let go of my insistence on tradition. Or should I?


    By doing modern harmonised versions of songs from traditions where there is no history of harmony, am I honouring those traditions? Am I simply exploiting other cultures and putting a Western stamp on them? Or am I doing them a favour by polishing up old songs and giving them new life in the 21st century? And where do I draw the line?


    What do you think? I’d love to hear what you have to say.




    Chris Rowbury:


1,446 views - 2 comments - Post Comment
  • Kathryn Burrington
    Kathryn Burrington Hi Chris,
    This is really interesting - I'll check out 'A World in Song' - wonderful idea!

    My thoughts on your dilemma is that in the main you should stick with the traditional version of a song as far as possible (but there will be ti...  more
    October 22, 2011
  • Chris Rowbury
    Chris Rowbury Yes, Kathryn, there are times when mixing things up creates something new. The question is how far do we go in respecting tradition? If we never change, then things die, but if we always change, then nothing is preserved! Chris
    October 24, 2011
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