Baptist Church Choir

This is an experiential narrative contributed by Delores Fisher, a member of our Artistic Advisory Board.

Several years ago, I participated at a local San Diego elementary school in a collaborative art project taught by different teachers, each an expert in a specific field, each with previous collaborative teaching experience. Our main goal was to provide students with a critical thinking lens through which to study slavery in the United States; our tools were visual art, dance, and music. All during the project, a young boy followed me talking about how he was not from California; he was from the South. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother and he “loved music.”

The first module of my segment introduced basic African drum rhythms, use of a time line to hold the patterns together, basic body movements, and short vocal passages sung a cappella—in this case specifically without melodic support. Then I introduced altered clapping/foot stomping techniques used by slaves to provide the steady pulse in place of the time line when drums were banned.

Our next segment introduced slave songs, slow and fast in tempo. We noted that some of these songs did not have solid evidence as to origins and that many of the songs are still sung today by a variety of artists, in various arrangements.

One song we sang was “Swing Down Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride.”* It exists in at least three different versions. See all three versions here

I am not sure when or where I learned the up tempo version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Stop and let me Ride.” I only remember singing it since childhood. The lyrics I learned are a variation on the original. This is what I taught the students:

Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride:
I’ve got a home on the other side.

We sang these words twice, then practiced the hand clap/foot stomp accompanying rhythm. We put it all together and sang it through twice. Before the third repetition, the little boy sitting next to me sang in a deeper voice, the secondary vocal part, before the chorus began again. I kept singing, keeping the others on track.

Why don’t you swing?
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Oh, swing!
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Come on and swing!
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride:
I’ve, . . .
I’ve got a home on the other side.

As the song ended, we all clapped. Hands went up. “Did you plan this? Did you practice together?” I looked at the class and said, “Hey, we did not plan this!”

The young man smiled and said, “I learned it from my grandmother.”

Historic African American musical traditions were and are still being passed on orally, without notation, from generation to generation–via Internet videos or face to face. I absorbed many songs listening to my mother in her shimmering soprano voice as she moved about the house doing daily activities while my dad was at work. At times when he felt like it, my dad, who had sang in a group as a young man, would sing at home in a soft tenor voice. These memories still make me smile.

Many Afro-classical arrangers of slave songs also learned the original tune pre-transcribed from the voice of an elder. Children continue to listen to grandparents, parents, and other relatives singing in religious settings, recreational settings like picnics, domestic settings doing housework–cooking, mopping floors, vacuuming–and also at quiet time or nap time with the singing of lullabies. Oral transmission is woven into the fabric of Black cultural memories.

– Delores Fisher, MA, is a blogger, essayist, musician, poet, and lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. Professor Fisher serves as a member of the Center for World Music’s Artistic Advisory Board, with a specialty in African American sacred music 

*“Swing Down Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride” has been recorded in part or full by sacred and secular groups, soloists, and even international ensembles. A few Internet video/accessible examples: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Elvis Presley,  The Golden Gate Quartet, The Imperials, The Gaithers, Dorothy Love Coates and The Gospel Harmonettes, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Parliament/Funkadelics, and Dr. Dre used a line from the spiritual it in the “Chronic.”

Folk Dance Center Event

The Center for World Music would like to alert our audience to the programs of the Folk Dance Center, a San Diego institution with which we’ve had a long relationship. In more cases than not, traditional music and dance forms are inseparable. The missions of our two organizations thus overlap to a great extent. We encourage you to check out their website, especially their monthly newsletters.

We will be promoting special programs of the Folk Dance Center via our Facebook page and other social media. We invite you to stop by their studio on 30th Street for one of their frequent folk dance sessions. Also, be alert for their many fine events and classes! See their current newsletter for details.

The Folk Dance Center (FDC) is a non-profit organization of amateur dancers with a common interest in folk dances from around the world. The FDC seeks to increase understanding of world folk dance and to preserve this rich resource for future generations. Membership is open to all.

