How I Spent My Summer: Sonia Seeman

How I Spent My Summer: Sonia Seeman

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The University of Texas campus was quiet over the summer, while students and faculty spent their time working on projects around the globe. The College of Fine Arts was no exception. Students and faculty from all three departments took advantage of the break from coursework to pursue research, teach seminars or test the waters of a future career. Here is a glimpse into what happens when classes end, and the fun begins.

Butler School of Music Associate Professor Sonia Seeman traveled to both Pakistan and Turkey.Sonia Seeman in Pakistan

Tell me a little bit about your travels this summer.

This summer I was fortunate to have two trips and two foci: One, to Karachi, Pakistan as part of the ongoing educational exchange between the Butler School of Music and the National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA). Two, to Turkey to visit with musician families, honor the one-year death anniversary of my teacher (usta) Selim Sesler, and wrap up permissions for my book on Turkish Roman (Gypsy) music. Both experiences were incredible journeys!

Was there a specific focus or goal in mind for this summer's visit?

At NAPA, I gave a six-part workshop series on Middle Eastern rhythmic and melodic modes, improvisation and an overview of music of the Middle East. We explored rhythms ranging from simple 2/4 to different kinds of 4/4, 8/8, 9/8 and 10/8 meters, by learning the drum syllables, playing instruments and even learning dances to get the rhythms in the body. The students accomplished a lot—learning a drum solo that progresses through these different rhythms, including one ironically called “Karachi,” which indeed is very common in this area of Pakistan. This project is part of an ongoing exchange funded by the U.S. State Department and overseen by Professor Kamran Ali, anthropologist and director of the South Asia Institute (in the College of Liberal Arts) on campus.

You've studied the music of Turkey and Roma culture for many years. Did you learn anything new or surprising this summer?

I always learn something new whenever I visit my Roman friends in Turkey. I was surprised to see how much Roman rap has taken over at weddings, performed by DJs over preprogrammed tracks. But they continue to perform (and their customers demand!) older forms of Roman dance music and songs as well. I was unhappily surprised at the increasing number of Roman neighborhoods that continue to be destroyed. This time I also visited a new planned community outside of the Thracian town of Kesan where the city will be moving about 700 poorer Roman families into sterile apartments, far from the city center.

Aside from work, were you able to take some time to have some fun, enjoy a good meal or sightsee?

While it was painful to revisit my teacher’s grave, I was grateful to have the opportunity to erect his gravestone and facilitate the one-year mevlud or prayer commemoration. And along with the sadness, there was joy as well. My teacher's oldest granddaughter became betrothed to a young man from a Romani-speaking village, so we were “obligated" to participate in the fiancé’s family’s celebrations back in the village—which meant more music, dancing and food. Another great joy was to meet with one of my advisees, Alex Kreger, who is finishing his Fulbright field research on a Muslim mystical sect and minority group—with whom he now tours and performs!
It’s hard for me to separate work from play. I am fortunate to be in a field where the people, sense of community, sharing food and enjoyment of life along with music is always a stimulating experience. My only regret: not having enough time to enjoy all my favorite street foods and Turkish puddings!

How will this summer's work impact or shape you as you head into a new fall semester?

As I move into this semester, I am excited to work on several projects—including bringing my teacher’s sons over to the U.S. for a small tour. As usual, I have several articles waiting for my attention after sending off this last set of permissions for my book, other writing projects and guest artists’ residencies in the works for my ensemble, UT Middle Eastern Ensemble Bereket. We are continuing our projects with NAPA, with a concert of Pakistani-fusion music with members of NAPA and Butler faculty and students, scheduled for performances on the UT campus and in Houston in December, and in Pakistan in March. It looks like a full but stimulating year ahead, with more fun in store!

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