Reminiscing on my Residency: Be Resilient

Reminiscing on my Residency: Part One

Be Resilient

May 6, 2020 was my very first event as part of my tenure as the City of Kitchener Artist in Residence. It was Music Monday and two groups of elementary students at Trillium Public School in Kitchener eagerly awaited a junk music, songwriting workshop.

I’ll admit…I was a bit nervous.

I dreamed up this residency project where I would tour around Kitchener engaging residents through various community events and creating music that spoke about identity, neighbourhoods, placemaking, and other similar topics. Although I had tried the process out a few times – they were with people who had musical background. Here, I planned to go into the community advertising NO MUSICAL EXPERIENCE NECESSARY, just come and let’s write a song about your lived experience!

As we rolled out the process, the children were so engaged and excited to be creating music. It was the best first go I could have asked for. We decided to create a song with each group based on the trait of the month, which was resiliency. The students shared all the things they had learned about being resilient, including strategies to stay resilient in the moment of challenges in our life. They had a lot of very good advice and ideas. 

Here is one of the classes practicing their song before the performance at a school assembly later that day…

Play Video

Lyrics:

I’m on a roller coaster ride
And I’m counting to ten
Gonna walk away, Distract myself, then talk it out

Chorus:
Do something that makes you happy,
Calm down!
Your HERO trait is to be resilient

This song, Be Resilient, is the first single off the album, Songs of Kitchener which features all the songs created in community during my residency.

Album Art By Hunter Barron

Listen now on your favourite streaming platform!

Reflections on a Year of Racial Uprisings

On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man, was shot while jogging in Georgia, U.S.A. by three white residents. I watched the news about the incident and the aftermath in horror. The “stand your ground” laws were cited as the defence for this fatal shooting: Arbery case exemplifies abuse of ‘stand your ground,’ but the damage is broad and systemic (nbcnews.com)

Many states have enacted so-called “stand your ground” laws that remove any duty to retreat before using force in self-defence. Arbery’s killing, and the delayed investigation and arrests reignited debates about racial inequality and systemic racism.

Despite a pandemic, 2020 has demonstrated the harsh truths of racially motivated violence and police brutality which have been internationally acknowledged and has made the world reflect on the injustices that exist in systems and institutions. I felt my way through 2020 along with the rest of the world, witnessing atrocities such as the death of George Floyd. Reading the stories and watching the protests, I spent hours reflecting on how humans view humans, and how that is enacted in our lived realities.

The title and message of the song is my artistic attempt at reclaiming “Stand Your Ground” for racial justice rather than an excuse for discrimination.

Am I your token POC?
Take a pat on the back
But you don’t see me
Just another stat

Performative acts,
prestigious praise
Degradation
in newfound ways

Diversity is not a metric,
statistic, or bottom line
It is a just way of being
So open up your eyes

Chorus
You do what you want
I don’t get a say
Would I have a voice
If you had your way

Nations divided,
Prejudice abounds
A battle for our lives
Who will stand their ground?

We teach genocide as history
The present is much the same
Take our current story
How we play this human game

A stop at a corner store,
Out for another run,
Never know when out the door
If you’ll see the setting sun

I’m a human being
With goals and ambitions
But what is that to you
And all your ammunition

Dictators, pandemics,
Institutions, wars,
There is no equalizer
We all survive through hope.

Chorus

Should we stay silent?
Or should we grab a bull horn?
Should we stand on our soap box?
Or lobby governments and thrones?

Time to face our biases
Time to face our fears
Time to raise our voices
Institutions get in gear

A human is a human,
It’s time to end the silence,
Don’t fade into darkness
Stand up and fight for justice

A year later, I am heartened by the recent announcement from the Governor of Georgia towards reforming the citizen’s arrest laws in the state: Georgia Governor Announces Bill To Reform Racist Citizen’s Arrest Law | NewsOne

I look to 2021 as a new year, with new hope, new visions, new learnings, new understandings, new beginnings even amidst the challenges we are still enduring.

Displaying Music in Museums

Who says music can’t be put on display in a museum?

In the fall, I went into a meeting with the wonderful folks at Kitchener’s THEMUSEUM to talk about how I could bring junk music into their programming. I discovered that the upcoming exhibition was all about climate change. So, I pitched the idea of installing an exhibit of my own. 

And they agreed!

In the fall, I set out to install an interactive junk music wall at THEMUSEUM’s new pop-up location at the Shops at Waterloo Town Square.

 

Of course, you can’t have an interactive junk music wall without some music to play along with! I created a few instrumental tracks recorded with junk instruments. 

