A Whole New World

The women of Libana use exotic instruments to create the colors of sound and human experience.

By: Susan Van Dongen


   It used to be that "world music" was something you’d find only in academic music libraries, on boxed sets from the Smithsonian or occasionally on the Nonesuch label in the discount bin at record stores.
   Now the genre has grown so much in popularity that it has its own top-sales chart in Billboard magazine, as well as numerous categories within the Grammy Awards.
   "It’s true — world music is very acceptable now," says Susan Robbins, founder of Libana, the all-female "women’s world music" septet. "As the world becomes more of a global community, we hear the sounds of different cultures much more easily. It’s more readily acceptable than when we began our journey in 1979."
   Celebrating its 25th year, Libana will bring music, song, stories and dance from around the world to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton March 5. The concert is sponsored by the Waldorf School of Princeton in celebration of its 20th anniversary.
   "The two communities are joining forces to bring us (to Princeton)," Ms. Robbins says. "Our music appeals to so many different kinds of audiences. Some people get into us because they love a cappella singing, others because they love world music. Still others appreciate the deeper aspect of what we’re doing — building a bridge between cultures, trying to bring to life and link the various aspects of (humanity). There are many, many inroads into our experience."
   Libana’s performances open doors to diverse, rarely heard women’s musical expressions from around the world. Their music includes an array of original and traditional songs, meditative and celebratory rounds, chants and dances.
   Dressed in brilliant hand-painted silks and wielding a multitude of unusual ethnic instruments, the women of Libana are expert in many vocal styles, from a cappella Balkan harmonies to the traditional singing of Berber women in Algeria.
   "In many cultures around the world, women had their own celebrations (which utilized music)," Ms. Robbins says, adding that the group picks up a lot of its music from foreign travels, exchanging creative ideas with people from other cultures.
   "We live in Boston, which is a very multicultural city," she says. "We do workshops with people who share their culture with us and we do a lot of listening."
   Libana’s instrumentation ranges from ancient Middle Eastern stringed instruments like the oud, to the guitar, double bass and clarinet.
   "I sort of find and collect the stringed instruments from around the world," Ms. Robbins says. "We also have bamboo flutes and pennywhistles and lots of percussion. At any given concert it’s constantly changing. We use instrumentation found in different parts of the world. For example, if we’re doing a song from (the Russian republic of) Georgia, I’ll play the charangi.
   "We also incorporate dance in our performances," Ms. Robbins continues. "We have a very accomplished dancer in our midst. She might do a traditional Hawaiian or Egyptian healing dance, or an Armenian line dance."
   The group has appeared in concerts literally near and far — from the Philadelphia Folk Festival to the International Folk Festival in Varna, Bulgaria. Libana plays frequently at festivals in Canada, including the Festival d’Été de Quebec in Quebec City and Le Monde en Musique, Bromont, Quebec. The musicians played the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in Walhalla as well as First Night in their hometown of Boston.
   The septet has been a guest artist at the United Nations General Assembly International Conference, the Smithsonian Museum Concert Series in Washington, D.C., and the National Organization for Women’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, also in Washington. In addition, Libana has taken part in various educational seminars such as the Orff-Schulwerk International Conference in Philadelphia, and the National Conference of Women Educators in Independent Schools in Wisconsin.
   Libana has sold more than 100,000 recordings in the U.S., Canada and the British Isles. At Ladyslipper, the largest American distributor of women’s music, Libana outsells other artists nearly four-to-one.
   Taking its name from a 10th-century Moorish poet and musician, Libana was founded with the idea to explore and perform pieces reflecting women’s undocumented musical heritage — songs that marked everyday activities, such as singing children to sleep.
   In contrast, Ms. Robbins reflects that here in the United States music is compartmentalized. Musicians make music and we listen passively, and only at special occasions like concerts.
   "In other cultures, music is woven into the strands of daily life," she says.
   In the last quarter-century, her work with Libana has led her to understand the range of things that can be accompanied by music — from songs of lament and mourning to observing life’s numerous passages.
   "In researching our programs, we’re really doing ‘world music,’" Ms. Robbins says. "We’re celebrating the many different colors of sound and human experience around the world."
Libana performs at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton, March 5, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20, $15 for students. Proceeds will benefit the Waldorf School of Princeton’s tuition assistance program and a Waldorf school and center for handicapped children in Kyrgystan, Asia. For information, call (609) 466-1970. On the Web: www.eugenewaldorf.org. Libana on the Web: www.libana.com