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How a professor in Hawaii is trying to overcome the world through musicSEDI News

Can you shake the world through music? Arizona State University Hawaiian professor Jess Kaholokula Saplan visits St. Catharines, aiming to do just that.

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Saplan performed The Songs We Sing, The Land We Stand On: Decolonizing Our Music-Making with the Brock University Singers and Choir in a concert Friday evening.

“Decolonization is about taking a deep breath, being fully aware of what has happened so that we can take more informed and joyful steps forward,” Saplan said.

As part of the university’s 2022 Walker Cultural Series, Saplan led the Brock University Choir, Avanti Chamber Singers and Sora Singers in a concert Friday at the St. Catharines FirstOntario Performing Arts Center Recital Hall.

Saplan is director of choral activities and associate professor of music education and teaching and choral conducting at Arizona State University.

Brock University Associate Professor of Music Rachel Rensink-Hoff invited him to deliver decolonization in music composition seminars at Brock and local high schools in Canada.

The stories that Jess tells about the experiences of the indigenous people of Hawaii parallel what we have experienced here in Canada.– Rachel Rensink-Hoff, associate professor of music at Brock University

Saplan’s teachings focus on reconnecting artists to their roots and heritage with an approach to music composition through the synthesis of these roots and the world around them.

He says that decolonizing is not framed as a total rejection of everything colonial, but instead recognizes historical pain and experiences and blends Western and non-Western musical practices.

“When used from a colonial perspective and a pedagogical point of view, choral music can broaden the perspective toward relationality, toward empathic understanding of others, toward catalytic community solutions,” Saplan said.

Jess Kaholokula Saplan conducts the choir against piano and ukulele.
Jess Kaholokula Saplan, a guest professor from Hawaii, leads the Brock University Choir, Avanti Chamber Singers and Sora Singers in rehearsal for a performance that explores the decolonization of music making. (Rachel Renshink-Hoff)

Rensink-Hoff said she invited Saplan to guest zoom in on a one-hour lecture as part of her Shared Perspectives series for students in 2021 and then said… ‘I’ve got to get you here.’

She found that the lessons Saplan had to teach her students were invaluable and said that “Jess is a master of metaphors…the stories that Jess tells about the experiences of Native people in Hawai’i are very parallel to what we have experienced here in Canada.”

“We’re a relatively small community and to have someone like Jess come into this space and open our eyes, especially for my students, it really opens up their world, literally,” Rensink-Hoff said. “It creates a lifelong memory and has a huge impact, and that’s why these residencies are so important.”

Saplan said the performance in the concert hall incorporated the physicality common to Hawaiian music, with some singers performing traditional dance moves.

He wants listeners to receive his story “so that their growth, their growth, and their journey is amplified in some way.”