Marcus LaPratt remembers his five World Youth Choir tours more fondly for the off-stage moments, the face-to-face interaction with talented people of another land.
Some of those interactions shattered his perceptions of foreign culture. On one such occasion, he was ridiculed for overlooking an obvious answer to a question many Americans in a similar situation would have posed.
As LaPratt dined in Taiwan with seven other choir members, four of whom of Asian descent, he realized the only people sitting at the table who were using chopsticks were not Asian. So he asked the question: Why?
“They looked at me like it was the stupidest question, and they laughed and said, ‘Because it’s easier to use a fork,’” LaPratt recalls. “It sounds like a trivial thing, but for me it was quite eye-opening culturally because as an American, I have this impression that Asian people use chopsticks.”
LaPratt, a music teacher in Michigan, would later organize Singers Of United Lands, which first went on tour in 2004. SOUL annually chooses four musicians from separate continents to make a six-month tour of the United States.
Through the traveling band program, audiences are greeted with live music, amateur photographs of a traveler’s residence, random personal tidbits and a breathing witness as to how Namibian influences differ from American culture.
LaPratt says he was motivated to start the group by the realization that American educators were barely scratching the surface in their determination to provide diverse influences to their students.
Whereas a teacher could justify a cultural-expanding assignment as being one of listening to a foreign song and learning to pronounce the words, LaPratt credits his touring background for the belief that a true understanding of another nationality could not arise without interaction.
“The most impactful experiences were not the times I was performing, but living and working with the other musicians,” LaPratt says.
For the sixth-straight year, a SOUL quartet arrives in Thibodaux.
Engelhardt Unaeb hails from Namibia, an African country that borders South Africa on the continent’s west coast. English is the Namibian national language, and the 27-year-old bass vocalist grew up belting lyrics in flow with Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
Now a member of the ninth Singers Of United Lands class, and on his second stint in the United States, Engelhardt lends an authentic voice to children and the community-at-large during his five days in Thibodaux as part of the Jubilee Festival.
“I think it’s a great program since it breaks boundaries and takes away generalization of what people think of the world and other countries and cultures outside of America,” Engelhardt explains through email correspondence. “Music is always a pleasurable and safe route to explain differences and learn about each other. It opens up people’s minds about the world.”
Each year, the musicians are chosen from four separate continents. Paola Granado, 29, of Cochabamba, Bolivia; Virgil Sequeira, 21, of Vasai, India; and Zuzanna Rybinska, 26, of Gdynia, Poland fill out this year’s team.
Before the six-month tour concludes June 24, the band will have visited 13 American States, Canada, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The team is scheduled to perform 23 times in Thibodaux.
In addition to music, each member is encouraged to share tidbits about his or her culture. The performers answer questions at the conclusion of each session and are able to lead discussions on foreign languages, geography, social sciences, politics and economics, according to the website.
“So my inspiration to join the SOUL project after numerous invitations to audition was because I want to make more professional networking, learn from choral directors, learn music from other countries that I can take back to Namibia and of course see more of the ‘Land of Opportunities,’” Engelhardt says.
Engelhardt accompanies Paola on the piano for one song while she sings solo. He’s the group’s bass vocalist in most songs and can sing “an acceptable tone falsetto,” he says. He also teaches audiences the four clicks and tonalities used in Damara, his first language.
Engelhardt laments that his clothes are perpetually wrinkled due to his living out of a suitcase during the tour. The group travels from city to city in a “practical but not comfortable,” Ford Transit Connect, according to LaPratt.
Once the group arrives in a new location, they meet the host family and rest until the next morning, when they get dressed and drive to the event. There is the occasional downtime, but the visitors don’t always have the travel means to experience rural locations.
Still, the singers are able to see enough of the country to compare with the perceptions they had of the United States before joining the tour.
“Well one always thinks that America is all glitz and glamour and no poverty,” Engelhardt says. “But we have seen a lot of homeless people and the state that Detroit, Michigan is in. Yet again we see a lot of opportunities in America. If you have the right mind of thinking there are so many opportunities in this country that it offers.”
Not that Engelhardt was ignorant of American culture, by any means. He studied sound recording engineering during his year abroad in Tempe, Ariz., plus American music and television programming are readily available in Namibia.
In fact, it was because he was accommodating a busy schedule that he missed half of the Grammy awards this year.
“I love American music so I never want to miss Grammys and the short notice commemoration of Whitney was touching and Jennifer Hudson did a good job,” Engelhardt says.
Zuzanna Rybinska (Poland), Paola Granado (Bolivia), Virgil Sequeira (India) and Engelhardt Unaeb (Namibia) perform. The quartet makes its first public appearance in Thibodaux at 8:45 a.m. March 12 at the Bollinger Memorial Student Union on Nicholls State University’s campus. Click the link below to view the full schedule.