What Brings You Here?

Previously, international students flocked to Berklee to learn American music styles. Today's international students find inspiration by blending sounds from their homelands with American musical traditions.


  "One of the reasons that Berklee was interested in accepting me is that I could add something." -Ali Amr
  Phil Farnswworth

Most students arrive on these shores seeking immersion in jazz and other American musical styles. But the ethnic instruments and unusual traditions other students bring with them now attract attention. The blend of international and American styles has added new dimension to ensembles and extracurricular groups. The following discussion with five international students offers a glimpse of the influences that they have brought to Berklee and what they hope to take away.

Bringing It Back Home

As a child, Ali Amr, a Palestinian student from Ramallah, in the West Bank, didn't spend much time playing outdoors because of the danger in his war-torn land. His parents fostered his musical interests, and consequently Amr spent a lot of time indoors singing and playing the qanun (a 72-string Arabic lap harp) with his brother, a violinist, and his sister, a singer and oud player. "When I was seven, I started studying music at the only conservatory in Palestine," Amr says. "After that I performed throughout Palestine, and in Dubai, Sweden, and Norway." At 13, he spent 52 days in the United States performing with a Palestinian folkloric group showcasing Arab music and culture.


Amr faced unusual challenges in pursuing his dream of attending Berklee. "There was no audition site in Palestine, and getting into Israel is full of obstacles," he says. "There are many checkpoints along the way and then, and at the main checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, no one is allowed to pass without permission. I applied many times but was never admitted." Because of these circumstances, Berklee allowed Amr to audition via video.

After being accepted as Berklee's second-ever Palestinian student, there was celebration inside and outside his family. He was invited to perform for Mahmoud Abbas, his country's president. But Amr encountered additional hurdles before he received a visa to enter America. "We don't have a U.S. embassy in Palestine," he says. "The first time I asked for permission to visit the embassy in Jerusalem, the answer was no. My dad made some phone calls, saying this [represented] my future and that I had to go to the visa interview. It worked. I traveled to Jerusalem, where I spent the night to make sure that the next day I would be able to get to the embassy."

During his first year at Berklee, Amr's abilities on the exotic-sounding qanun brought invitations to participate in many top musical events. The year began with him sharing the stage with a high-profile Arabian visiting artist and ended with a spotlight performance at Berklee's 2010 commencement concert. Because there are so few Palestinian students at Berklee, Amr feels a responsibility to be a cultural ambassador.

"One of the reasons that Berklee was interested in accepting me is that I could add something," Amr says. "I really want to do that-not just come here, study, graduate, and leave." He also looks forward to bringing fresh musical ideas back home. "I really love Arabic music because I think it expresses my feelings more than any other music I play. But I like all kinds of music. That's one of the reasons I'm [studying] here rather than in Tunisia or Egypt. I want to do something special: mix all this music and add our music to it. Lately I'm trying to play jazz on my qanun. It feels great to have all the prospects opened in front of my eyes. I don't think I would have this experience anywhere else in the world."

"I learn a lot in class, but I'm also learning a lot from the other students. They had their own history before they came here." -Ariadna Castellanos-Rivas  

Flamenco Flavor


During Berklee's May 2010 commencement concert, Spanish-born pianist Ariadna Castellanos-Rivas performed a tribute to flamenco guitar legend Paco de Lucía. The concert was a high-water mark in her still-fledgling career. "I was so nervous and happy when we played for him," she says. "After the concert, he told us he really liked what we did with his music." The flamenco master was treated to a new take on three of his pieces that were performed by a 12-piece ensemble, including piano, qanun, woodwinds, French horn, and percussion, but no guitar.


It's still somewhat rare to hear a pianist playing flamenco music, but for Castellanos-Rivas playing it is completely natural. Growing up in Madrid, Spain, she often joined in with neighbors who played flamenco music. But flamenco is just one of the flavors in her continually developing style. Castellanos-Rivas began playing classical piano as a child and, after high school, attended the Guildhall School of Music in London where she earned a degree in classical piano performance.

