Roberta Kirn's Song Exchange Project is officially launched

Photo courtesy of Roberta Kirn

Sharing songs in Kenya

I have been singing with Roberta Kirn for six years, and if you attended her Winter Concert and Community Sing at the Hebrew Center in December, then you may have heard some songs she has been gathering through her newly created Song Exchange Project. Roberta wrote to us singers in mid-December: “A few years ago I was reflecting on what kind of work I could do that would bring fulfillment and happiness to myself and others. The work would involve traveling to cultures other than my own, teaching songs that I have learned and gathering new ones to teach once I returned home. I would connect with others through the medium of song.”

Roberta named this effort the Song Exchange Project, then didn’t think about it again until February of 2014, when she went to teach at Daraja Academy in Kenya.

Roberta was both surprised and impressed that during her stay there, she would teach the students different songs and immediately hear them coming out of morning church service, or see students teaching the songs to other people. “That’s how quickly it goes,” Roberta told me recently. “To me that’s the Song Exchange Project — it is incorporated into their lives, because singing is so much a part of their daily lives already.” Roberta attributes the students’ quick learning to the fact that all the girls at the school speak their native language as well as English and at least one other African language.

“I have always loved to sing,” Roberta told me, “and when I was a teenager, all my friends thought I was going to be the next Joni Mitchell.” She plays guitar, piano, and drums. She originally began studying with Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Grammy Award-winning all-female African-American a cappella ensemble, who express their history through song, dance, and sign language. Their mission, she said “is to get people singing … to get other people singing.” After taking her first workshop, Roberta began her monthly Sings on the Vineyard. “I don’t know why we decided to perform,” she said. “It changes everything; it’s not about the performance, but the process that matters.”

Roberta says she is focused on how voices together unlock ourselves, how singing gives each of us inner strength, heals. If a person becomes focused on performance, they lose being in the moment. All that really matters, she says, is the time we share and our discovery and exploration of our own voices, and how singing in a group is in and of itself incredibly uplifting, beyond the vibrational energy created through a group of voices.

Roberta has continued to study group singing in workshops off-Island with Melanie DeMore, Nick Page, and Bobby McFerrin, and has brought DeMore and Page to the Vineyard, where they have conducted workshops for all ages at the high school and Union Chapel.

Onward aboard the Charlotte

Invited by Pam and Nat Benjamin to come and work with Sister Flora Orphanage, Roberta left for Ile à Vache, an island that is part of Haiti, on Dec. 29. Her home during her stay will be aboard the Charlotte. Before she left, she said she was excited to visit a small island that has its own culture, learn songs in Creole, and be introduced to another group of kids to work with. She is also hoping that when Pam and Nat continue their winter journey to Cuba, they will find an appropriate organization she can work with there next year.

Roberta will return to Kenya in late February for a month to continue to collect more songs from the rich traditions of the 30 different tribes represented at Daraja Academy and to teach the girls more of the songs that she has learned over the years. “I think of the girls often,” she said, “as I sing and teach their songs in Swahili and Samburu.”

Roberta hosts her next Community Sing on Thursday, Jan. 22, at 5 pm at the Charter School. To learn more about the Song Exchange Project or make a donation to support her work, go to bewellsing.com. There is a link on her site to learn more about the Daraja Academy, and to learn more about the Sister Flora Orphanage, go to freecruisingguides.com.