Daya Madhur’s musical journey into the world – curious arts

Ethnomusicologist and educator Daya Madhur uses the fine arts to build communities and transform lives, including her own

Many years ago when Daya Madhur’s parents signed up their shy and fearful daughter for choir, no one had any idea that this first immersion in the arts would blossom into a career. Additional lessons ensued, including drama, voice and performance, which led her to pursue a BMus/Ed at the University of Regina, followed by an MA in ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta.

Prior to obtaining her MA, Daya worked as a music teacher in Regina. She and her class participated in the now famous Music Monday event in 2013, which saw children from across Canada sing with astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was in orbit around the earth at the time. According to Madhur, the idea behind Music Monday, held on the first Monday of May, is that you should be able to hear music when you step out of the door, wherever you are.

“Honestly, I loved it!” she says. “It’s like Christmas. We opened it up to the community to come in and sing with us. It was wonderful.”  

DMadhur - Headshot

Connecting with the younger generation has always been important to Madhur, who sees the fine arts as a doorway to the world. Paradoxically, the field of ethnomusicology, by its very nature, brings the world home, functioning as a kind of two-way musical conduit. It’s a natural fit for the community-minded Madhur, who expanded on her academic and musical studies with an internship for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2014 (she worked on the release of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music) and as Pedagogical Community Outreach Coordinator for UAlberta’s folkwaysAlive

“Working at folkwaysAlive! was a chance to connect with people in the community and to reach out to newcomers in Edmonton,” she says. “We brought groups to campus and gave them tours. They were so proud, they wanted to talk about their music, they wanted to listen to folkways recordings, and talk about their life in Ghana or wherever they were from!”

During her program, Madhur was able to develop her craft as a musician by taking classes with the Indian Music Ensemble and the West African Ensemble, but the breadth of the program’s instruction came as a surprise.  “I remember enrolling in the West African Ensemble thinking I was going to read and talk about music, but it was very much a dance class as well, because so much of their culture is dancing,” says Madhur. “There are ethno students who come in from a research perspective, but also those who are performance. One student plays a sarangi. He’s come here because there aren’t many places to study a world instrument. The program is very interdisciplinary.”


Daya’s thesis project

Madhur’s MA thesis, Fostering a Sense of Community among Middle-Year Students through Song and Dance Practices, explored the ability of the fine arts — in particular music — to build communities, especially among at-risk youth.

“My thesis addressed racism, bullying and a sense of belonging. I really feel that those sentiments are ones that we can speak to through the arts,” Madhur says. “They put words where words fall short.”

Madhur worked with the Regina School Board to launch her project, partnering with a fellow master’s student who understood her project and what she was hoping to achieve. “It was a chance for students to work together and have those conversations,” she says. “Photography, dance, drama, oral narrative and soundscapes – it doesn’t matter. We used visual art to map out relationships and connections, and I got them to create a sense of belonging – places of contact. In one example, three boys made the connection that they all live in the same neighbourhood, and ride their bikes on the same streets. They brought a bike into my classroom and we created a performance piece on the bike!”

According to Madhur, as the students’ sense of connection grew, so did the art piece; evolving and adapting with each interaction. “They realized: we all breathe, we all have a heart, and so we created a body percussion piece where our breath was the percussion and then we danced out our narratives, our big moments.” The stories ran from personal loss to getting the winning touchdown at a football game, but in the end, Madhur says the students learned about connection. “It was such a diverse group, but it gave them a safe place to get those feelings out.”

 In 2015, Madhur received certification as a Smithsonian World Music Pedagogy Educator, the only Canadian to receive such designation, and earlier this year, completed an Artist-in Residency at the University of Regina. 

Now the new graduate is considering her options, knowing that whatever she does, singing, dancing and exploring the potential of the fine arts to transform lives will be part of the journey.  

Daya plays the Zimbabwe Marimba at the Smithsonian World Music course

Daya plays the Zimbabwe Marimba at the Smithsonian World Music course

Read more about Daya in this Work of Arts profile

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