Folk Dance Center Logo
Folk Dance Center
Dancing Unlimited
4569 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92116
Message phone: 619-281-5656


Lewis Peterman in Bali

The Center for World Music owes much to Prof. Lewis Peterman. He was a personal friend of the distinguished ethnomusicologist and CWM founder, Robert Brown. He has been a champion for the CWM for years and the driving force behind some of the most fruitful years of the organization, to date. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Although he has retired from the leadership position of president, he still provides valuable advice and support. He is a CWM hero. He is an important reason children in the San Diego area are singing the stories and playing the music of cultures and traditions that reflect the heartbeat of humanity.

Meet our third and final hero, longtime contributor and donor of time, talent, and treasure, Lewis Peterman.

(1) You have served as an unusually active member of the Center’s Board of Directors for over 30 years. What’s motivated you to be so involved?

I have done so because I believe the Center is a very special organization—one that dares to dream of a harmonious world nurtured through interpersonal cooperation. Born during the 1960s, the inspiration for the creation of the Center by its founders, Samuel Scripps and Robert E. Brown, was the American counter-culture slogan “make love, not war,” which could also be restated as “make music, not noise.” Just as “love” is an innate human universal found in all cultures around the world, so is “music”— both in fact are associated with the best and most noble qualities of human nature (understanding, sharing, caring, intimacy, kindness, happiness, selflessness, value, meaning, healing). Indeed, it’s hard to hate others when dancing to their music. Ultimately, the Center fully recognizes the timeless wisdom of the old proverb, “to understand a man, you’ve got to walk a mile in his shoes, whether they fit or not.”

I have also devoted 30 years of my personal and professional life to the Center because I believe in what it does: namely, it enriches the human experience across the globe by fostering understanding through intercultural sharing via the performing arts, most especially through music. Diversity, quality, and programming—these form the nucleus of what the Center does. For the Center, “diversity” means ALL people on planet earth. Thus the Center strives to bring together people from disparate cultural backgrounds through artistic enlightenment and heightened mutual appreciation. For the Center, “quality” means valuing those special human beings who have attained the highest-level accomplishments in their fields of expertise. Consequently, the Center strives to develop and maintain a deeply devoted and unusually active Board of Directors, a distinguished Artistic Advisory Board, and a cadre of distinguished native and/or native-trained teaching artists. For the Center, “programming” always features both diversity and quality, whether through its in-depth workshop encounters abroad or through its educational school and public events here in America.

Over the past 30 years, I have gained a deep personal appreciation for the 50-year-old dream of the Center by serving in many leadership capacities: executive director, director of programs abroad, director of development, universities liaison, teaching artist, secretary, vice president, president, and now as the immediate past president.

(2) You have served as president the past 10 years. What have been some of the most exciting things the Center has done during this period?

Under my leadership as president, the Center has hosted numerous distinguished teaching artists from aboard: Africa (Guinea, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, & Zimbabwe), Europe (Finland, Ireland, & the Balkans), Asia (India & Indonesia), Latin America (Mexico & Peru), and the Caribbean (Trinidad & the Cayman Islands). In addition, the Center has produced intensive two-week hands-on performing arts (traditional music, dance, and puppetry) workshops abroad in Asia (Bali & China), Africa (Ghana), and Latin America (Peru & Mexico).

At its “Flower Mountain” two-acre retreat in Bali, the CWM has hosted groups of students of the performing arts from UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Gettysburg College, St. Mary’s College, Warren Wilson College, the National University of Singapore, and San Diego State University. Also participating in Center-sponsored events at Flower Mountain were a group of K-12 classroom teachers from the CWM’s World Music in the Schools program in San Diego, a group of K-12 classroom teachers from Seattle, a group of Zimbabwean mbira players from New Zealand and Japan, and an undergraduate drama group from Hartwick College in upstate New York.

