Sunday, September 07, 2014

Abrace - "Embracing the World Through Music"

Abrace,  L to R: Derek Learned, Mikaela Romero, Angie Bolton, Samia Panni, Joyce Yarrow, Rebeqa Rivers
Abrace is an acapella-plus-percussion singing group which has made it their mission to find, harmonize and perform folk songs from around the world in a context of peace, love, acceptance, and celebration of all the world's peoples and cultures. Committed to performing the songs in their original languages, they currently sing in 20 different languages and dialects.

Abrace is comprised of five excellent women vocalists and a top percussionist from the Seattle area. They have performed in Seattle' St Mark's Cathedral, The San Juan De Fuca Arts Festival, the Bellevue Arts Fair, the Seattle Art Museum, The Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle's Benaroya Hall, and many other venues.

Co-lead by Samia Panni and Joyce Yarrow, the group includes singers Rebeqa Rivers, Angie Bolton, and Mikaela Romero, and the percussion duties are anchored by Derek Learned.

The treatment of the songs is done with great precision and care, as five-part harmonies are carefully worked out and Samia and Derek work together to creat a unique percussion groove for each song. As mentioned, they also have to learn to enunciate each song properly in it's original language, and there is a history that goes with each song, so it means doing  research on the story/history of the song and the culture each song arises from.

I caught them at the Bellevue Arts Fair on July 26th. Samia and Joyce were gracious to grant me an interview, so I will let them speak about the band in their own words. For myself, I have seen them perform three times, and I am always impressed not only by the musicianship, but the spirit with which they recreate these songs.

So, without further adieu, the interview:

What is the inspiration for Abrace? How did you go about translating that inspiration into the actual group that I saw at the BAM Arts Fair?

Joyce:  We started out as a study group – 4 professional singers who wanted to expand their repertoires to include songs in many languages and challenge themselves to grow musically.

After 9/11, when the world tilted radically toward intolerance, we felt that a group performing world music could help build bridges to inter-cultural understanding. At that point we became more serious about performing in public, especially at inter-faith events. Since then, we have appeared at music festivals throughout the Northwest, as well as Benaroya Hall, and the Rainier Valley Cultural Center. One highpoint was sharing the stage with a Rabbi, Bishop and an Imam  who participated in an ‘Islamophobia’ conference at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. It was so inspiring to see people of different faiths come together to erase misunderstandings and grow friendships.

Samia - Another highpoint I would like to add is our World Music & Dance of Peace concerts that we performed at three events, one being Arts Gumbo,at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, in collaboration with members of MB Orchestra, George Sadak and Maurice Sadak Rouman, Brazilian dancer, Dora Oliveira,  and Middle Eastern dance ethnologist, Helene Ericksen.  I truly enjoyed rearranging a song in our repertoire in order of blend music of different cultures for these performances. For example: we took a Brazilian song, Zanzibar, in the baião rhythm and George suggested incorporating a Saudi Arabian rhythm, called khaleeji, which fit perfectly. Maurice played the introduction to Zanzibar on oud.  The blend was seamless.

What do you see Abrace's role being in the universe of world music i.e - what would Abrace's "mission statement" be like? How would you like the audience to be affected by your music? Is Abrace just about the music only, or is there a connection to, or a message about, the world we live in?

Joyce - Abráce means ‘embrace’ in Portuguese, and our motto is simple: ‘Embracing the World Through Music.”  Some of our songs convey a message – such as “Bring Peace Upon Us,” written and performed by a group of courageous Palestinian and Israeli musicians. We also sing in Ladino, a language mixing Hebrew and Spanish that was developed during La Convivencia – an era when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative peace. We look for positive, international connections wherever we can find them and often create medleys – for example, by combining the South African freedom song “Siph’ Amandla” with the American classic “The Storm is Passing Over,” written by the composer of We Shall Overcome.

Our production of World Music and Dance of Peace concert brought together musicians and dancers from many different backgrounds to create a border-bending mix of music and dance from Middle Eastern, Balkan, African and South American roots. This is the type of collaborative energy that we believe peace is built upon.

Abrace sings in 20 languages, many of them tribal or clan dialects. How do you find the songs? How do you go about translating the lyrics so you understand the meaning of each song? How do you make sure your pronunciation is accurate in so many different languages? Given that song lyrics often incorporate metaphors and idioms unique to the composer's culture, do you have to study a bit about each ethnic group to understand the cultural context and deeper meanings of a particular song's lyrics?

Samia -  When a new member has started with the group, we have asked them to bring in songs that they want to sing.  Therefore, a number of the songs in our repertoire have come from former and current members of the group.  Ben Black introduced us to our Japanese song, Kojo No Tsuki, Makala recently introduced us to a Polish song we recently added to our repertoire and Joyce brought our new Bengali song, Bhromor Koiyo Giya.  The Arab-Israeli peace song I found one day simply hunting on youtube, using keywords to find a song in Arabic that we could append to our Ladino song that Joyce received from a Jewish cantor.  As you see our songs have been added through various sources from all the members of the group, plus we have original compositions, such as "Saltando" that Joyce and I composed.

Regarding translations, we have been lucky to find translations online or the member who brings us the song manages to find translations.

In regards to the pronunciation, I have lived in so many countries and been exposed to so many languages when I was young thanks to being part of the diplomatic world and my anthropological studies that I am familiar with how things should be pronounced.  We also research proper pronunciation through various online and recorded resources.

I enjoy ethnomusicological research, so I will often seek out the origin, deeper meanings and cultural context of our songs, as have other members of the group.

Who is in the group? What do you see as each member's unique contribution to the group?

Joyce -Abráce includes vocalists Samia Panni, Joyce Yarrow, Makala Wengelewski-Romero, Rebeqa Rivers, and Angie Bolton – as well as percussionist Derek Learned. All of us contribute ideas and new material to the group and since we create our own song arrangements, we each bring unique ideas to the mix. Samia acts as is our ‘pronunciation police,” and her anthropological background often provides fascinating details about a song’s origins and meanings.

What's next for Abrace? What concerts do you have in the works? Are you working on a CD project? Where do we find your music?

We are currently developing a new thematic concept – freedom songs from around the world –  and expanding our repertoire in that direction. We have produced a Drop Card with 6  ‘downloadable’ songs that is for sale at our performances, but no CD as yet. Our music comes from everywhichwhere -  people send us suggestions, audience members make requests or an Abráce member decides to dig further into her (or his) background. Recently some Turkish friends came over to the studio and taught us a song sung during the demonstrations to save Gezi Park in Istanbul.

For more on Abrace:

Our FB page:
Reverbnation player with our music:
To request a download card of Abrace's music email Joyce at –

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