The power of music goes beyond what you hear — it has the ability to comfort, to educate, to empower and to connect individuals even if they are on the other side of the world. Music has the power to bring revolutionary change in a peaceful manner during challenging times. Mollie Stone, a conductor of the Chicago Children’s Choir, has been able to experience the unifying power of music throughout her career in South Africa and the U.S.
Through her extensive work with South African choirs and her project “Vela Vela,” Stone raises awareness about the significance of music for South Africans and its role in political and social issues like the anti-apartheid movement and the current struggle against HIV. She also emphasizes the importance of maintaining authenticity when learning and teaching music from different cultures.
With her mother constantly playing South African music in their home in Chicago, Stone was already familiar with world music as a child. Quite naturally, she became drawn to South African choral music when she learned national songs linked to the anti-apartheid movement as a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir during her teenage years. When the South African apartheid was in the process of ending, learning those songs felt very relevant to Stone. “It was happening half a world away, but it was really interesting since it paralleled our own Civil Rights Movement,” Stone said on the phone.
She gained a newfound love for South African music when the Choir went on tour in the country in 1996. She loved the music for its beautiful sound and the way it united South Africans in helping them form a new national identity after apartheid.
However the complex rhythms, the rich vocal tones, and correct pronunciation in those South African songs were all lost with the simplified versions that Stone learned in the choir when they returned to the U.S. “South African music unfortunately is one of the most butchered by transcriptions,” Stone explained. “When you try to notate South African music, it really just destroys it…It ends up sounding nothing like South African music.”
In recalling her frustration, Stone also explained that the simplification of South African music risks feeding the harmful stereotypes that music from different cultures are inferior to Western classical music, which would be a poor influence on younger generations. “If we teach music from other cultures well, [young people] will grow up to care about the rest of the world and not just think that America is the center of the universe…If we dumb it down, we’re teaching our kids something that’s really wrong and really racist in the long run.”
To address this problem, Stone created “Vela Vela” during graduate school to allow teachers and students in other countries to learn South African music directly from South Africans. With this project, Stone and her friend returned to South Africa to record natives teaching their songs through oral tradition — the way they’re supposed to be taught. Despite the numerous logistic and technical challenges in producing “Vela Vela,” it was all worth it when the teaching DVD was met with success. “It [allowed] Americans to hear what South Africans actually sound like when they sing their music,” Stone said.
“Vela Vela” also highlights the crucial role of music in South Africa’s persisting issues of government corruption, poverty, and HIV, the spread of which has been a dire problem in the country’s society.
“There are many reasons in which one in three people are infected,” Stone said solemnly. Open discussion about HIV is discouraged because of the danger of becoming a target for violence. Many women who don’t have control in their relationships or their sexual safety contract the virus when their partners don’t want to use condoms, which contributes to the large population of children and orphans infected with AIDS. “Only in the past few years have things changed so that people now have access to anti-retrovirals that enable them to live with the virus,” she added.
South Africans continue to fight for change with the limitless power of music. “In South Africa, people always adapt their choral music to use in different struggles, and so singing songs that helped them be successful in the past gives a sense of hope and determination that they’ll survive this current struggle. […] When they sing, they feel they’re a part of a community but they’re individuals,” Stone said.
“To see that as a conductor is really inspiring because in America, we don’t often sing music that is really connected to anything that we’re dealing with, especially politically and socially,” she continued. “To have music be such a part of everyday life sort of comes naturally in South Africa in a way that it doesn’t here or in anywhere else that I’ve ever seen.”
Today, Stone continues to share her passion for South African music by teaching workshops across the U.S. wherein she expands her students’ musical knowledge and lets them see how music from different cultures can connect with the issues in their own lives. “They feel like they’re in solidarity with people in their own communities and in other countries when they sing the South African songs about HIV…If we sing songs about the anti-apartheid struggle, we’ll talk about inequality.”
She also recounts the many times the faces of her advanced students light up with joy when they realize that singing South African choral music helps them better understand compositions from Brahms or Bach. “Everything is so connected, and to break down that wall is so exciting.” Stone believes fervently devoting herself to teaching her workshops as authentically as possible gives her students the chance to become more global citizens by learning music from different cultures without feeling self-conscious.
The enthusiastic reactions of her students motivate Stone to continue growing as a passionate teacher, conductor, and individual. “It’s amazing to have that constant balancing of being open to the world around me and then bringing it back to my students, and then learning from them how to share the things that turn on all the lights in my head, my soul, and my voice.”