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In Tune with the World
From sea shanties and Neil Young to Batá drumming, Jordana Qi ’18 is following a musical path of her own composition. The journey of a young woman with epilepsy includes an internship at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an upcoming gig with a troupe of actors with disabilities in Colorado.
For music and psychology major Jordana Qi ’18, Sting’s Broadway musical flop The Last Ship was actually a spark of genius that inspired four years of academic inquiry. Faced with the prospect of a 20-page research paper for Professor Jon McCollum’s Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology class and a seven-hour train ride to a family member’s wedding, the freshman Qi immersed herself in the soundtrack about the troubled lives of shipbuilders in a struggling British town.
“I’m a huge fan of musical theatre, so I promised myself that if I got all my schoolwork finished before leaving for the wedding, I could buy the soundtrack.”
By the time her train rolled into Boston, she could sing along with the soundtrack, which reflected the traditional music of the northeast region of England where Sting grew up. She also had the premise for her research paper.
“I started thinking, ‘This story happened less than 100 years ago, and Sting was using sea shanties to help tell it,’” Qi recalls. “I wanted to see how this historical genre is being preserved in today’s musical culture. One of my classmates, Lexie Sumner ’15, who lives near Mystic, Connecticut, put me in touch with some musicians who perform during the Sea Music Festival there every year. They bring in musicians from all over the world—Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands. It’s a really cool experience.”
With the support of a Gerda Blumenthal grant, Qi attended the Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival and interviewed musicians Bob Walser and Cliff Haslam, a Smithsonian Folkways artist. She also attended an academic symposium that illuminated the expansive breadth of the genre that includes songs of the American Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes, and the English and Irish coasts.
The pivotal moment that solidified Qi’s academic path came when the associate director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Atesh Sonneborn, visited Professor McCollum’s class and welcomed internship applications.
“That was it for me,” Qi says. “I declared a music major with a minor in ethnomusicology and applied for [and landed] the internship. That summer, I lived at American University and commuted downtown to Smithsonian Folkways, which is best described as a cross between a museum and a record label.”
Working in the marketing department, Qi wrote abstracts and blurbs for album covers and helped with preparations for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held every summer on the National Mall. Here, amid the throngs of visitors, she encountered a Latin jazz musician, John Santos, known for Afro-Cuban bata drumming—a genre of particular interest to music professor Ken Schweitzer. She also made another intellectual connection of personal relevance.
“I really appreciated that the Smithsonian considered how to make the festival universal for everyone—visitors with visual and hearing impairments, mobility issues, autism. I’ve done some volunteer work with the visually impaired, but I was not expecting my interest in disability and accessibility to cross over into my interest in music.”
Qi had already studied the History of Disabilities in the United States with Patrick Henry Fellow Benjamin Irvin, which led to a conversation with music professor John Leupold about his interest in teaching music theory to students with visual impairments, which led to a two-week research opportunity—funded by the College’s Clarence Hodson Prize in Music—with Phamaly Theatre Company in Denver, a performing arts group formed entirely of people with disabilities from across the spectrum. The group will be staging a musical production this summer.
“There are both medical and social models of disability,” Qi says. The medical model considers disability something to be fixed. The social model accepts people as they are. Disability gives you a different way of moving through the world. That’s something I would not have considered before. I’m interested in observing how disability affects the rehearsal process and how it is used in performance.”
In the meantime, bringing her Smithsonian Folkways experience full circle, Qi traveled to Cuba this January to conduct research on the Yoruba religion and batá drumming ritual as performance. Stay tuned.