"After Guildhall, I felt the repertoire for the classical pianist is amazing, but you just interpret the notes," she says. "There was a part of me that wanted to create my own music." After returning to Madrid, she started playing with flamenco ensembles, which deepened her understanding of the flamenco tradition and improvisation.

"Flamenco musicians know a lot of beats and songs and where they are going, but they don't think about chord scales or what notes they are playing." After playing with a jazz ensemble at Guildhall, Castellanos-Rivas began to discover her limitations as an improviser.

"I liked the feeling of improvising," she says. "But I had never learned jazz or understood chord symbols. I didn't know enough about how music worked, so I decided to come to Berklee."

In 2009, Castellanos-Rivas arrived at Berklee on a full presidential scholarship because of her extraordinary pianistic abilities. She has since further explored jazz and music from other cultures. "The way jazz is taught here gives the key to everything," she says. "You learn to play in alternate meters and over all kinds of harmonies. These are the tools for creating your own voice."

Her courses and her interactions with other students have added new dimension to her stylistic palette. "I've gotten to play so many different types of music here," she says. "I am playing with Indian musicians and people from Egypt. I learn a lot in class, but I'm also learning a lot from the other students. They had their own history before they came here."

Castellanos-Rivas intends to tap her own history as a classical pianist. "Composers like Debussy, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Ravel found colors and textures in the piano that no one had used before," she says. "There are so many sounds you can produce with the piano. Some jazz pianists are not aware of these things. They learn to play the right notes and to swing, but they use the same textures throughout. I want to bring the colors I learned from classical music into jazz."

Her immediate plans include making an album with famed Spanish producer Javier Lim?n in Spain next summer. After that, more studies at Berklee. "There will always be something else to learn. I talk with musicians who are in their sixties and are still discovering things. As a musician, you never rest."

  Yang Song
  Kelly Davidson

Blending Cultures


Yang Song was building a successful career as a music producer in China when he realized he was missing key components in his training. He wrote and arranged songs, but when it came to mixing and mastering, his knowledge fell short.


"That's why I came here," says the 29-year-old seventh-semester MP&E and music business/management double major. "I thought I should have more knowledge in this field."

Song grew up in Xining, the largest city in the Tibetan province of Qinghai, and moved to Shanghai when he was 11. He was surrounded by music and started teaching himself a bit of piano when he was six years old. "I knew I loved music," he says. "I liked to sing and play piano even though I didn't know how to play very well."

A couple of years later, his parents had him switch to trombone, reasoning that it would give him a better shot at getting into Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Song was admitted to the conservatory and focused on classical trombone studies. Later, he switched back to the piano, his first love and his principal instrument when he entered Berklee.

But enrolling at Berklee brought unforeseen challenges. When he arrived, Song didn't speak much English. And even though he had prepared during the previous year, he didn't understand much because of the huge difference in accents between Chinese and American English speakers "It frustrated me," he says. "But it's getting better."

Song is fully immersed in his MP&E classes, which he describes as fantastic but busy. His "Music Production for Records" class with Associate Professor Prince Charles Alexander has been particularly inspiring. "He is a really amazing Grammy-winning professor," Song says. "He gives us lots of ideas about music production, from beginning to end, how to [realize] your ideas."

Studying at Berklee has highlighted the differences between music production in America and in China. "The process is different, because there are two different cultures," he says. Compared with the softer, more subtle Chinese music, American music is bolder, and its emotion is more apparent on the first listen, he says. For Song, this presents an opportunity. "I'm here to explore how to combine these two different cultural styles," he says.

In addition to his classes, Song has enjoyed meeting musicians from all over the world, sharing music and ideas. "That would never happen in my country," he says, noting that China's musical community lacks such diversity. While at Berklee, Song hasn't completely given up his contacts in the Chinese music industry. He continues to work remotely from Boston on arrangements for Chinese artists.

After graduation, Song plans to move to Los Angeles and pursue his dream: to establish a music-production business and bring Chinese artists to America to create an international music production network. "I want artists to experience the culture here and to produce Western-based pop music with some Chinese elements," he says. He envisions the exchange going the other way, too. "I'd like to bring together artists from each place and have them influence each other's music."