One year in particular (2012), the Center sponsored 70+ concerts, reached 10,000 K-12 San Diego students through its World Music in the Schools program (with 30 teaching artists and 20 ensembles-in-residence), produced a 17-day Zimbabwe Music and Dance Celebration, produced the 2nd Annual San Diego Indonesian Gamelan Festival, produced and hosted a College Music Society world music workshop for American university music professors, organized a 10-city national Indian Odissi Dance tour, and continued offering its local workshops (son jarocho, Balinese gamelan, Odissi dance) and its study abroad workshops in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

(3) In what ways have you seen the Center contribute to San Diego?

Since its move from the Bay Area in 1980, the Center has contributed immensely to the enrichment of the cultural and educational life in San Diego in many ways. The Center implements its dream of harmonious interpersonal cooperation and of the development of the best and most noble qualities of human nature by fostering understanding through intercultural sharing in San Diego via the world’s performing arts. To most deeply enrich the arts environment in San Diego via extended residencies, the Center has hosted many master teaching artists and ensembles of traditional performing arts from abroad: from India, Bali, Java, Sumatra, Iran, the Philippines, China, Japan, Korea, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Spain, Finland, Ireland, and the Balkans. In addition, the Center has provided rich opportunities for local teaching artists and local performing ensembles, has provided support for local universities and community colleges, has developed innovative cultural tourism programs abroad for San Diegans (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America), has received federal and state grants to support San Diego performing arts programs (i.e., the National Endowment for the Arts & the California Arts Council), and has developed a unique World Music in the Schools program which promotes awareness, skills, and knowledge of the rich performing arts traditions of the world through weekly hands-on classes and periodic assemblies in K–12 San Diego schools.

Thank you, Lewis Peterman.

Join Prof. Lewis Peterman and support programs for San Diego children in most danger of losing their access to cross-cultural music education.

Kirit Srivastava

Kirti Srivastava reflects the power of the arts and the influence and responsibility of an educator. The balance she has struck between her professional career and her deep, life-long passion for world music and dance serves as a model for those working in either field. As a champion of the arts, she makes a meaningful impact in the lives of the children with whom she works. She is our hero. She is an important reason children in the San Diego area are singing the stories and playing the music of cultures and traditions that reflect the heartbeat of humanity.

Meet our second of three heroes, former Odissi dance students, principal of Hawking STEAM Charter Elementary, world music advocate and artist, Kirti Srivastava.

(1)   What is your connection to world music?
As a first generation American, born to two artists from India (my father a visual artist and singer and my mother a dancer, actress and sitar player), world music and dance runs through my veins! My parents held weekly sangeets (musical gatherings) and satsangs (gatherings for spiritual discussion) long before my birth — so it was just a way of life for me.

I have fond memories of learning about different forms of music. I still recall my first introduction to jazz. I was in the 6th grade when my older brother Vikas handed a mix tape to me with John Coltrane on Side A and Miles Davis on Side B. He said: “This is all you need to know.”

As an Odissi dance student with the Center for World Music in high school, I was able to attend classical Indian house concerts at Purna and Gopa Patnaik’s house. I also attend concerts at Pt. Sri Ravi Shankar’s house! I still cannot attend a concert and feel as fully satisfied as I did those days, sitting just feet away from world-renowned musicians.

(2)   What exciting musical things go on at your school and with your students?
Music is life at Hawking STEAM Charter; we integrate song and dance into every learning opportunity possible – whether the kindergarteners are singing about ecosystems and habitats or the 6th graders are rehearsing a rap of character traits. Our goal is to help adults and children realize that music is the rhythm of life, and just as we seek to find melody in music, we learn to find harmony in life. While teachers integrate music throughout the day, we also have dedicated music programming during school hours. Half of the week, students are learning to play piano through online keyboarding software that connects to their piano keyboards. This teaches them the fundamental knowledge of music and notes. The other half of the week, students study tabla, a classical Indian drum. This class allows them to take what they have learned from piano and apply it to drumming. They also learn how the hand is able to make various notes on the drum. Both courses help students fine tune their mathematical skills while exercising creativity through the making of their own musical pieces.

