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The Fijian hills are alive
| The first time Joan Russell visited Fiji, she went to one of the island's many Baptist churches and heard the most beautiful harmonies. "I thought they'd put a recording on, but I realized they had no electricity. It was the people in front of me. They were singing with their heads bowed." That was in 1989 and Russell, a professor of music education, was holidaying on the Pacific island, en route to Australia.
PHOTO: OWEN EGAN
In 1998, she returned to Fiji and found that little had changed. Even though a little more electricity is available, Russell saw no television sets. Singing was still of central importance to Fijian culture.
Fijians "have the responsibility for being good singers," said Russell. "One of the ways of being part of that culture is through singing.
"Any social event is marked by singing," she continues, recounting an afternoon spent singing on the hillside with a Fijian couple. "That was our entertainment, because there is not TV, radio, pool or garden swings. All you have is your voice and your community."
Russell remembers one occasion when she was returning to the main island. She could see a group of schoolchildren who had been sent to greet her. As Russell's boat skimmed along the coast towards the dock, the children followed along.
"They sang all the way down the coast, with no self-consciousness, and they knew all the words.
"There was this wonderful presence of music in so many settings." Fijians don't read music, which Russell believes is one of the things that makes music accessible to everyone. "It would probably set them back," she reasons, adding that choir leaders use the "tonic solfa" system of the moveable do, whereby, as long as you know your musical intervals - and the Fijians do - and the pitch is manageable, you can sing anything.
Because they always sing in four-part harmony, every voice "can find its place," she says. This is in contrast to the pop songs that many children here try to imitate but which frequently are too high or complicated for them to sing in a way which accommodates their voices.
"Here, we tend to think of singing and music as being done by experts," she adds.
What is perhaps curious to the Westerner is that there are no soloists in Fiji. Russell says that in such a communal society, where the whole society is founded on sharing and helping, she's not sure "that outstanding individuals are particularly valued."
There are, however, three-member pop-singing groups, composed only of men, one of whom will sing the soprano part in falsetto. Then there are the meke (pronounced may-kay), multi-media performances done at celebrations or simply to entertain, which include chanting, singing and dancing to recount a story that has come from the spirit world through a designated composer.
While Russell has no illusions about our society becoming a singing society, she laments the fact that singing has lost a great deal of its importance in schools, particularly at the elementary level. "Even in the BEd program, [aspiring teachers] can graduate without [taking] one music course."
Russell, a French horn player and singer, grew up singing in harmony with her mother and aunt. She believes that "singing is the foundation of music," and "a very powerful force for the development of a sense of community, for group membership.
"I think that's why it's so important here [in Canada]. We need to feel part of something larger than ourselves," says the former elementary and secondary music teacher.
In the seven-week intensive course she teaches her students just before they do their teaching practicum in elementary schools, Russell says that much of her job is giving confidence to students who start out in her class afraid to sing.
She does that through having them sing in every class and uses song in the class in a way she hopes will inspire her students when they are in front of a classroom.
"I'm not just delivering content. I want to bring them in on the process. I model the teaching of music," she says, adding that no one may even visit her class without singing.
Russell even takes the class attendance in her singing voice and students are expected to sing back.
The songs she chooses each have their own purpose. "Fire's Burning, for instance, a round [a song begun at different times by two or more groups of vocalists, allowing the voices to overlap], gets them singing in parts." The Kelligrew Soiree, a fast-paced folk song, is more for learning the text." She also teaches her teachers-to-be rhythmic clapping exercises that may be used to indicate a transition from one classroom activity to the next.
One of Russell's most precious moments in her McGill classroom happened during a listening exercise when she had her class sing the South African spiritual, Kumbaya, with their eyes closed. The experience of "feeling" the voices of the others, of "listening to each others' breath," left one man in tears.
"That was a moment of revelation for me. I thought, that's where I want to be."