Inspired by the topic of climate change, I created a song especially for this exhibit, Earth Lullaby. This song is about sustainability from an intercultural perspective. The Middle Eastern melody and guitar line represents where I come from, and is combined with Western influences (piano) and an indigenous drum and message representing where I currently live.

The song is a narrative of the Raven, a Creator, a magician, a cultural hero, and a trickster in traditional indigenous stories. The Raven uses his cunning to bring important life-giving elements to humanity such as fire, light, and the tides of the sea.

In Earth Lullaby, the Raven warns us about how we are consuming this world through greed. The refrain is influenced by vocable sections in indigenous songs, a way to make music accessible across different indigenous nations and languages during shared musical experiences.

 

Sustainability is a global issue which ties us all together, regardless of race, language, ability, or location. We all share this one planet. I wanted this song to reflect my roots (Egypt), and where I currently live (Canada). I am honoured to have worked alongside inspiring Indigenous elders and musicians on Earth Lullaby for both the music and the Indigenous teachings. This song is truly a remarkable collaboration of artists from an array of traditions. The result is an elegant mix of musical influences bringing diverse voices together to speak about a global concern in one accord.

A Musical Narrative of Homelessness

Photo from a A Better Tent City Waterloo Region provided by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region

A Musical Narrative of Homelessness

After taking some time to work on grant applications and working out the logistics of this community album, I began making more connections in the community and exploring conversations happening in the media. One person I spoke to was Aleksandra Petrovic Graonic , Executive Director of the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region. She reached out to me at a community dinner and asked if I would consider writing a song about the affordable housing crisis in the Region of Waterloo. 

The crisis has been featured in the news as of late. Even in my own neighbourhood, near downtown Kitchener, there have been concerns about high rise developments and gentrification displacing affordable units and housing as well as shelters.

The Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region collaborated with the University of Waterloo to produce Life Stories of Displacement, a series of podcasts where local residents who live on low incomes and have experienced marginalization in its many forms spoke about their stories.

These interviews highlighted many things; the challenges such as the limitations with systems and resources, the stigma of being a homeless person in our community. But they also featured uplifting stories of grassroots community circles of support. When Aleksandra told me about the initiative, I decided to take a weekend and immerse myself in all of the material available. I listened to the podcasts available online (there were six at the time). I read the transcripts from all the interviews. I reviewed the thematic analysis done by the researchers.

And I got angry.

I got angry at how the system is failing. I got angry at how people could be treated like dirt. I got angry about unfair stereotypes and unjust circumstances.

I gravitated toward one particular story: Wayne’s story. The way Wayne spoke about his frustration with society’s labels and how life sometimes “just takes wheels off your wagon” inspired me to start jotting down lyrics. Wayne suffered from mental health and personal issues that basically stripped him of his entire livelihood. 

Listen to Wayne’s Interview:  We seem to be a society of labels

Wayne’s Poetry: Don’t Laugh At Me 

It took three days for me to finish the lyrics with the ear of my bandmate, Len McCarthy. For three days, I was steeped in anger for what Wayne and the 14 other interviewees has had to deal with in their lives and how we, as a society, have decided to respond to people in these circumstances. Their stories inspired the song, For the Weary.

I met Wayne and worked with him on this song to make sure it reflected his narrative in sound and lyrics. Near the end of process, I shared our rough recording of the song with Wayne at Queen Street Commons Café over tea. He got teary eyed and told me that we had captured his sentiments perfectly. 

With Wayne’s full endorsement, we officially had a song from community, for community!

Len McCarthy, Jeff Cowell and I headed into the recording studio for a couple of hours.

 

Wayne noted that the heartbeat rhythm in this song reflected how he continued to persevere, fight, and survive despite all his hardships. 

Having a safe place to rest our head should be a universal right.

This song was used as the theme song for the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region’s podcast, Homes 4 All, featured on CKMS Radio Waterloo 102.7, providing listeners with recommendations for meaningful grassroots solutions.

Homes 4 All Episode 1: Changing Mindsets 

Update February 1, 2021

The Unsheltered Campaign spearheaded by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region is a campaign led by community advocates to provide 24/7 alternatives to shelter for all unsheltered people in Waterloo Region. Learn more about the advocacy work happening in our community and how you can help by visiting: www.civichubwr.org/unsheltered-campaign

Photo from a A Better Tent City Waterloo Region provided by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region

Why Make Music At Work?

Why Should We Start Making Music At Work?

