Music for Social Change

By Zarate, Patricia; Pérez, Danilo | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Music for Social Change


Zarate, Patricia, Pérez, Danilo, ReVista (Cambridge)


WHEN DANILO PÉREZ URRIOLA, A SALSA SINGER in Panama, decided to study pedagogy in the 1960s, he faced a difficult challenge: a teaching internship in Colón, one of the poorest cities of the Republic of Panama. As a young and enthusiastic teacher, he accepted troubled teenagers into his classroom, but soon found they had difficulty learning even the simplest subjects because they couldn't relate to the material.

It was after everyone in the class failed a poetry exam that Pérez (the father of one of the co-authors of this article) began to think that maybe the students were not the problem. He decided to change his teaching methods and started to bring music into the poetry class. Once the poetry was set to music, everyone passed the test, so Pérez started applying music to all the subjects taught in the school system. Within a couple of months, every middle-school class started with a song, and the material content of the class was taught through improvisation or by rearranging traditional songs. Math formulas were taught in the form of repetitive songs, geography lists were simple melodies, and history was a complete improvisation in the key of G. Composition, call and response, melodic development, improvisation and singing a cappella while clapping a repeated clave pattern allowed the students to remember their subject matter. Sometimes, Pérez had to tell them to sing softer during test times and some students began asking if it were okay to simply sing through their tests instead of writing them. Students began to learn and successfully graduate.

This experience-more than fifty years ago-embodies the work and spirit of the Danilo Pérez Foundation, established in 2005, and now run by his son, president of the Foundation in Panama and Cultural Ambassador of the Republic of Panama, as well as Artistic Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and a Unesco Artist for Peace. Projecting his father's ideas onto the world stage, Pérez Jr. has expanded the concept of music as an instrument of social change.

The Foundation teaches hundreds of children ages 8 to 14, including many from very poor and crime-ridden areas of Panama City. Like his father, Pérez insists that they receive an education in much more than just music. The nonprofit, housed in a former conservatory building, provides a safe place that the Boston Globe once described as "full of instruments, books, and role models who teach principles like respect and honesty alongside rhythm and music theory."

Despite his father's efforts in Colón, Pérez finds that over the past 20 years, the overall situation of poverty has only gotten worse in this small corner of Panama, an hour away from Panama City. Disaffected youth who can't finish school are most likely to be in jail or dead by the age of 20. His father's students faced much better odds, and today many of them say they still remember many of their teacher's songs, which led them into more productive lives.

His father's unpublished 1967 thesis, "Influence of Music on Primary Education," forms a cornerstone of the Foundation's philosophy today. The thesis asserts, "Music could serve the education of a child, or education could serve the child to learn music." Each serves a purpose. For example, a music teacher's goal is to make the child good at the art and craftof music. In this process, Pérez argues, the purpose may not necessarily be for the child to become a professional musician, but simply for her or him to be able to play, compose or better appreciate the musical arts. Conversely, the use of music to "serve the education of a child" sees music as a universal means by which teachers, parents, community leaders and others can transmit all types of information to the younger generation. In this respect, Pérez recommends that every single teacher in the Republic of Panama should be trained in the study of music sufficiently to use it to teach any subject in the school curriculum. …

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