Last week I had the opportunity to speak at Queens College, Komani. It’s an extraordinary school and I’m still trying to put my finger on precisely what it is that makes it so. I have never had such an engaged and responsive audience. I concluded my talk and was about to hurtle off to another engagement when someone said: ‘Hang on, the boys want to sing for you’. What happened next (iGwijo) is not unusual at Queens or at any of the traditional Eastern Cape schools, but it was so exceptionally evocative and moving that I have been unable to think of much else since then. As I drove my bakkie home through a landscape of aloes, acacia and koppies, reliving the joyful, rhythmic chanting singing, the deep male voices, the movement of 500+ bodies in effortless unison I found that I couldn’t stop weeping. My reaction made me curious. What was going on here? I definitely wasn’t sad. I began to grasp that I was unutterably moved by the depth of the connection I had felt with 500 singing teenagers I had never met before. I wondered if it was just me? I am after all very deeply rooted in the rural Eastern Cape. I have a clan name (ndikhulele emaXhoseni, after all), my late father (UZanethemba) matriculated from Queens. IGwijo was really the background soundtrack to my uncommon childhood on a trading station in the former Ciskei. Was I just being sentimental? So I began to think and read about iGwijo and found 100’s of new video clips on YouTube. Almost every video moved me to tears. But not just me. My husband, Peter, too. This wasn’t his life’s music. There was something odd and powerful going on here.
“Gwijo is a practice of collective singing deeply embedded in South African Xhosa culture that takes the form of call and response (“I say something//You say something; I hear you//You hear me; We’re in dialogue together”). Because Gwijo uses no instruments (other than human voices), it could be described as a cappella. Gwijo songs have traditionally been sung by the amaXhosa people of South Africa to accompany weddings, funerals, initiations, and other sacred moments and rites of passage.Part of these songs’ potency resides in their being so cathartic across a range of human emotions: they can express joy, determination, and victory, but also devastation. A Gwijo ‘performance’ can celebrate, protest, resist, or reclaim. Ultimately, though, it draws on the power of the collective to attain a kind of fierce grace, a coming together in intensity.” (An extract from Gwijo: Healing Anthems for South Africa (jeremydetolly.com)Omg. A fierce Grace. A coming together in intensity. I knew I was onto something special. Then I realised I was late to the iGwijo party. It seems everyone already understands its alchemy. I’m not sure how I ended up on the websites of Dale and Queens College but was astounded to see that both schools make reference to iGwijo on their home pages. Its an important and acknowledged part of the school’s cultures. It’s not a new idea that music synchronises our bodies and brains and puts us on the same wavelength. People feel closer and more connected when they have the experience of singing together. It seems that this effect is further intensified by rhythmic singing and dancing. It enables social cohesion and connection through the release of dopamine and other chemicals. Interestingly, the larger the group, the more profound the changes in social cohesion seem to be. What a potent way to draw large groups together quickly. We know this to be true because of the research which is readily available to anyone keen to search for it but we also know this to be true at a gut level because most of us have experienced (without necessarily naming) this phenomenon. There is no doubt that iGwijo is a potent tool for the creation of group identity.
“In a series of ingenious studies, researchers Chris Loerch and Nathan Arbuckle studied how musical reactivity—how much one is affected by listening to music—is tied to group processes, such as one’s sense of belonging to a group, positive associations connection with ingroup members, bias toward outgroup members, and responses to group threat in various populations.
The researchers found that “musical reactivity is causally related to…basic social motivations” and that “reactivity to music is related to markers of successful group living.” In other words, music makes us affiliate with groups.
But how does music do this? Some researchers believe that it’s the rhythm in music that helps us to synch up our brains and coordinate our body movements with others, and that’s how the effects can be translated to a whole group. Research supports this thesis, by showing how coordinating movement through music increases our sense of community and prosocial behavior.
This tendency to synchronize seems to become only more important as we grow. In another study, adults listened to one of three types of music—rhythmic music, non-rhythmic music, or “white noise”—and then engaged in a task that involved cooperating and coordinating their movements. Those who listened to rhythmic music finished the tasks more efficiently than those who listened to the other types of sound, suggesting that rhythm in music promotes behaviors that are linked to social cohesion.
In another study, people seated side by side and asked to rock at a comfortable rate tended to coordinate better without music, but felt closer to one another when they did synchronize while listening to music. In a study by Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath of Stanford University, those who listened to music and coordinated their movements to the music were able to cooperate better and act more generously toward others when participating in economic games together (even in situations requiring personal loss for the good of the group.)
All of this evidence helps confirm music’s place in augmenting our social relationships. Perhaps that’s why, when you want people to bond, music (iGwijo) is a natural resource for making that happen.” (From How Music Bonds Us Together | Greater Good (berkeley.edu)
IGwijo is a potent, free, wholehearted, totally accessible gift to South African leaders. Imagine how we could tap into this national treasure to achieve the connection we so desperately need in our communities and workplaces.
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