Lullabies of Our Lives: Singing in Multicultural Harmony

By Emma Miller, The University of Melbourne

On 25 June 2018, CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow Samantha Dieckmann will host an evening of community music discussion interspersed with performances by Melbourne’s Lullaby Choir at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Here, Samantha tells us about her long-running lullaby research project and the intersection between music and emotions.

Tell us about the Lullaby Choir – how did it start?

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#LullabyTrain takes to the tracks

The Lullaby Choir is an amateur ensemble that emerged from an applied ethnomusicology initiative called Music, Emotion and Conciliation that CI Jane Davidson and I started in 2016. Part of CHE’s Performance and Shaping the Modern programs, the project involves designing and implementing interfaith and intercultural community music programs to foster emotional empathy.

The choir came about when we began collaborating with VICSEG New Futures, a not-for-profit community organisation that provides support and training to newly arrived migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. VICSEG’s workforce is extremely diverse, so it was the perfect organisation to work with to try and implement our applied research. First, we held a ‘lullaby swap’, in which staff members shared lullabies from their home countries, but soon this morphed into a more formally organised choir where individuals began to teach their lullabies to their peer choristers. I led and facilitated subsequent rehearsals along with another musician named Michael Rankin, and we have held masterclasses with guest musicians who have taught the choir new songs and singing styles. We now have around 20 choir members hailing from 10 different countries and it really has become like one big family.

Why lullabies? What makes them so special?

As soon as I started working with lullabies the genre’s emotional, nostalgic and cultural potency became apparent. They are universal – across the world lullabies are used to soothe infants and they represent some of our earliest encounters with heritage music, language and culture. Every community has lullabies and many lullabies travel across cultures, popping up on the other side of the world, often translated into another language or with a slightly different theme. They are such an important part of our emotional development as babies and, even as adults, we find they have residual power. Lullabies have also proven to be an efficacious focal point for creating and sharing safe spaces. The song category draws attention to distinctive collective identities, while providing fertile ground for intercultural and interfaith exchange.

How has the choir developed over time?

Initially some of the participants were tentative, shy and unsure of themselves when presenting songs to their fellow choristers. It took perseverance and patience for them to come out of their shell but increasingly I’ve been amazed at how much they all love performing in public. The group dynamic gives everyone the confidence to sing with gusto and meaning and they all enjoy it so much. VICSEG has also found that there’s been a huge shift in workplace culture since the choir started – everyone comes back to their desk smiling and humming after rehearsals and a bond has developed between choristers that is very powerful. We’ve sung in public several times, including at a festival, an aged-care facility and even on a moving train as part of Ilana Russell’s ‘Platform’ project, an ‘art in public spaces’ program for MoreArt 2017. With each performance the choir has brought a palpable change in mood to the space they have performed in. People respond emotionally to these songs, even if they don’t understand the lyrics.

Your work focuses on the interplay between music and emotions. Can music promote a more harmonious and peaceful society?

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#LullabyTrain takes to the tracks

That is a difficult and somewhat fraught question! Research has shown that music can bring people together through the shared emotion of empathy; we identify with others through the music and can respond to or reflect their emotional state. Through music’s synchronisation, imitation and emotional engagement, people can be brought together but it needs to be done in a mindful and careful way.

As I wrote in The Conversation last year, the empathy created by music has sometimes been used to create divisions – to strengthen the bond between like-minded people against other groups. Historically, we have seen turbofolk used to promote nationalism amongst Serbians in the Yugoslav war, and we have seen traditional flute bands in Northern Ireland be appropriated by Catholics as ‘their’ music, sometimes sparking violence with Protestants.

Lullabies, however, are often seen as a more neutral space. In our Lullaby Choir I have seen first-hand how the teaching and learning of each other’s mother tongues, singing styles and expressions of parenthood has had a marked effect on participants – for the better. 

What can we expect from the public lecture and performance on 25 June 2018 at the Melbourne Recital Centre?

The event is a fantastic opportunity for the general public to engage with the choir and also with the research I’ve been doing in an accessible and entertaining format. It will be presented collaboratively, as members of the Lullaby Choir will join in me introducing and explaining the project. The audience will hear about other lullaby projects around the world, including groups for single mothers, the Lullabies from the Axis of Evil compilation and research on the impact of lullabies on people in palliative care. We’ll then drill down into our own Lullaby Choir, explaining the processes that went into creating the ensemble and learning the songs, the difference between the domestic and performative space and what we can learn about different cultures from the lullabies they sing.

Woven through this discussion will be performances from the Lullaby Choir. This will be the choir’s first performance at such a large and prestigious venue, so it’s very exciting. We will be singing three songs: Chovejte mě, má matičko, a Czech lullaby; Yalla tnam Reema, an Arabic lullaby; and Ili Ili Tulog Anay, an Ilocano lullaby (a Philippine language). The audience will be invited to join in at various stages, hopefully making for a truly immersive experience.

Lullabies of Our Lives: Singing in Multicultural Harmony will be held on 25 June 2018 at 6pm. The venue is the Melbourne Recital Centre, Corner Southbank Boulevard and Sturt Street, Melbourne. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at:

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