My expansion into corporate music-making services was inspired by a study from Cornell University that noted marketers and corporate head offices routinely use music to “mindlessly” influence customers in places of business (e.g., supermarkets, gyms, hair salons) but paid little attention to the potential influence of music on workplace behaviour.

Why should companies care about music and workplace behaviour?

Research has shown that:

  • Employees often listen to music on the weekends as a way to de-stress from the workweek. Bringing music into the workplace is an easy way of providing de-stressing opportunities during a workday.
  • Undergraduate students were able to focus longer on an experimental task when listening to music than students working without music.

But it isn’t just about listening to music.

Studies have shown how music-making can impact the workplace:

  • Rhythmic music leads to a phenomenon called “interpersonal motor coupling” where team members synchronize their behaviours and attitudes resulting in increased cooperation.
  • After five rounds of experimental decision making, singing together can increase cooperation within groups.
  • Music-making can be beneficial in business meetings to arouse emotions and moods that stimulate cooperation, cue memories of past (good) experiences, increase retention of information, and reduce boundaries between participants.

The idea of employees making music together is not a novelty. An employee “songbook” created by International Business Machines was designed to engage employees from 1920s through 1970s.

One often can’t help being drawn into music in some way – swaying to the beat, tapping a foot, clapping along, singing to a familiar song. Music is an inherent part of human culture with a strong influence in the evolution of our species; yet nowadays many people often have very little opportunity to make music. Companies could greatly increase productivity and lift employees’ moods through incorporating music and music-making into their corporate culture.

Why not give it a try?

1 Kniffin, K. M., Yan, J., Wansink, B., & Schulze, W. D. (2017). The sound of cooperation: Musical influences on cooperative behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(3), 372-390.

2 Fritz, C., Sonnentag, S., Spector, P. E., & McInroe, J. A. (2010). The weekend matters: Relationships between stress recovery and affective experiences. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 1137–1162.

3 North, A. C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1999). Can music move people? The effects of musical complexity and silence on waiting time. Environment and Behavior, 31, 136–149.

4 Lang, Martin & Shaw, Daniel & Reddish, Paul & Wallot, Sebastian & Mitkidis, Panagiotis & Xygalatas, Dimitris. (2016). Lost in the Rhythm: Effects of Rhythm on Subsequent Interpersonal Coordination. Cognitive Science. 40. 1797-1815.

5 Wiltermuth, S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science, 20, 1–5.

6 Van Niekerk, C. & Page-Shipp, R. (2014). Improving the quality of meetings using music. Total Quality Management. 25(12), 1382-1394.

7 El-Sawad, A., & Korczynski, M. (2007). Management and music: The exceptional case of the IBM songbook. Group & Organization Management, 32, 79–108.

What Is Community Music

What is community music anyway?

When I introduce myself as a community musician, I often receive the looks that read, “What exactly is community music?” Even though I recently graduated from the Masters of Arts in Community Music program at Wilfrid Laurier University, I couldn’t answer that question. There really isn’t a universally accepted definition. But I can tell you about the values that drive me as a community musician.

Three years ago, I started my organization, KW Junk Music with two goals in mind:

  1. We want to make music accessible to everyone.
    By creating instruments out of found objects, music becomes available to all regardless of age, ability, or skill. The idea behind this movement is to breakdown the norms of what instruments should look like and encourage people to explore the creative musical potential of everything in their lives.

  2. We want to challenge people to think about their sustainable practices.
    Why do we have so much junk that we can make instruments out of it? It really boils down to this question. We encourage participants to think about ways to upcycle material typically labelled ‘junk’ and how we can reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. 

Although I have these two goals, in practice there is A LOT more that happens at each community music experience. My graduate research into my own community music practice brought to the forefront the importance of what I call affective atmosphere. Basically, we come into the music-making circle with our own personal experiences and histories; we also bring an eclectic mix of cultural understandings. All these experiences inform how we react to different experiences and environments – what makes us angry, what makes us cry…this is affect

In addition to what we, as an individual, bring, there is a intermingling of larger influences. Are there sociocultural politics around particular members, a particular group, the space the event is being held, or the city/country/globally? For example, are we bringing an interfaith group into a space that is claimed by a particular faith? In this case, the space an event is hosted may affect the community music circle. 

I believe that everyone should have a chance to make music and enjoy music in their lives. In order to best serve this idealistic mandate, I need to understand the spaces I work in and the people coming into the space. I also need to be adaptive to respond to whatever happens spontaneously at the moment. As a community music practitioner, it is important for me to be aware of what is happening in the music-making circle to facilitate the opportunities for everyone to participate.

Ultimately, for me, community music is bringing music to everyone.