Going on stage with scarves, bare feet and performing folk songs from different parts of the world, the Women’s World Choir at Goshen College don’t just sing; they tell stories, the stories about us, women. Deb Brubaker, the Choir’s conductor talks to me about her experience of finding women’s voices, faith, and passion for justice with women’s world music.
Q: What motivated you to set up the Women’s World Choir?
A: I’d never had any interests in conducting a women’s choir partially because how the music is written. Women’s songs, usually, in the standard repertoire, the vocal range is much narrower and higher. The way that the tambour of women’s voices functions just doesn’t come across as powerfully in those upper ranges. When you’re listening to a bunch of high voices, it’s pretty, but it doesn’t affect you physically and powerfully as much as that span of low voices and the intensity that men’s voices have when the tenors are singing really high.
When men sing, often times, the songs are forceful and have a lot of agitated driving rhythms. What women are singing about is kind of the prescribed societal, cultural norms about being in love and losing in love. It’s just more content. The topics are not as adventuresome as men’s are, you know, like going off to war, being in the saloon. I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. What can I do that’s different?”
Q: What is unique about conducting and performing women’s world music?
A: It’s a less trained approach. They are songs that women are singing when they are harvesting or preparing food; they need to carry over a long distance and to sustain you through work, and so they have more of that gut in them. An important piece is making sure that the song is as authentic as possible. A lot of time, American choirs will sing an international song, but an arranger has taken the melody and added harmonies that might sound more Western or is added a piano.
I rarely use the piano on a piece because that usually means that it’s no longer authentic. How can you sing a song about carrying water from the well when you’re having the piano? You wouldn’t take the piano with you to the well! So there’s the aspect of how does the song function in that culture? The world does not need more pretty. It needs more authenticity. When you allow women to access what is true about themselves, eyes get wide. There’s a realization this is not what somebody tells me to do to get accepted. This is me saying “I am this way.” There’s this new vain of power that’s accessed, that Western cultured women are not taught about.
Q: How do you capture the authenticity of the femininity in music?
A: What I do most of all is to ask myself when I’m choosing music: What are the things that they [women] are not being taught? What is the viewpoint that I can offer that emphasizes how strongly I feel about this female aspect? One of the aspects is the feminine divine. Christianity is such a patriarchal religion; the systems that are in place are so devastating to women in certain respects. How can I challenge that? You can sing a lot of what you can’t say, so can you the feminine divine, the feminine face of God, the maternal aspect of God, the birth giving aspect of God. That’s not a male thing. That’s a female thing. It’s to remind us that we are part of the divine as women.
Couple years ago, we had this song that we were working on that requires a special core voice. It was at the beginning of the year, and the new ones, they never knew exactly what it’s supposed to sound like. Then, one rehearsal, it was a really nice day; we went outside, and all squatted in the grass to practice. I talked a lot about singing low in the body, and singing into the pelvis, and just really singing with a lot of power down there. It’s how women give birth. We open up, and we push out the new life, right? So I had them all squat and sing the song. It took a couple times through and then they finally got it. Again, it’s the idea of reminding people about the natural ability of our bodies as women.
Q: What is the most challenging thing in conducting world music?
A: The hardest part is the language. We spend a lot of time just going over language, and new sounds, and new ways of shaping your mouth. I always commit to sing everything by memory that we can, because when it’s memorized, it’s in your body. It’s not going through your eyes. It’s going through your whole body. And I always push to get stuff learned. I keep reminding them that this is the language for somebody and that we have to honor it.
When you start talking about that to the Choir, all of the sudden, the song takes on a life of its own. There’s kind of a power comes out of the song and moves through us. Another aspect is that we talk about these things in the recognition of us as women connect to every other woman around the globe. Because of the bodies, and the cycles and the functions that we share, we’re all connected in a special way.
Q: What do you hope for from the women in the Choir besides their music skills?
A: I would want them to bring as much of themselves to the music as they can and be aware of the culture that it’s coming from. I talked to them in the Choir about how privileged we are as Western educated women. We have been given these incredible gifts and what will we do with them? How will we share them with the rest of the world? What’s our responsibility? And sometimes, I think our responsibility is just to sing. Stories are so powerful. Even if you don’t verbalize that story, by singing that song and knowing the story, somehow it still gets across. I’d also want them to bring their whole selves in to the song: How can they find connection between what the song is saying and what they may be experiencing in life? That will enrich their life, and it will also enrich the music as they sing it.
— Photo by Goshen College