Cultural Empathy Requires More Than Soundbites

In the weeks and months following the Trump travel ban I received several email requests from composers that were along the lines of the following:

“I’m looking for melodies from the seven countries affected by the Trump travel ban.”


“[I’d like to write] arrangements of tunes sung by refugees (or more broadly, folk tunes/other culturally significant tunes) from the countries affected by the executive order. I am wondering if you could recommend some Syrian tunes that may work for this project?”

But perhaps the most ambitious call for melodies I’ve received to date was made by a large U.K. news organization that promised a virtual reality project about Syrian refugees with a script written by a world famous author.

The music is to be composed by a renowned composer, performed by a world famous string quartet, and the project would be narrated by what the news organization representative described in an email as “a high profile actor voicing the piece.”

None of the contributors to this project had any connection to Syria, which seemed to imply that there was no one on board who could act as a cultural adviser. As such the representative from the news organization wrote to an ethnomusicologist in the U.K. asking for Syrian melodies to be used by the composer attached to this project; “Do you have any recommendations of Syrian lullabies which we could use?” This request then made its way to an ethnomusicology list-serve and then to my email inbox.

One of the ethnomusicologists who forwarded this email to me wrote, “I find [the project] scented with tokenism.” A number of things about this project did not sit well with me either so this is why I decided to write about these experiences in order to help composers, performers, and arts presenting organizations to navigate the difficult waters of cross-cultural artistic endeavors.

Despite the good intentions behind all of the above projects, they all suffer from the same deficiency; the lack of patience and empathy.

While it is tempting to rush a well-meaning artistic reply out into the world in response to one of the daily or hourly outrages we are confronted with during the 24-hour news cycle, a rushed project risks having little immediate or lasting impact.

In addition to patience, true empathy is required for these artistic endeavors.

In this context empathy can be described as the ability to truly listen, or as Dr Brené Brown defines it, “empathy is feeling with people.” This requires the courageous work of connecting with our own frailties.  Trying to understand another people through their arts & culture requires effort and an openness to ideas and beliefs that might seem foreign or contradictory to one’s own values.

A simplistic artistic interpretation of another culture, no matter how well intentioned, can do more harm than good.

The risks involved with poorly executed artistic endeavors in this vein include providing a narrow glimpse into another culture that tends to fall into clichéd and, in some cases, orientalist interpretations.

This trap is easily fallen into if individual artists or organization don’t put in the necessary work required to bridge cultural gaps.

How To Build Meaningful Cultural Connections

Although the approach differs a bit between individuals and organizations, here are some helpful tools that I feel will give depth and meaning to such projects.

  1. The musician/composer/organization undertaking this project must be open to being transformed themselves on some level by the process of learning about the given culture. In other words, the process of learning about this foreign culture is just as important as the end result (the concert, the composition etc.). If any corners are cut in the process then the project will suffer from a shallowness that risks cheapening the entire endeavor.
    Ask yourself: how can you expect to change the minds of an audience if you yourself have not been changed?
  2. If the project involves using musical materials in a non-traditional context, then thorough research is a must. This means using resources from blogs, to books to in-depth and peer reviewed articles such as those available on Oxford Music Online, to doctoral dissertations and scholarly articles in the fields of musicology or ethnomusicology.  Your research need not be over-the-top but find at least one or two in-depth  These written sources can and should be supplemented by seeking the guidance from musicians who are steeped in that tradition.  If you are seeking to use a specific melody find out who composed it in order to avoid any potential copyright issues.
    Ask yourself: how can my understanding of the music and the culture from which it came help to give greater depth to my composition, concert or project?

Because music does not exist in a vacuum, you need ascertain the provenance of the song or melody by asking questions such as:

  1. In what context is this music traditionally performed?
  2. What do the lyrics mean?
  3. What might the melody and lyrics mean to performers and to listeners from the tradition?
  4. How might using this melody in a different context affect its meaning?

More so than the melody or the song itself, the back-story of the music has a great potential to connect with audiences.  While musical languages are not universal from culture to culture, the sentiments that are expressed through them often are.  These sentiments hold the greatest potential of making elemental human connections.  Once you’ve done this work, then and only then should you begin working with the musical materials which might include transcribing the melody.

This last act is a very personal one especially when it comes to notating music from an oral tradition.  As the melody undergoes a change by being given the physical form of notation, so should the composer be changed by this experience.

This part of the process is a bit nebulous and difficult to describe, but I suppose it involves a deep internalizing of the music at hand.  Perhaps it involves making the music your own as if it has been part of you for a very long time.  From here the composer can truly begin to work with this material with the aim of weaving something new and fresh from it.

For larger arts organizations, this effort will likely require seeking the assistance of musicians or musicologists who have spent years working in this tradition.

Figuring out what ‘ethnic’ musicians to hire might begin with a Google search but it should not end there.  

In addition, try to avoid obvious and clichéd programming ideas such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade as part of a programming featuring music of the Near East, for instance.  Despite its undeniable place of greatness in the western cannon, Scheherezade has nothing to do with the real Near East.  Such works only perpetuate stereo-types and are part of a large body of works that offer a distorted view of the Near East. Sadly such works of art still influence western attitudes about the Near East.  Some of the work involved in these projects will include well thought out programming for concerts where symphony orchestras or chamber groups might share the stage with traditional ensembles.

If the composer or organization is unwilling to do this work then it is better that such projects are left to those who are willing to put in the necessary effort.  More than anything else individual artists and arts organization should strive to avoid the artistic equivalent of a sound bite.  To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran “A baker who bakes his bread with half a heart will only satisfy half of one’s hunger.”

About Kareem Roustom

Syrian-American Kareem Roustom is a musically bilingual composer who has collaborated with a wide variety of artists receiving numerous commissions to compose works for Kronos Quartet, Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and others. Roustom's music has been performed at the BBC Proms, the Salzburg & Lucerne Festivals, and from the far east to the near east, Europe, the USA and Latin America. His work in independent film has earned him an Emmy-nomination and he has collaborated with traditional and popular artists from around the world including Shakira and Tina Turner. His recent commissions include a clarinet concerto for clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and the Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, and a new commission for the Pierre Boulez Ensemble. Roustom holds the position of Professor of the Practice at Tufts University in Boston where he teaches composition and Arab music courses. For more information please visit

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