Shining a Spotlight on Inclusivity
By Julia Halprin Jackson
Latin American music is contributing to an atmosphere of inclusion at San José State.
On a Thursday afternoon in March, San José State University’s Concert Choir hosts a special guest. She leads them through Venezuelan composer Carlos Cordero’s “Ayúdame” (“Help Me”), a piece about political turmoil — a plea for the audience to listen to the Venezuelan people. They sing with clear, loud voices.
As Spartan voices rise and fall, their eyes emoting over masks, magic happens. The visiting conductor and expert in choral music from Latin America, Diana Sáez, director of choral activities at Towson University, steps back from the podium and applauds.
“I’ve never seen a choir in the United States with so many people who look like me,” she says, facing SJSU Assistant Professor of Choral Music Education Corie Brown. “I feel a real connection with you.”
It is the fourth day of SJSU’s inaugural Latin American Choral Festival, a week of workshops, voice clinics, guest lectures and performances that center music from Central and South America. Funded in part by a College of Humanities and the Arts’ Artistic Excellence Programming Grant as part of the college’s Inclusion Initiative, the festival is designed to create as much dialogue as it does music.
Inspired by Brown’s experience teaching with Colombia’s Fundación Nacional Batuta, where she helped build the organization’s choral department and mentored choir teachers throughout the country, the festival is the first to feature guest conductors and composers from Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico at SJSU. Participants include SJSU School of Music and Dance choral and vocal faculty and students, Spanish language students and musicians from the wider community, including many SJSU alumni.
Community college and high school singers also have the chance to learn from composers like Sáez and Daniel Afonso, coordinator of vocal and choral studies at California State University, Stanislaus, as well as SJSU faculty like Jeffrey Benson. Other presenters throughout the week included Martín Benvenuto, Catalina Barraza, Abi Romero, Sandra Bengochea, Diana Hollinger and Fred Cohen.
“As choir conductors, we teach so much,” says Brown. “We teach how to be a professional in the music world and we teach how to sing and make music in a group.
“We also teach empathy and cultural nuance through music: How our identities and the identities of each composer might intersect, and how to dig into the richness of cultures, langages, movement and rhythm traditions, and do justice to music from every part of the world, not just that with which we are most comfortable.”
The answer seems clear as Sáez offers real-time feedback to the choir, encouraging sopranos, altos, tenors and basses alike to think of political exiles from Venezuela, refugees fleeing Ukraine — and members of their own communities whose survival stories may have enabled the students a shot at an education.
Music is an entry to culture, says Brown, and understanding and celebrating culture is paramount to creating change.
“I’ve never seen a choir in the United States with so many people who look like me.”
— Diana Sáez
Visiting conductor Diana Sáez leads the SJSU Concert Choir in practice during the 2022 Latin American Choral Festival at SJSU. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.
Festival guests include Afonso, a Brazilian composer, arranger, and conductor, and Sáez, raised in Puerto Rico, offering a mirror for students who identify as Latinx or who have Central or South American ancestry — they provide an academic grounding in the traditions and history of music not typically included in the Western classical music canon.
“It’s great that we are trying to be more inclusive, especially in terms of racial justice, throughout the country and in our communities and classrooms,” says Daniel Navarette-Estassi, ’23 Music Education, who sings bass with the SJSU Choraliers. “But there’s an important distinction to make: Though we are striving for inclusivity, we need to make sure that we are not just checking boxes.”
Left: Jeffrey Benson, associate professor of music and dance and director of choral activities at SJSU, conducts the choir during the culminating performance of the 2022 Latin American Choral Festival. Right: SJSU Assistant Professor of Choral Music Education Corie Brown at the performance of Son de la Vida. Photos: Jim Gensheimer.
“We teach empathy and cultural nuance through music."
— Corie Brown
“Our conversations can’t stop here,” adds Brown. “We, as a nation, are just at the beginning of truly engaging in nuanced conversations about how we see our Latinx community. I think we can do better at honoring and uplifting our Latino/x/e students, staff and faculty at SJSU and beyond. This festival is just one example of where we can start.”
Programming pieces like Cordero’s “Ayúdame,” which contains lyrics like, “Estoy sufriendo; tengo hambre; tengo sed” (I’m suffering; I’m hungry; I’m thirsty), opens up opportunities for learning and increasing empathy, Brown says. Cordero’s song provokes conversation among singers of all backgrounds, enabling incredibly rich critical dialogue through that piece.
“My choral colleague, Dr. Jeffrey Benson, and I are dedicated to programming pieces that allow for thoughtful conversation about social justice themes and what is going on around the world,” she adds.
Navarette-Estassi, who describes himself as half Mexican, half Colombian-Lebanese, grew up speaking Spanish and English and sings in English, Italian, German and French. As a production assistant for the festival, he is witnessing the impact that representation can have, onstage and off.
Jorell Chavez, '23 MM, practices conducting the SJSU Concert Choir in advance of their Son de la Vida performance in March 2022. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.
Reinventing the musical canon
That impact — like the rhythm of the music itself — is palpable, not only for the singers, but for everyone in the room, says Lou De La Rosa, ’83 BA, ’90 MA, Music, director of choral and vocal studies at West Valley College in Saratoga, California.