(3)   How do you see world music programs impact your students?
While music, in general, has given our artistic students a voice in the academic arena, world music opens doors to learning opportunities in the study of geography and world cultures. It also helps students develop respect and empathy for people from cultures worldwide. The Center for World Music often brings guest artists to the school. The professional musicians share their gifts with the students and demonstrate how musicians are able to support themselves through their art form.

(4)   In what ways do you feel the Center contributes to San Diego?
The Center for World Music’s programs in schools not only nurture the future generations to understand and honor the role of music in cultures around the world, but they also bring awareness to the cultural and academic benefits of integrating music in schools. I witness students facing the challenges of learning to play instruments. In their music classes, student grapple to understand musical concepts and concentrate for extended amounts of time to play the right notes. I see the very same attitude carry over in their academic courses. Similarly, students’ performances build the grit for public presentations that we promote in our Project Based Learning teaching model.  By working with the school system, the CWM contributes to the larger San Diego community because students are continuously applying strategies learned through music to their daily lives.

(5)   What more can the CWM do to contribute to the student experience at Hawking Charter School and schools across San Diego County?
We would love to bring more monthly assemblies featuring artists/dancers/musicians from around the world. Ideally, we would like a package that will help schools like Hawking Charter afford and access more assemblies if they commit to a robust yearlong schedule.

Thank you, Kirti Srivastava.

Please join Kirti Srivastava and support programs for San Diego children in most danger of losing their access to cross-cultural music education.

Vanya Russell and friend from the Karen Organization of San Diego

Vanya Russell has been volunteering with the CWM for only two years but has made a notable impact. Her heartfelt financial contributions, endless volunteer energy, and catching enthusiasm has made a significantly impact the on the teaching artists, staff, board members, and audience members who have had the pleasure to meet her. She served as a culture bearer of Bulgaria enriching the experience of over 60 students at the San Diego French-American School. Finally, her donations helped us bring world musicians and dancers into classrooms across San Diego County, impacting over 4,500 children in the 2016-17 year.

She is our hero. She is an important reason children in the San Diego area are singing the stories and playing the music of cultures and traditions that reflect the heartbeat of humanity.

Meet the first of our three Center for World Music heroes: an all-star volunteer and generous donor, Vanya Russell!

Hi Vanya, can you tell us where you are from?
I am from Sofia, Bulgaria. I came to the U.S. in 1985 and moved to San Diego 1992.

As a volunteer, what have been some of the most memorable Center events you’ve participated in?
In Spring of 2016, I visited two classes at the San Diego French-American School, where Marie Hayes was teaching Bulgarian folk song. I was amazed at the dedication of the students to learn this difficult material. Marie Hayes did a very good job. At the end of the school year, I went to their concert and was touched to tears!

I have [also] volunteered at six CWM concerts at the Kalabash School of Music and Art. I am very impressed how well these concerts were organized, and how well they were attended, in addition to the diversity and quality of the presenters.

What was the most recent event you volunteered for? What did you think?
The “Music of Burma” event. For me, it was very touching, very special to interact with the young refugees. [You can see Vanya in the picture above posing with a dancer from this performance.]

When did you first encounter the Center for World Music (CWM)?
I learned about the CWM from a friend of mine who is a former volunteer for the Downtown Information Center. He met Monica, learned about the CWM, and suggested I get involved in volunteering. Monica and I met in fall 2015.

How do you see the Center contributing to San Diego communities?
For a small organization, the Center for World Music has spread its wing all over San Diego. Remarkable!

Thank you, Vanya Russell.

Join Vanya Russell and support programs for San Diego children in most danger of losing their access to cross-cultural music education.

Merja Soria

Merja Soria, a native of Finland, was the first Finlandia Foundation Performer of the Year in 1996. She received a master’s degree in music at Sibelius Academy in Finland and has taught Finnish music at San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. In 2003 and 2006, Ms. Soria was featured in the Who’s Who in America, and in 2005 she received an award at SDSU for Academic Excellence and Community outreach. Merja has performed at the Los Angeles Music Center, Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., Toronto Centre For the Arts, Peninsula Music Fair and many other music festivals in the United States and Europe.

