The Music Of Being Human

The Music of Being Human


Professor Dr André de Quadros has spent a substantial amount of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but as a music educator for prison ministry programmes in Bangkok, Sweden, and the United States. 

“There is a forgotten world out there,” he said during his lecture at UCSI University’s Institute of Music, referencing the disabled, dying, sick, homeless, elderly, poor, racial minorities, refugees and asylum seekers, and the incarcerated. “These are the people who are being excluded, who are undervalued, and whose music is not represented.” 

Citing Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states that everyone has the right to freely participate in cultural life and to enjoy the benefit of the arts, he asked, “Are your rights extinguished if you are one of the forgotten?” 

Prof de Quadros started his prison ministry back in 2006 and has since then developed with his colleagues an approach they call Empowering Song – a teaching method rooted in improvised song, poetry, body work, and imagery. 

“We are not allowed to bring any musical instruments into the prisons with us so we are working with the body,” he said. “The focus becomes, how do we make music with access to nothing? But human beings are hardwired to create, it’s in our DNA, so we just have to tap into that.” 

Sensitive to vanishing culture and traditions, the professor of music and chair at Boston University often seeks out music and songs of the old that are on the verge of being forgotten. In them, he guides his students to breathe new life and to use them as inspiration to create new art. 

As prisons forbid recording devices, Prof de Quadros was only able to share the inmates’ physical work like a profound piece of poetry penned around a traditional gospel song lyric and a painting of a solitary boat anchored at a dock that was completed with cotton buds and the dye off M&M candies. 

Most of the inmates he had spent time with were musically illiterate but from resistant teenagers to the reserved elderly, Prof de Quadros had managed to coax them all into actively participating in the creative process. 

“It may take a while for the brain and body to switch to music but it’s all in the course of helping people experience music and love,” he said. “What I want to leave them with is to think of themselves as musical beings and that they can make music.” 

One of his students was Greg, a 50-year-old man who was sentenced to life when he was a teenager. In 2012, Greg’s case came up for resentencing and during his hearing he credited music for changing his life. Greg was released last year and since then, has accompanied Prof de Quadros to speak at presentations and to share his personal journey with music. 

“Music has immense power,” said Prof de Quadros. “It is reconnecting inmates to their self-worth, recovering in them a sense of humanity, and transforming their lives in ways that they have never imagined.” 

An ardent human rights and social change activist, Prof de Quadros believes that consensus music-making can bring people and cultures together. To that end, he has been at the forefront of efforts for music and social change. In 2008, during the Iraq war, he co-created a choral festival in Jordan that brought together choirs from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. 

“I was terrified that we wouldn’t make it there and back alive but it turned out to be a great success,” he said. “This experience made me realise how important it was for Arabs to be together and to make music together, especially in this time of conflict.” The festival was such a success that it was repeated in 2012. 

Last year, he helped to bring together equal groups of Arabs, Israelis, and Swedes – flying the Middle Easterners to Stockholm – to form an international project choir. Common Ground Voices gave its first performance in the presence of the King and Queen of Sweden and an invited audience. 

Prof de Quadros doesn’t think of himself as a man with a personal mission but rather, as a path. “I’m always listening to what the locals want to do,” he said. “I have ideas but I don’t go with a plan because it’s not about me, it’s about what the people need and want. They are my partner and I am theirs.” 

Asked by a member of the audience if he had encountered any opposition in his work, he recalled how a prison administrator did not believe that learning music would be of any use to the inmates even as the programme was at that moment helping to broker peace between rival gang members. 

“We live in a complex environment where not everyone believes in the value of the arts and that music makes sense only when there’s an economic rationalism behind it,” he said. “The administrator didn’t think music was a life skill, she would rather have had us teach welding or plumbing.” 

He told a story of a team who built a dam high in the Bolivian mountains. After the construction was completed, the team leader realised that they had unspent funds and he offered it to the villagers. The team leader was taken aback when the village leader requested for musical instruments. He asked if they would rather have improvements like electricity, a sewer system, or telephone lines. 

Continued Prof de Quadros, “The elder explained that everyone in their village plays an instrument: We would gather to make music before we talk about the problems that we face in our community and how to solve them. Our instruments are old and falling apart; without music, so will we.” 

During his week at UCSI, Prof de Quadros participated in a lively dialogue and conducted over 10 hours of coaching sessions for all four of UCSI’s choirs – chamber, concert, mixed and junior. He came away speaking highly of the students he taught. 

“UCSI has very fine students here,” he said. “They’re intelligent, responsive, and above all I find particularly terrific is that they’re eager. I asked them to create or think about something in a particular way, and they gave me many ideas and thoughts while demonstrating particularly good skill levels. I was really impressed.” 

As someone who has been in this discipline for a better part of his life, Prof de Quadros is well aware that in this ever-changing society, music education is constantly shifting and evolving. 

“The world of music, technology, the brain and the body, the relationship between music and society, the role of culture, how music is developed in schools and in communities – they are all changing so dramatically,” he said. “Institutions must be responsive and UCSI is very much so. 

“The teaching staff I’ve met here are very engaging and very committed to their mission, and Professor P’ng is a fine leader who really understands what needs to be done for a music institution. Everything that I’ve seen here has all the ingredients for long-term success.” 

With a concert scheduled for Prof de Quadros’s last day at UCSI, Adjunct Professor Ian Lim Kean Seng had been preparing the chamber and concert choirs for the performance over the last semester. Before he took the stage with the students, Prof de Quadros spent some time with the choirs working on a couple of songs and guiding them to approach their musical ideas from alternative perspectives. 

“I only came in at the end and brought some different takes,” he said. “We ended up altering some ideas, but I would say the way which I’m leading is very much in sympathy in the way that they’ve been preparing so the process was really smooth.” 

"Performing with Professor de Quadros was refreshing," said Low Lik How, assistant leader of the chamber choir's bass section. "He suggested that we do not stand in the traditional choir setting but instead in a circle which allowed us to produce a different sound.” 

“It was a fantastic experience,” added Shaun Chow, section leader of the chamber choir. “I learned plenty of culture, language, and how an experienced maestro perceives music and shapes it for the public accordingly.” 

The interaction and fresh insights are certainly one of the many advantages to having visiting musicians, according to Professor Dr P’ng Tean Hwa, Director of the Institute of Music. 

“Students will get to work with someone of a world-class calibre and under a different atmosphere, but they will also be hearing a lot of same things that we have been telling them,” he said. “This reinforces that learning even as they explore different angles with the guest.” 

Jessica Teh, president of UCSI's concert choir fully agrees. "Prof de Quadros dealt not just with music education, but the purpose behind why we do what we do as educators,” said the contemporary music student. “It’s not just about us and what we gain from it, but ultimately what we can give back to the society through our art." 

Teh said that it was always encouraging to hear from music veterans who are reminders that it is possible to be successful in the industry. "You get the opportunity to hear all about their experiences and in that moment when they share their life with you, you get to stand on the shoulders of giants and see beyond what you usually see, and that expands your view as a musician and a person." 

Prof de Quadros will continue globetrotting after his visit to UCSI, with an upcoming Islamic music concert in Boston and an International Youth Choir Festival in London. He left UCSI with a thought-provoking call to action. 

“Ask yourselves what you can do as a musician and as global citizen,” he encouraged the students. “Education prepares you to create a better place so what kind of world do you want to live in? What is music in that world and where does everyone fit in? How can you harness your strengths to realise it?” 

Prof de Quadros was visiting professor to the Institute of Music from 27 to 31 March 2017.