Music Workshops:  Sounds from around the World 2021

Sara McGuinness online music workshop

An interview with Georgie Pope, organiser of SOAS music workshops.

What inspired the decision to put on the ‘winter’ music workshops: Sounds from around the World (4 January – 7 February 2021) and what classes will be on offer?

We have been thinking for a while about going beyond the usual series of summer music workshops.  Participants are often sorry it’s all over so quickly and don’t want to wait a whole year before getting together to learn again. Running two series a year opens up space in the timetable for more genres and approaches. 

I’m excited that by running these courses in January-February will allow Polina Shepherd to lead a big singalong of Russian carols during the Russian Orthodox Christmas and two courses on Chinese music in the run up to Chinese New Year. These courses allow participants a real insight into festivals that are celebrated by hundreds of thousands of people in the UK. The Bengali singing courses are timely too: 2021 marks fifty years since the birth of Bangladesh, and these workshops will be part of a broader celebration of the country’s culture and achievements. 

The summer school in 2020 was held online for the first time, what were some of your qualms beforehand, and how did it work out in practice?

Initially I thought we’d have to cancel everything; music is all about bringing people together, so how could any of this work online? But then I saw how Polina Shepherd sprung into action, meeting her Russian and Yiddish choirs on Zoom and creating a joyous community of singers right in the middle of lockdown. I spoke to our team of workshop leaders and they got really creative: making backing tracks for participants to practise against, sharing sheet music on screen, zooming in on their instruments to demonstrate certain techniques and – perhaps most exciting of all – Ayla Joncheere introduced us to three Rajasthani dance teachers in their homes in India via live zoom links.

Has the experience of the summer classes steered you towards offering particular workshops, or have you been able to cover the full range of classes, offered in the past?

Some of the live workshops relied on access to SOAS’s collection of musical instruments – the Balinese and Javanese gamelan, the West African kora, the South Asian tabla, for example. We don’t expect beginners to have their own instruments, so it’s tricky to offer these courses online. So we’ve steered towards three approaches which work best in the new situation: vocal courses; courses which develop participants’ skills and repertoire on the instruments they already own; and less interactive classes, like Ayla Joncheere’s lectures on Kalbeliya dance and Sara McGuinness’s talk on the history and structure of Cuban Son.

What kind of feedback did you get from participants?

Fantastic.  People learned a lot and also felt that they’d really been part of a very enriching social experience, when they really craved it. Several commented on how exciting it was to be learning alongside people from the other side of the world: we had participants in New York, Wuhan and Devon on one course!Access problems were suddenly minimised: no one had to pay for accommodation in London or tackle the rush-hour traffic. People with limited mobility could learn from home, turn up the volume and zoom in on the small print. People who missed a session could catch up later, as we recorded most courses for that purpose. I was delighted by this new-found accessibility. 

Will the classes appeal to the same group as annually, or are you hoping to attract newcomers?

I definitely hope that we’ll attract back the usual suspects, but I know now that online learning gives us the opportunity to open up to a much wider audience. Perennial favourites like the Cuban Music Big Band and Guillermo Rozenthuler’s vocal improvisation course will be repeated, because they are in such demand! New ones, like Reylon Yount and Beibei Wang’s courses, which will look at Chinese music from different perspectives, will be of interest to our repeat participants, as we’ve not offered anything from that part of the world for some years. I’m also introducing two extremely talented vocalists, Sahana Bajpaie and Sohini Alam, to teach songs in Bengali, for the first time. Both singers have huge followings outside the UK so I think their fans will be delighted with the opportunity to learn from them via live video link. These will open up our participant base substantially.

Can you say a bit about your other professional musical activities?  How these feed into the online workshops and/or how do you juggle the different activities?

I’ve recently founded an organisation called the Global Music Academy which supports music teachers to ‘diversify their curriculum’. Over the last ten years, and especially in the wake of the BLM movement, demand has grown for teaching resources on music from beyond the western music canon. There’s very little about, so I’m working with lots of teachers (many of whom are part of SOAS Music Workshops) to develop resources to introduce kids to music from Cuba, Russia, the Middle East, West Africa…. and more. The plan is not only to give children access to a richer, broader music curriculum, but also to provide more livelihood opportunities to talented teachers.

I also work for the power-packed music promoter Marsm UK, which provides various platforms for musicians from the Arab-speaking world. Since lockdown, like everyone else, we’ve been creating some juicy online content – so, on a rainy evening, check out our articles, films, podcasts and playlists here

The SOAS Music Workshops are all informed by this work with schools and Marsm. I keep meeting wonderful musicians with different approaches to making and teaching music, and new courses seem to emerge all the time. It’s a huge privilege to work at this crossroads for diasporic music and I look forward to all the warm and festive music-making we’ll get up to in the New Year.


Further information

SOAS Music Workshops: Sounds from around the world (Monday 4 January – Sunday 7 February 2021 Timetable and booking details

Elpidio Alegria is a renowned musician and singer who has been performing with all the best UK-based Latin bands for the last 20 years, including the award-winning Congolese Rumba and Salsa band Grupo Lokito. He’s recently formed his own professional band Elpidio & Su Alegria. His music resounds with a lifetime of Latin musical immersion, taking the swing from his hometown of Buenaventura, Colombia, and the rhythm of Cali, Colombia – ‘the capital of salsa’ – the tradition of Cuba and the style of New York. Elpidio works with Sara McGuinness to run the community Cuban Big Band out of SOAS, and has been part of the SOAS Music Workshops team since 2010.

The Kalbeliya are a nomadic community of musicians, mystics and herbalists from Rajasthan, Northern India. Nowadays this dance is also popularly known as Gypsy Dance or “Sapera” Dance or the dance of the “snake charmers”. Shanti and her mother teach Kalbeliya dance from their home in Pushkar, a town in the North Indian state of Rajasthan

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