Last December Merja was the featured performer, the “tradition-bearer” at the 2016 Christmas Revels production in Washington D.C. The show celebrates the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year shifting toward light. The performances were seen by over 10,000 people. In December 2017 Merja will perform at the Christmas Revels production in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Ms. Soria’s CD Arctic Silence is a selection of ancient Finnish songs. A song from Arctic Silence was featured on the National Geographic Television’s program Beyond the Movie: Lord of The Rings.

Merja Playing

Currently, Ms. Soria teaches the young children of San Diego at her own music school, Miss Merja’s Music Room. Ms. Soria is dedicated to performing the touching music of Finnish heritage. She combines the kantele (Finnish folk harp) and voice to sing the haunting songs of Suomi. Finnish folk poetry tells that when the first kantele was played for the first time, the sound was so beautiful that everybody started to cry; when the tears touched the water of the ocean, they turned to pearls.

Her vocals are so haunting, her folk songs scholarship impeccable . . . Soria doesn’t need to clutter songs with much instrumentation, her voice carries the day all on its own.

Sing Out!

Shalini Patnaik

Center for World Music teaching artist Shalini Patnaik enjoys sharing her ancient art form with the San Diego community. She is one of the leading exponents in her generation of Odissi, the classical dance of northeastern India, and has a passion for teaching and sharing Indian culture through the language of dance. Born and raised in San Diego, California, she traveled repeatedly to India from a young age to learn the art form directly from dance masters in Orissa. Even today, she visits frequently for further training and performances.

Her teachers include the late Guru Gangadhar Pradhan and Gurus Aruna Mohanty, Manoranjan Pradhan, and Yudhistir Nayak.

Shalini and her sisters, together known as the “Patnaik Sisters,” were selected by pop superstar Madonna to choreograph and perform for a televised performance at the 1998 MTV Music Awards. She also choreographed for singer Ricky Martin’s 2006 tour. Shalini performed for Pandit Ravi Shankar’s 90th birthday celebration and for other superstars like George Harrison and Sting. Recently, Shalini was invited by Anoushka Shankar to perform as part of her “Traveler” tour.

While Shalini has enthralled audiences across the globe, she truly enjoys sharing her art form with fellow San Diegans, and especially with students.

Shalini and her sisters, Laboni and Shibani, have been instrumental in propagating Odissi throughout North America through performances, lecture demonstrations at universities, schools, and libraries, and teaching in the Center for World Music’s Odissi School. To share their passion for dance with others brings them immense joy; in doing so, they help preserve and propagate this rich, two-thousand-year-old cultural tradition outside of India.


Want to learn more?

Traditional dance helps keep sisters in touch with culture, The Coast News (2012)
She matches steps in India and beyond, The Telegraph (2012)

Shibani Patnaik is a distinguished Odissi dancer, member of the Patnaik Sisters, and Board Member for the Center for World Music.

Máirtín de Cógáin

We warmly welcome Máirtín de Cógáin, who joins World Music in the Schools as a teaching artist in residence.

Máirtín de Cógáin-drumming-2Center for World Music artist in residence Máirtín de Cógáin is a singing, dancing, story-telling bodhrán (Irish frame drum) player, who also is a noted playwright and actor. He performs all over the United States, as well as in his native Ireland. An infectious personality, Máirtín pleasantly commands the attention of all audiences, from concert halls to intimate porches.

Descended from a long line of storytellers, Máirtín is the winner of two All-Ireland awards from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. He often tours with The Máirtín de Cógáin Project, The Fuchsia Band, or Gailfean. A true promoter of “the Ballad,” he searches for those forgotten songs of old and breathes new life into them, as well as writing some new songs of his own. Máirtín learned from many famous Irish singers such as Danni Maichi Ua Súilleabháin, Séamus Mac Mathúna, and Ciarán Dwyer. He is a fluent speaker of Irish (Gaelic) who was brought up in a bilingual home, and attended primary and secondary schools taught in Irish. Máirtín holds a degree in the Irish language from University College Cork.

