A Visit to Somali-American Music Classrooms
Today’s introduction to song collecting takes us to Minnesota. The Somali population is a community of relatively recently arrived Americans (post 1990) with whom most American music teachers have little or no familiarity. Their official language is Somali. Arabic is also widely spoken, particularly in the north.
The preparation for the song collecting process described below is thoroughly applicable to learning songs of other immigrant or less familiar populations. The nuts and bolts of collecting will be an ongoing thread of future website updates.
Please do not publish or copyright these traditional songs in any form. If they are “owned” by anyone, it is by those who have shared them with us. They now belong in your heart and mine.
Welcoming Somali Families
Becca Buck and Brenda Bush, both experienced classroom music teachers, live in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. The Twin Cities are home to the largest community of Somali immigrants in the United States, followed by Columbus, Ohio.
The focus for this edition is the Somali population, but the process Becca and Brenda discuss is thoroughly applicable to learning the songs of other immigrant populations.
I interviewed Brenda and Becca separately. Brenda and I were colleagues at the United Nations International School in New York City many years ago. It was great to catch up! Brenda directed me to Becca, who has done extensive work within the Somali community and shares her work at regional conferences with her Somali-American colleague, Qorsho Hassan. I thank them wholeheartedly for sharing their journey with us.
JL : Brenda, I’m fascinated by the amount of work you do to make your space, that is, your classroom, so personal and welcoming. The students must instinctively sense that they belong.
Brenda: Building trust with my Somali students starts with greeting them in their mother tongue. Their faces always light up when I speak their language. Also, I’m sure to have books, artifacts, and posters in my classroom that have children that look like they do. I have a poster of Canadian-Somali musician/poet/rapper K’naan of “Waving Flag” fame hanging in my classroom.
I have a number of students who wear hijab.
In the books that I use in class, the illustrations include girls in hijab.
JL: Obviously these are not all music books. What is one of your favorite books that has illustrations of girls in hijab? And how did you learn to do the greetings in the Somali language?
Brenda: A favorite is “All Are Welcome,” which we do as a rap. I try to utilize resources available to me in my school community. As for greetings, I have delightful parents who are willing to help.
JL: Some Muslim families—especially those who have recently arrived—are reticent to be involved with music education. How have you navigated this situation?
Brenda: Somali families, like many families from non-Western countries, are just not familiar with what American music education looks like. So we welcome them to inclusive family events to have comfortable experiences but also to give them a real glimpse of what happens in music. I’ve sung song tales (accompanied on the dulcimer) at family reading night, played singing games related to food at family potlucks, and done folk dancing on health and wellness night. I’ve had students teach families how to play instruments on our specialists’ showcase event. Overall, my Muslim students participate actively in music.
JL: Any particularly sensitive issues we should be aware of?
In class, Somali girl students are often uncomfortable holding hands with boys. So I make sure they can be partnered with a girl. When there is a performance, upper elementary age girls often do not participate. I try to listen and connect with parents when this occurs.
JL: So good! Navigating a new culture is difficult enough. The last thing we want is to create tension for families. I’m glad you initiate contact with them. They’ll feel that you’re “on their side.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
JL: Becca, tell us a little about your teaching situation.
Becca: I work in a highly diverse school in the South Metro of Minneapolis. The Somali population of our school is about 45 percent.
JL: You’ve also done a lot of relationship building and some unique preparation work before the actual process of collecting songs. Share, please!
Becca: Building relationships prior to song collecting helps immensely, as there is a need for a level of trust and vulnerability when sharing these songs, stories, and details that are so close to the heart.
JL: You seem to have collected songs directly from students. This is amazing. I assume you’ve done this gradually and over a period of time.
Becca: Yes. Among the questions I ask the students are “Who did you learn the song from?” And then, “Why is the song special to you? Do you know anybody else who sings this song or a similar song?” These questions help me begin to gain insight about how music functions within the culture. When I ask, my students always respond that they learned the song from a mom, aunt, or sister. Often, the students knew a lullaby because it was being passed from their mother to a younger sibling. They didn't remember it being sung directly to them when they were babies (obviously). A very common response I’ve received if I sang a lullaby another student taught me was, "My mom sings that to my little brother!"
I have never been told that a particular song was learned from a male, though this could vary family to family.
JL: Why are lullabies so unique? And why are they everywhere?
Becca: Lullabies are special because they are an essential bonding experience between mother and child.
JL: Can you speak a bit about your relationship with Qorsho Hassan and how your friendship has helped you understand the Somali culture, particularly in regard to music?
Becca: Conversations with my colleague Qorsho, a fifth-grade teacher at my school, have helped me to realize that there is more than one approach or one way to think about music within the Somali culture. Some actually believe “No music allowed.” Other Somali families enjoy music. Qorsho has accompanied me on presentations.
At our school, we have a strong sense of belonging, and this has meant that some Somali parents consider teachers the "second parents" while they are not around. This is very much in the mindset of "We all raise these children together.”
While their children are in music class, 99.9 percent of parents expect their students to listen to the teacher and fully participate in all music class activities. This was not always the case. Only six or seven years ago, many families chose to pull their students from music because there was a misunderstanding of what kind of music was being listened to in music class. Some parents thought we’d be doing all American pop music, so inappropriate topics were a worry.
Overall, children are children, and my Somali students fully participate and absolutely adore all of the singing games, dances, and the activities we do. They are JOYFUL musicians. Their home lives and backgrounds may look different pertaining to music, but when they are in school, they listen to the teachers and fully participate.
Kuu Kuun Lamina