Interviewed by Omi Muhammad
Boston University Professor of Music, André de Quadros is a conductor, ethnomusicologist, music educator, and human rights activist has conducted and undertaken research in over forty countries. Professor de Quadros also holds affiliated faculty appointments in other BU departments: the African Studies Center, the Center for the Study of Asia, and the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations.
In this interview with HHF digital magazine Professor de Quadros talks about his political work in the realm of music education, asking questions about how musicians and music educators can use their work to challenge existing power structures, with a particular focus on his Music in Prisons program and Empowering Song project.
HHF: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us at Hip Hop Forum digital magazine, Professor de Quadros. To begin, I saw you have been working with refugees in Sweden, was it a part of one of your programs?
André de Quadros: With Afghan refugees, yes. I teach a conducting course over in Stockholm. As a part of the project, the people I was working with, we went to three different locations; a young women’s prison, the second was a high school with lots of issues of demographics and so on, and the third place was where they would send Afghan teenage boys who were refugees.
HHF: When I had looked at your bio, I’d seen some of the other work that you’re doing so I was actually pretty interested in that, it’s very diverse.
André de Quadros : Well my background is in conflict in different places, my bio is very out of date, I haven’t updated that in over two years but I’ve been doing a lot of work in the Middle East and other places dealing with displaced peoples and incarceration.
HHF: So it sounds like you do a lot of work across the board dealing with people in conflict situations. Can you give us a little bit of a background on your Music in Prisons program and your Empowering Song approach?
André de Quadros : Sure, well we’ve been working, I and three other people that I work most closely with, in two prisons in Boston; one is a men’s prison which is a medium security prison, and the other is the only women’s prison in the state. In both prisons we work as part of a University program that allows students to take a course in music while they are incarcerated. It is offered as a college course.
There is no selection process to be a part of this course, we don’t audition. Some programs only work with people who are going back into the community, we work with a lot of people who are never leaving the prison. In the women’s prison we’ve had relatively smaller groups of ten and twelve and in the men’s groups we work with about twenty-six or so.
With the Empowering Song approach, we believe fundamentally in creating conditions for personal power, personal expression, community transformation; a lot of experimentation and improvisation. I also use Empowering Song approach in the Middle East with refugees, teaching and performing in my own ensembles and so on.
There is no high ground for any particular style of music; in the prisons for example, a lot of the men rap and that becomes part of the work, there’s classical music in there or pop or music of the Muslim World. It’s pretty inclusive, it’s about potentially reconnecting music to the body. We not only reconnect the music as in moving in time with something but we use the body to get inside the text and to portray the text.
Say there is a rap that might have a text about being in prison or missing one’s family, so we might create a series of body pictures that relate to that. So I don’t like calling it theater, I don’t like calling it drama because it’s actually much deeper than that. But it is essentially theater school exercises.
How can the body tell the story, how can the body be part of the story. So there is a lot of story work that we do in the prisons, in other words they write narratives to rapping to writing poetry to writing song text to writing about genres. We have an unrivaled unequaled archive of papers that they’ve produced. There is also a lot of visual art that is produced, we take into the prisons a lot of people that practice visual art to work alongside us.
HHF: So you have found this connection between music and social change; what sparked your desire to do this? What made you think to connect the two in your programs?
André de Quadros : I guess when I was in college in India, I became very influenced by text and books and other writings that talked about asymmetrical relationships of power within societies, within communities, within countries. Oppression is so systemic all over the world; from within a country like the oppression of black people in the United States, to the oppression of whites to the third world through colonization and so on.
So I fell under the spell, if you like, of important writings such as the Pedagogy of the Oppressed (by Paulo Freire) and other associated authors. So I was motivated by that, how can we overturn the existing power dynamic? How can we displace them? How can we interrogate them? And to what extent can I as a musician contribute to displacing power as existed and as it exists? How can we speak truth to power? How can we use this as protest, how can we move the world forward?