Máirtín de Cógáin-drummingIf not on stage singing, storytelling, dancing, or playing the bodhrán, Máirtín is treading the boards as an actor, notably in the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley. He has co-written many productions with the Be Your Own Banana Theatre Company, recently playing De Bogman off-Broadway in New York.

Máirtín has been playing the bodhrán for many years, learning first from Eric Cunningham (The New De Danann) and later from Colm Murphy (The Old De Danann). Máirtín has taught bodhrán technique at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Augusta Irish Week, as well as giving workshops at major U.S. festivals including the Kansas City Irish Fest, CelticFest Mississippi, Minnesota Irish Fair, and La Crosse IrishFest. He also gives private lessons in the San Diego area and along the road while touring.

Máirtín de Cógáin-dancing

A traditional brush dance with his father Barry Cogan

Growing up in a house full of dancing, Máirtín helped teach the steps at the family-run céilís (social gatherings) from an early age, and now teaches the folk dances of Cork to dancers everywhere.

Máirtín makes friends wherever he goes. In a very short time, de Cógáin has become a regular performer at some of the most prestigious Irish festivals in the U.S. Although he can often be found leading a tour group in Ireland, or entertaining guests on a traditional Irish music-themed cruise ship, he now spends most of his time in California, where he lives with his wife Mitra and their young son, who shows great promise as a dancer and bodhrán player himself.

Want to learn more about Máirtín and his career? Visit You can also catch him on YouTube telling a story or singing with friends.


Fandango at Eduardo's

Professor Eduardo García, a member of the San Diego-based son jarocho group Son de San Diego, teaches in the School of Arts at California State University San Marcos. He is also, we are proud to say, a teaching artist for the Center for World Music’s World Music in the Schools program. He has delved deeply into the study of son jarocho, the traditional music, dance, and songs of Veracruz, Mexico. His focus includes the instruments, the style of music, and above all creating a safe place for learning music and building community.

cynthia-_-eduardo-garciaEduardo’s interest in son jarocho regional folk music was sparked by an immersive study trip to San Andrés Tuxtla, Veracruz, Mexico in 2002. His journey to the home of son jarocho inspired his study of the tradition, taking him through many varied experiences in community-based music.

He believes it is important for young people to have access to as many musical cultures as possible. This global arts-based approach to learning brings the world to his students, and broadens their perspectives and sensibilities.

This particular music of Veracruz—son jarocho, son abajeño, or música de cuerdas, as it is known in different areas of the Sotavento region—is important because at its core lies the central component of cultivating community. Whether playing, singing, or dancing, this music is not created as a solo venture: it is a shared social activity. The instruments, the call and response nature of the singing, and the communicative percussion of the dancing between singers and musicians, creates myriad social and musical interactions. It is a social music, and Eduardo has tried to remain true to this central aspect of son jarocho music as he continues his efforts to cultivate a similar musical community in the San Diego region.cwm-festival-5-13-son-jarocho

— Cynthia Carbajal, Teacher at Lexington Elementary School in El Cajon, CA and Teaching Artist for the CWM’s World Music in the Schools

Read more about Eduardo García’s contributions to San Diego and his bridge-building efforts through the musical tradition of son jarocho:  

Sharing Music Across the U.S.-Mexico Border’s Metal Fence, New York Times — May 29, 2016

Son Jarocho Creates Community on Both Sides of the Border, KPBS — May 30, 2012

 Wu Man Makes Pipa an Instrument of Change, San Diego Union Tribune — May 8, 2014.

Watch a video:

Wu Man and Son de San Diego collaboration at the Carlsbad Music Festival.

