Us and the Other: what the school music program teaches about ‘multiculturalism’

This morning my youngest child participated in her first assembly performance. So, like the other parents, I sat in the audience with my camera held high, trying to strike the right balance between recording the event and just enjoying watching it.

First we all stood to sing Advance Australia Fair. (So that explains why my children have been singing the national anthem at home!) Then we went straight to the opening piece, which was my daughter’s year performing a line dance. As the pre-recorded music played its typically twangy country-and-western song, I reflected that no introduction was made of the origins of the dance or the music that was playing. I was reminded of last year’s Christmas assembly with its multicultural theme. The children had sung some traditional English songs and a couple of modern US songs and even some distinctively English-descent Australian songs. But none of their origins were mentioned in the introductions to these songs. The ‘multicultural’ aspect of the assembly was the songs and dances that had their origins explained to us: the Jewish songs, the French songs and the Bollywood dances.

This morning, following my daughter’s boot-scoot, the whole school sung a couple of songs that were introduced as being African. I can’t tell you the specific origin of the first one because we weren’t told* but, to the music teacher’s credit, she identified the second one as coming from South Africa. I appreciated that she had identified a country this time. She admitted, however, that she didn’t know which language they were singing in. I was interested in this admission because to me it showed promise. It was heartening that she was aware, even to some degree, that she should have known. She hadn’t googled the song to find out, but at least there was an inkling that it might have been a good idea to know in which language you are singing a song that you’re teaching to hundreds of students.

As I sat in the audience, it bothered me that the children didn’t know what the language was that they were singing in. I wanted to tell the music teacher that it was important to me that she know what the language was of the song that she was teaching my children. But of course this would be a ludicrous thing to do. The teacher would either be offended that I’d tried to tell her what to do, or she’d feel bad that she’d been culturally insensitive. I wouldn’t blame her for thinking me petty and unreasonable. After all, we live in Australia and one can’t be expected to know everything about everyone in the world. She is a music teacher, not a geography teacher. I should be grateful that she is teaching international music – all that cultural inclusion is an improvement on what had been taught when I was at school.

After the performance, the music teacher made some announcements. When she began talking about the African drumming classes, I knew what she was going to say – it was the same spiel that regularly accompanies the school newsletter: the African drumming teacher is from West Africa! We are told that the drumming is ‘African’, because if we were told that it was simply ‘drumming’, we’d have taken it to be US drumming: white English-speaking US.

The violin teacher who is from France doesn’t have his national origin introduced each time violin lessons are announced. Why do we have to be constantly reminded that this Black man is of foreign origin? I am also uncomfortable that a Black man has somehow become part of the commodity that is for sale – not just his music, but himself, is being spruiked as African.

There is a reason why we are told where the drumming teacher is from: we are being told that he learnt his drumming in Africa. Having learned in Guinea, presumably from other Guineans, is part of the value of his tuition. Being identified by his national origin is his mark of authenticity. This is a stereotyping, even dehumanising, version of a white teacher being recommended on the basis of their school or instructor. I wonder what changes society will have to undergo before this man is introduced as the drumming teacher of unspecified national origin, whose branch of music, or particular instrument, is recognisable to the audience.

*I have since asked my children the lyrics to the songs, which I googled to find that they are both sung in Zulu.


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