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What Is a "Culture Bearer" and Why Do They Matter?

We often speak of music as a universal mode of expression, transcending languages and borders. But the world is at risk of losing many traditional musical genres around the world. The musicians, artists and academics that keep these traditions alive through their teaching practices are known as culture bearers. At Uniting Voices, we work with these innovators and pacesetters in their unique field or genre of music to affirm that our singers have the opportunity to learn from the best and most authentic voices when learning a global music style. By engaging directly with culture bearers, Uniting Voices ensures that its singers not only learn from the very essence of these cultural expressions but also preserve these art forms while contributing to the global narrative of unity and understanding.

Lonnie Norwood, the Director of Africana Studies and Conductor of the Englewood and Lincoln Park/DePaul Neighborhood Choirs at Uniting Voices, recently returned from a trip to Ghana to meet and learn from culture bearers while witnessing music and history that is being compiled into a curricular study of Ghanaian songs and stories. During his visit, he collaborated closely with Victory Vocals, an organization dedicated to preserving Ghana's rich musical heritage through soul-stirring performances. Alex Acheampong, a prominent conductor at Victory Vocals, made clear the profound significance of their work beyond simple music education.

“Victory Vocals is all young people, very devoted, building and keeping community through music” Acheampong said. Beyond the artistic realm, they act as memory keepers, fostering community cohesion by interweaving traditional Ghanaian folk songs, gospel melodies, and choral harmonies, thus bridging generational gaps. This initiative, established in 2012, continues to draw passionate young talents from various corners of Ghana, united in their mission to uphold the nation's musical legacy.

“We at Uniting Voices are setting ourselves up beautifully to be leaders in how to engage with culture bearers and make sure their voices are at the forefront.” Norwood said.

By attending rehearsals and witnessing performances in person, plus working with Victory Vocals directly, Norwood will be able to better understand the nuances and rhythms of Ghanaian choral music than if he had merely watched them on YouTube.

“When we’re on stage, we serve as educators and music practioners for our audiences.” Norwood said. “We need to approach all of the music that we endeavor to do with the same kind of rigor and dedication and respect.” Learning from the lived experiences of people gives our singers the opportunity to express the most authentic version of the culture and commit to true performance excellence. This ensures that we stay true to our core values of education, expression and excellence.

“It’s paramount and it makes sense to put the voices of those who have had the experience first. That’s how we create a globally inclusive world. We need the voice of culture bearers to aid us in the learning.” Norwood concluded. By prioritizing the voices and experiences of culture bearers like Acheampong and Victory Vocals, Uniting Voices continues to pave the way for a more interconnected and harmonious global community, enriching the lives of emerging leaders with a deep appreciation for cultural heritage and musical excellence.