As part of the festival’s high school and community college invitational, De La Rosa prepared his choir to perform two works by Cuban composer Emilio Grenet with poetry by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, as well as a piece by Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Sepharic Jew who spoke Ladino, the language spoken at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
He says that the Latin American Choral Festival presented the perfect opportunity to challenge traditional concepts of the musical canon.
“We look forward to a time when studying and programming music from multiple cultures is a part of what we do, so we can drop terms like ‘ethnic music,’ ‘multicultural music’ or ‘world music,’ which are othering,” De La Rosa says.
“These terms imply that the wonderful canon of Western European music is the only music to study, while music from the rest of the world is ancillary or different.
“Until that day, having a festival that celebrates music of an underrepresented segment of our society allows our students from that heritage to see themselves in the music — and to feel pride. That is a huge step in effecting inclusivity on our campuses and within our ensembles.”
“It’s great that we are trying to be more inclusive, especially in terms of racial justice, throughout the country and in our communities and classrooms."
— Daniel Navarette-Estassi
“Having a festival that celebrates music of an underrepresented segment of our society allows our students from that heritage to see themselves in the music — and to feel pride.”
— Lou De La Rosa
Inclusivity in action
While the Latin American Choral Festival is groundbreaking for SJSU, what happens when the performances conclude, when the guest conductors depart or students graduate?
“We, as faculty, students and community members, continue these conversations,” says Brown. “We understand that people from Latin America are essential to the fabric of our country, and work to fight our internalized and external biases surrounding Latinos. We continue to celebrate and support the joy and richness found in Latin American culture through learning more deeply about the huge variety of dances, music, foods, languages, genres, rhythms and traditions.
“We take what we learned into our work as educators, musicians and citizens. We apply this understanding to combat individual, interpersonal, institutional and systemic racism.”
One way the College of Humanities and the Arts is furthering this conversation is through the Inclusion Initiative, a curricular community designed to encourage student expressions of inclusion, says Dean Shannon Miller. The festival is just one of hundreds of events organized by SJSU faculty during the 2021-2022 year.
“Our country experienced a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd,” says Miller. “As a university, we owe it to our students to teach them ways of thinking through these issues and informing their lives. In the humanities and the arts, we have the rational and creative powers and the disciplinary tools to value the multiplicity of colors, genders, beliefs, opinions and habits, as they all define our humanity.”
Katherine D. Harris, director of public programming for the College of Humanities and the Arts, adds that during the 2021–2022 school year, Inclusion Initiative activities included artist residencies with choreographer Camille A. Brown; a panel on Black feminism, music and popular culture led by Film and Theatre Lecturer Apryl Berney; the premiere of “Maryam: A Woman of Bethlehem,” a play written by Religious Studies Lecturer Victoria Rue; a panel discussion exploring Japanese immigration in San José and Monterey by World Languages and Literatures Professor Yasue Yanai and her students; and more.
The opportunities for curriculum development and research activity are endless, says Harris. In her role, she also runs H&A in Action, an initiative that sponsors more than 500 intellectual, cultural and artistic events, performances and exhibits annually. This March, the college awarded funding to another series of faculty members for the 2022-2023 academic year.
“In the humanities and the arts, we have the rational and creative powers and the disciplinary tools to value the multiplicity of colors, genders, beliefs, opinions and habits, as they all define our humanity.”
— Shannon Miller
Photo: Jim Gensheimer.
“Music is a reflection of people’s culture; understanding the music of a people is a step in the direction of understanding people themselves.”
— Lou De La Rosa
Expanding the spotlight
The inaugural Latin American Choral Festival concluded in late March with a performance at Campbell United Methodist Church entitled “Son de la Vida” (“Sound of Life”), featuring Latin American music sung by the SJSU Concert Choir and the Choraliers as conducted by Jeffrey Benson, SJSU director of choral activities, and Brown. The culminating performance occurred almost exactly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, a few weeks after the fatal bombing of a Ukrainian theater, on the heels of American ambassadors traveling to Venezuela to negotiate its relationship to Russia.
“Our first-ever Latin American Choral Festival was a huge success, and we learned so much from our guest artists and our students alike,” says Benson. “As one of our students reminded us, this is just the start of our conversation surrounding the Latin American experience.”
The Spartan singers performed an original composition, “¡Para los tin-tun-teros!” (“For the drummers!”) by Afonso, commissioned by Brown. Basses kept the rhythm by slapping their thighs; altos snapped their fingers; sopranos and tenors joined in as the stage came to life with song.
Reflecting on his festival experience at SJSU, De La Rosa says that “no other choral festival has been as personal as this one. For a second generation Mexican-American, born and raised in middle-class, suburban San José, surrounded by and immersed in mainstream society, this was a bit of a surprise.”
“It is important for us to know as much about music from around the world as is possible, in order to understand people from around the world,” he continues. “Music is a reflection of people’s culture; understanding the music of a people is a step in the direction of understanding people themselves.”
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Top photo: SJSU Choirs perform "Son de la Vida" as part of the 2022 Latin American Choral Festival's culminating performance. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.