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Sharing and healing through music

The royal purple backdrop stands out in the intimate theatre, and music fills the room as a group of musicians beat out a vibrant drum song on stage. The energy is palpable.

Musical Sharing: An Indigenous Artist and Mohawk College Cultural Engagement and Exchange Initiative, took place in the Great Theatre at the Ogwehoweh Skills and Trades Training Centre in the heart of Ohsweken, Ontario last Friday afternoon. A collaborative experiment between Mohawk College music students, the Six Nations Women Singers and Rick McLean – Musical Sharing created a bond that would last longer than the one-day event.

A very good place to start
The roots of the afternoon stretch back to January when an ensemble of six music students picked out by professor and initiative director Bob Shields began meeting every Monday. In the beginning, the group would learn and practice their own jazz together, as well as meet with their Indigenous mentors online. Sessions consisted of lessons of all kinds and getting to know the group before finally getting to work in person in March.

A musical ensemble stands together smiling
The musical ensemble, Rick McLean, and the Six Nations Women Singers after their second in-person meet. Credit: Kimberly Yvonne

What does it mean?
Bob Shields set out to create an initiative that would give his students a new way to learn. He offered them a space to leave their comfort zones and explore unconditioned spaces.

“We just created a space that we step back from,” Shields said. “Our professional agendas and administrative agendas have no bearing on what happens in that space.”

Creating this type of space is one of the four themes of the initiative, the others being reconciliation via a strength-based narrative, music and health and wellness, and the communicative potential of music.

The idea was to let these students have an open and meaningful space to learn about another community from those who are in it. The project was an opportunity to learn outside of the typical constraints of everyday learning as well as to facilitate and foster friendships in a positive way through music.

Initiative advisor Joanne McCarthy says that this event underlines the strength, resilience and knowledge of Indigenous communities of Canada, rather than the victim narrative that is often portrayed in the media.

“This is a positive way to reinforce those relationships to create those connections and to bring healing in reconciliation,” McCarthy said.

Face to face
The in-person meetings were a game-changer as the students experimented with new instruments, new singing techniques, the power of call and response, and how to make others feel even without lyrics. The students learned what it was like to work together as equals and how they can uplift others with their music as they built a song out of nothing.

“No one is the leader and no one is the main character of the group,” ensemble member Malu Asfora said. “We are actually learning and doing stuff in a group and we’re deciding everything together.”

The ensemble meetings all culminated in a one-day event where these musicians would tell their stories and explain the relationship between music and healing.

Performance time
The day was filled with powerful music accompanied by rich stories, history, and cultural teachings. For many spectators, tears filled their eyes and their arm hairs raised as the musicians poured themselves into each new song.

A group of musicians stand on a stage.
The one-day event was filled with music as the musicians took the stage to perform the songs they had been working on since January.
Credit: Kimberly Yvonne

The event closed with a talking circle where those involved took the stage to speak one by one of their personal experiences. Spectators heard of the learning opportunities and friendships that formed over the past four months before getting to share their own views of the day.

The Musical Sharing initiative may be over for now, but those who attended have left the space with a better understanding of the relationship between music, people and healing.

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