Making International Music at Kennesaw State
By Lauren Highfill
Renowned international-style singer Elise Witt was on campus for a residency recently as part of Kennesaw State University’s Year of the Atlantic World. She worked with all departments in the College of the Arts and taught a mixture of classes from small workshops to large lectures. “I’m looking at my time here at KSU through the journey of song, meaning how song has traveled from one culture to another, across the Atlantic Ocean in several directions,” Witt says.
Witt has an impressive amount of experience in the Atlantic World and elsewhere. She speaks five languages fluently and has performed songs in dozens of languages in countries including Nicaragua, South Africa and Italy. The lecture classes she taught at KSU used her knowledge of other cultures and international art as a springboard for the student audience’s involvement. One song she featured in her discussion was a spiritual called “Heist the Window, Noah,” which was originally sung by the slaves of the Georgia Sea Islands who originated in Sierra Leone. She composed an adaptation of this song called “Open the Window, Children” and involved students in her lecture classes in its call-and-response verses. Theatre students in her workshop sessions were also given the opportunity to participate in the song. They composed their own lyrics for the adaptation, which will be performed at the Year of the Atlantic World Day.
Elise Witt discussing the samba
of the Brazilian Mardi Gras
Another song featured in Witt’s lecture class was “a big production that gets the whole auditorium singing,” Witt says. It’s a Samba where four sections of students imitated the intonations and beats of drum songs of the traditional Brazilian Mardi Gras. “Brazilian Mardi Gras is really a very exciting meeting of all these different cultures and traditions,” Witt says, “which profoundly affects the music.”
What resonated most for one student who experienced Witt’s lecture was her discussion of a Nigerian spiritual called “Mojuba.” Regina Ayeni, a nursing major, is originally from Nigeria and was “happy to see the slides she brought of my home and of Nigerians dancing, playing tambourines and singing.”
Ayeni asked Witt a question that was answered from a unique perspective of culture and learning. “As a Nigerian singing in English,” Ayeni asked, “I find that English-speaking people don’t always understand the lyrics because of my accent. What can I do to change that?” Ayeni says she liked the answer Witt gave her. “She said that learning multiple languages helps you to master those that you are less familiar with—especially through song. She said, ‘When you learn something through song you never forget it.’”
That truth applies to other areas of culture besides language. What Witt hopes students come away with from her time here is an understanding of how important it is to expose themselves to other cultures. “The more we honor each others’ cultures and ancestors the less conflicts and the less wars we have,” she says. Witt’s wider mission at KSU and in all her other professional experiences is to show that “the power of making music together, making art together, understanding each other’s cultures, opens us up. If you truly know someone, you can’t be their enemy.”