The program advisor explores cultures through song

A few years after moving to the United States from her home in Jamaica, Tamara West found herself on stage singing a Korean ballad to a packed crowd in Texas.

Two large screens flanked either side of the stage, broadcasting her performance as she sang and illuminating the field of people spread out on picnic blankets watching the show.

“It takes a lot of courage to go play or especially sing in a language you don’t speak (fluently),” West said. “It can be intimidating.”

West, an intercultural program advisor at UM’s Center for Global and Intercultural Study, was performing at the 2017 Korean Festival in Carrollton, Texas.

The University of Texas at Dallas mascot presents Tamara West with a trophy for first place in the school’s annual Comets Got Talent contest. West, a cross-cultural program advisor at UM’s Center for Global and Cross-Cultural Studies, won the award for her rendition of a Korean ballad. (Photo courtesy of Tamara West)

Earlier that year, she auditioned to be the U.S. representative at the Changwon K-Pop World Festival, a singing competition held annually in Changwon, South Korea, with a single representative from 13 countries across the country. world. West came in second place, and although she did not compete in South Korea, she was invited to perform at the Carrollton Festival.

West’s interest in learning about different cultures developed at a young age. She remembers growing up in Jamaica and watching a TV show featuring Chinese cultural dances. As a teenager, she joined her high school choir and developed a passion for singing before moving to Texas to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

After graduating, West accepted a teaching position at an English-language institute on the campus of Texas Wesleyan University, where she taught students from around the world. During class breaks, West played music from some of the students’ countries.

She remembers saying to the students, “It comes from your culture and I want you to be comfortable. I want you to hear something familiar to you.

Seeing his students’ enthusiasm for singing in their native language also sparked West’s interest in learning the songs. Although she didn’t know more than a few words in many languages, she was excited for the challenge.

“The inclusiveness of language skills is what I’m a big proponent of,” West said. “Because a lot of times people don’t even try to learn a language because they feel like they have to be fluent, the goal is always fluency, and that’s not true.”

West explored songs sung in Hindi, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, and Jamaican Patois. She often goes out to sing karaoke to practice performing in front of an audience.

“Sometimes I get a little nervous, I’ll be honest,” she said. “But usually I’m able to overcome it…and the most important thing is that you’re there to share something with people.”

Before coming to UM, West worked at the University of Texas at Dallas where she competed in the school’s annual talent competition, Comets Got Talent. She performed a heartfelt Korean ballad with stills from a popular Korean drama series projected onto a screen behind her. West won first place, and the college mascot presented him with a large gold trophy.

“It can be risky any time you perform a song in a foreign language that other people don’t speak, because you run the risk of alienating the audience if they don’t understand exactly what you’re saying,” West said.

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This is one of the reasons why she prefers to perform slow ballads that show emotion – people don’t need to understand the words to know the feelings she tries to convey through music.

“I don’t want people to think I’m taking the language or the culture for a joke,” she said. “I will probably make mistakes, but that’s okay. And I hope it’s OK with the audience, because I intend to let them hear a song in another language that is not English, and to hear that it’s beautiful too .

West hopes his performances will show how music can bring people together, transcending race, ethnicity and culture.

“As a Jamaican, then of African descent, I like to show that there are people here who look like me and are open to learning about other cultures,” she said. “I kind of like being that bridge between Korean culture and Jamaican culture, Korean culture and black culture.”

West believes that listening to music in other languages ​​can inspire people to learn about different cultures and explore the world around them.

“(Listening to music in a foreign language) can be a gateway to other things,” she said. “For example, maybe you could watch a foreign movie… maybe you could try different foods or visit another country where you don’t understand what people are saying around you.

“You don’t have to wait until you go to Spain… or South Korea to practice your language. You can seize opportunities here and now. That’s what I would say: look for opportunities to learn languages ​​because a language system is a different way of thinking. It opens your brain to another way of looking at life.

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Ryan H. Bowman