I think music has immense power but on the other hand I don’t think we have fully understood its capacity in contemporary society. We see music as something to listen to or something to make, but at its full capacity; it can mobilize a people, console a people, change lives in ways unimaginable for people who are forgotten in society. We allow the forgotten to become consumers but never the makers of music. So in the prisons we have men who have never rapped before, who’ve never sung before, who’ve never written poetry before; now they’re writing, they’re singing, they’re moving, they’re rapping, it’s incredible. Just listening is not enough to experience the power of music as a human being, its more fully realized by active participation.
HHF: If you could send a message to artists specifically or even the community at large, what would you say to them in regards to music and the work that you do?
André de Quadros : I would say it like this, What kind of world do you want to live in? I don’t think anyone is entirely satisfied with the state of the world. I think they’d say, I don’t think we are heading in the right direction. I would say to musicians for example, What kind of a world do you want to live in? How can your art making, or music making change the world and move it into the direction that you want it to go?
HHF: Wow, yea that’s a good question.
André de Quadros : Let’s say I stop someone on the street and ask them a question. If they were to say, I can’t stand all those black people protesting, what are they protesting about? I would say, how can music help you to understand their problems, and how might you seek to build a better world through music? This is not to suggest using music to give voice to your whining or complaining, but how will music help to achieve greater understanding?
And of course I’m giving an opposite example, I’d be very disappointed if someone said why are all those black people protesting. The history of black oppression in this country is not even fully understood if you read a whole lot of the texts on that.
But to someone like that I would say what kind of fair egalitarian, democratic America do you want to live in? How do blacks, whites, Latinos etc. negotiate their world of equality and democracy? And to what extent can your music making contribute to the discussion of a world in which we can all live in? What does that mean to you?
I think all music making has got to be political in the sense of engaging in these difficult discussions. We think about what it might mean to be of a different background and find ourselves the same. Some of it might be protest, nothing is wrong with protest. Music has been a part of protest since the beginning of time. Hip Hop’s origins are in political protest, social protest. You know I’m not an expert on Hip Hop but I’m certainly mindful of it.
HHF: In listening to you talk about music and the creation of it, its almost obvious that your musical journey didn’t start in college. So how far back does it go, do you come from a musical family or culture?
André de Quadros : Interesting question, first off, I’m Indian. I grew up in India, attended university in India and so on. I started learning the violin at the age of four and my mother came from a very musical family as did my father. They were not professional musicians, my mother was an elementary school teacher and my father was a physician.
I grew up before the digital world, there was no television in India, at all. There was no television even when I was a teenager. Some people say yea well we didn’t have a television at home but it’s not the same thing, we didn’t have a television in the country.
So I grew up in a world where it was an acoustic world essentially. There was very little technology in the form of radio or anything. So I grew up in an entirely different acoustic world that some can hardly imagine. People made music as they worked, as they sold things and so on.
HHF: So music was a huge part of the culture.
André de Quadros : Yea but I don’t even like calling it music, because it wasn’t necessarily music as we see it. We talk about beats, we talk about genre, about composers. I’m talking about someone is pulling a rope and they’re chanting. A lot of that wouldn’t even be called music because of vernacular etc. I mean I would call it music but the western music, whether its rap or pop or another genre; its about the piece, the beginning, middle and end, the composers. Those kinds of definitions and parameters of music do not apply in the kind of music that I’m talking about. It was a sonic landscape and an acoustic world in which I grew up in very different from that of the United States.
HHF: Wow, I love that; a sonic landscape and an acoustic world. Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with our readers before I let you go?
André de Quadros : Nothing that comes to mind, It was a pleasure speaking with you.
HHF: You as well, thank you for taking the time out to sit down with Hip Hop Forum Digital Magazine.
To find out more about André de Quadros and his work, please visit his website at http://www.andredequadros.com/.
West Baltimore native Omi Muhammad is an artist and writer, now based in Philadelphia. To see her work, please go to http://www.urban-gypsy.net/index.html
Omi is part of the New Black Writers Program, managed by Hip Hop Forum Digital Magazine, to support, nurture and develop the talents of Black American journalists of the future.