A World of Music
For a man steeped in traditional western music – cathedral chorister at age eight, leading to a music degree with a thesis on Puccini – jiving on stage, drum in hand, leading a choir belting out African songs might seem an unusual way to make a living. But for Julian Raphael, it’s just part of the rich tapestry of a life spent bringing people to music in the most exciting way he knows how.
“It’s very powerful and life-affirming,” he says. “I use intercultural music because of the way the music works and is formed. It’s learnt and passed on by ear. It has a relatively simple base and it’s what you do with it that creates the interest.”
Conductor of several community choirs in Wellington, Raphael’s current project is a concert with Wellington chamber choir Nota Bene. Praised by reviewers for its vocal polish, versatility and stylistic virtuosity, Nota Bene and 'world music' might at first seem an unusual match. The choir, however, is known for its eclectic programming, with concerts built around musical ideas that allow wide musical knowledge and taste to create entertaining programmes.
“I thought a lot about music for the concert,” says Raphael. “I wanted it to be representative of contrasting singing cultures – music that would be stimulating for Nota Bene to sing, that they would find challenging and enjoyable. Much of it is work that I wouldn’t consider doing with the community choir because it’s more suited to a smaller group of more technically versatile singers.”
Raphael came to what is now known as ‘world music’ after a conventional career progression in England as an academic, composer, conductor and teacher. During his early teaching career he met musicians from many other cultures, particularly a master drummer from Ghana, and was intrigued by something very different to what he had been brought up with.
“I jumped into it and found myself going in another pathway, taking in music from Africa and South America. It was easy to find the music and musicians in London, though it took a while to make contact with other musicians. It’s easy to compartmentalise musicians into one area, but I wanted to do more than that. I was most intrigued by discovering new music and passing it on.”
And that he did, developing a classroom teaching style that was all about inclusion and participation. “What children really wanted to do was play. And music from other cultures was more approachable and could be translated more readily into classroom voices and instruments. It’s hard to reproduce Mozart and Vivaldi well in a classroom, and it was good to find styles that would work and people could play easily – and that sound good and make them feel even better!”
In 1991, Raphael established the Maridaldi Singers, a Swahili word meaning decorative or beautiful. “It was very different to the normal Canterbury choral society! I got very involved in the idea of enabling people to come and get the benefits of singing together.” He became part of the natural voice practitioners network, a very strong movement that encouraged singers to access music from a wide range of cultures – from the Balkans, Georgia, Africa, South America, as well as gospel styles.
Since coming to New Zealand three years ago, Raphael has been active in community music here, setting up Community Music Junction and establishing community choirs and drumming circles.
The music for the Big Sky concert with Nota Bene will open with gypsy/ folk band followed by two Serbian songs, and includes songs and lullabies from South and West Africa; gospel music and North American hymns from the Protestant shape note tradition; and haunting folk songs from Georgia and the Balkans. The choir has enjoyed the learning process, starting with a vocal ‘immersion’ with a weekend retreat.
“I noticed the choir warming to the sound it was making. The music invites you in and by the end of the weekend they were singing with such gusto. It’s another way of looking at sound and for a choir to be able to do this and more traditional work is remarkable and shows great versatility”.
Raphael is excited about the concert, and what it could mean for the audience as well as the singers. “It’s about having a sort of freedom and becoming one with the music in an innocent way – bypassing the technical aspect a bit and letting the music into the body.”