Alex Khalil

A Supercomputer Center is an unconventional place to find an ethnomusicologist. Yet, this is where we find Dr. Alex Khalil, an unconventional musician-scholar in whom the disjunct worlds of musicology and neural computation converge. This makes him, in a word, “eccentric.” No, not the “zany, frizzy-haired and absent-minded genius” type of eccentric. (Well, the “genius” likely applies, though Alex would deny it vehemently.) Rather, he is eccentric in that he makes a habit of pursuing those questions that carry him far beyond the comfortable center of any one world of standard practice or academic discipline.

Alex Khalil performing on gender wayang

Balinese Gender Wayang Performance, Seaport Village

Alex holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Music Composition and Performance from CalArts and a PhD with an emphasis in ethnomusicology from U.C. San Diego. He has spent more than twenty years conducting research on several Asian musics (primarily those of China, Japan, and Indonesia), speaks Mandarin and Indonesian, plays a host of traditional instruments (specializing in Balinese gamelan and Chinese guqin), and has worked extensively with the Center for World Music for over three decades, including stints as Executive Director and Teaching Artist in Residence. His current post? Project scientist at UCSD’s Institute for Neural Computation and research fellow for the Temporal Dynamics in Learning Center. How did this happen?

What may appear as a dramatic career shift is really a natural continuation, a fulfillment of Alex’s varied abilities and ideas that were sparked while he was teaching in the CWM’s Balinese gamelan program, which he established alongside Center founder Robert Brown back in 1999. In gamelan, rhythmic precision and tight group synchrony are vital. Gradually, Alex noticed that most children synchronized relatively easily, while a few struggled. “It clearly wasn’t for a lack of effort, nor did it correlate with their musical ability in anything other than rhythm. This was strange.” He later discovered that all of these struggling students also had attention deficits. Through further testing he established a definitive correlation between attention and rhythmic timing.  

Further study could show that musical practice might facilitate improvement, not just in musical timing but beyond gamelan and into interpersonal communication, which is also fundamentally rhythmic.

“Attention is dynamic, that is, changing in time, and so it is rhythmic in nature.” Alex believes that developing proficiency in music, especially rhythm, may improve communication skills in children with ADHD or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and perhaps even for all children. His road from the classroom to scientific research has been a long and difficult one, but it is starting to pay off. Recently, he and partnering institutions were awarded a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation (Science of Learning Center) to further study synchrony in group brain dynamics. “If the hypothesis is true,” he says, “we have an army of skilled music teachers who can offer help.”

“We tend to wonder what happens when music is included in cognitive development, but a musical brain is a normal brain . . . and music just isn’t in our lives in the same ways it used to be.”

Alex Khalil embodies the heart of what the CWM promotes in its youth education program, World Music in the Schools: we solve problems better when we are skilled at listening and acting across the boundaries between cognitive worlds, even those that seem so stubbornly divergent as “science” and “the arts.” Something as seemingly simple as learning an unfamiliar musical style can, in a sense, make us bilingual. Nine-year old Olivia, a gamelan student from The Museum School, makes this crystal-clear when she says that “it’s fun to learn another culture’s music because then you can kind of speak with them, in a way.” You’re right Olivia!  

Cultural fluency can be fun, and, as Alex demonstrates, it can also provide a lens for viewing and solving old problems in new ways.


Japanese Shakuhachi Performance, USD

Speaking of cultural fluency, can you guess Alex’s central passion since childhood? It’s unlikely that Byzantine chant came to mind. But for Alex, who still frequently performs as a cantor in a Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego, this is not just another thing he does. Just as gamelan rhythms might improve communication skills, on a cognitive level our various activities don’t stay in neat compartments as we might expect.

The many worlds in which we participate converge, integrate, and become the world we know.

As we depart the supercomputer center where we found Alex Khalil, our world has already grown. But it also imparts a question, really a personal challenge: how will you expand your horizons today?

Read an article written by Alex on the value of music education for kids for The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art here.

Learn more about the CWM’s World Music in the Schools gamelan program at the Museum School.

James Gutierrez, PhD, Northeastern University