Mellon Middle School shook things up earlier this month, when it brought in ethnomusicologists from all over the country to introduce Mellon music students to music from all over the globe. Each class period featured two different types of dance, ranging from African, Sicilian, and Lithuanian dances to Korean and Arabic rhythms. Ethnomusicologists came from as far away as Arizona and Washington. Students shuffled, stomped, sang and jumped throughout the day, trying their hand at music or dance from another culture.
Second period, Katherine Palmer from the Museum of Musical Instruments starts the class with a traditional Tanzanian song. Line by line, the students follow her lead and sing the words, “Jambo, jambo bwana / Harabi gani / Nzuri sana.” The song, sung in Swahili, is a popular pop song throughout the Swahili-speaking region and a smattering array of groups and artists have been singing it since its initial 1982 release. Next come the drums, as the back row of boys does their best to keep on beat. A few more run-throughs and the classroom appears ready for a debut. The next dance, a South African gumboot routine, proves to be a bit more challenging.
Gumboot originated in the mines of South Africa. Immigrant workers from across the country shared only one common language: the sound of their boots hitting the ground. They would sing while they worked, dance when they could and eventually developed a series of steps which served as a secret communication system between them. Their boot stomping and clapping influenced dancers for years to come, including traditionally African-American fraternities and their stepping routines. The students in that second period music class at Mellon also gave it a shot.
Turns out Gumboot is harder than it seems. While coordination fails many of the kids, smiles do not.
Next up, the Sicilian Tarantella, taught by Krissie Weimer, stems from a completely different part of the world. Sicily is a huge island off the coast of Italy. Legend has it that when a tarantula bites you, you’ll need to shake the poison out of you by dancing quickly and furiously. Turning, hopping up and down on one foot and shaking tambourines, the kids stand facing each other in two lines.
Somewhere between the jumping, clapping, drumming, spinning, stomping and chorus of voices, another 44 minutes has slipped away. The students file out of the room a little more worldly than they came in while another group of kids, fresh-faced and ready for their music class, begin to glide in.