During the late 1950s, jazz musicians from around the world began enrolling at Berklee after hearing Voice of America broadcasts and reading print media stories. At the same time, Berklee's educational materials had reached nearly 50 countries. In response to this exposure, students who sought contemporary music training at the source started arriving at the school. Throughout the intervening decades, Berklee alumni in popular groups as well as new and traditional media sources have continued to generate interest in Berklee's educational offerings abroad.

Germaine Wilson  
Kelly Davidson  

A Larger Role for Music


Germaine Wilson, who hails from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, is not the typical Berklee student. She's always been passionate about music, but it wasn't until she was in her thirties that she decided to focus on her musical ambitions. Before coming to Berklee, she had already earned a college degree and was juggling a full-time job as a marketing officer at a credit union and another job managing her college cafeteria, in addition to selling Avon cosmetics and gigging as a singer.


One by one, her musical achievements began to mount. They included six championship trophies earned in a single Trinidad and Tobago music festival, a finalist spot in a talent competition, and an invitation to sing with the prestigious Lydian Choir. With each honor, it became clear that music making should be a focus in Wilson's life.

"People started asking, 'What are you going to do next?'" she recalls. Wilson knew that to pursue music seriously, she needed more formal training. While she had plenty of performance experience, she didn't know much about music theory. At the time, she was performing mostly classical music, but she had sung calypso, jazz, gospel and rap, and had played steel pans throughout high school.

At the age of 37, Wilson came to Berklee to fill gaps in her music education and raise her performing skills to a new level. Older than most students at Berklee, Wilson laughs good-naturedly about missing some current pop-star allusions in discussions with younger students. But in one discussion, she was the only one able to identify Olivia Newton-John and El DeBarge.

Wilson takes her education seriously, recognizing that she's got a lot to learn. "Analyzing music is something I've never been able to do," she says. "I sang jazz and blues without knowing about 12-bar blues form and chord progressions. I've never been able to say, 'Go back to the I chord' or 'Go back to the IV.' I didn't have that vocabulary. Being able now to describe and analyze music and understand improvisation and harmonies is awesome."

Wilson has just completed her first semester and is deciding whether to major in performance, music education, professional music, music business/management, or in a combination of majors. After arriving at Berklee, Wilson had to adjust to some cultural and other differences. Addressing professors by their first names, learning English pronunciations different from those she's used to, and adjusting to a looser social culture given her own reserved demeanor are among those she mentions. And then there's the weather.

It's too soon to say what's on the horizon after Berklee, but Wilson will no doubt use her business acumen. She always managed her singing gigs as a business, maintaining a separate account from her other endeavors. No matter what lies on the road ahead, Wilson is determined to develop her chops so that she'll be prepared. "I feel I'll have the authority to call myself a musician. [Before] people would say, 'Wow, Germaine, you can really sing.' But things got to a point where that wasn't enough for me. I want to be ready for whatever opportunity presents itself."

  "I'd love to use the Internet to show the rest of the world what's happening in Boston and at Berklee." -Jakub Trasak
  Phil Farnswworth

Bluegrass Arrival


The Czech Republic isn't known as a hotbed for bluegrass music. But when Jakub Trasak started playing the violin, he found himself surrounded by a thriving community of musicians dedicated to America's mountain music. He took quickly to the violin and, within a couple of years, toured nationally. The producer of a televised talent show recognized his talent, and at only five years old, Trasak stood atop a folding chair next to a soloist from the Prague Philharmonic and performed the fiery fiddle feature "Orange Blossom Special."


Trasak received a copy of fiddler Mark O'Connor's New Nashville Cats CD and discovered that bluegrass and classical music were only the beginning of what the violin could do. He attended O'Connor's first fiddle camp and was amazed to find 200 violinists playing swing, jazz, and Celtic music as well as musical styles he'd never even heard of. "It opened my eyes to all these possibilities," Trasak says, "and the spectrum of music that could be played on the violin by people from age five to 80."

One member of Trasak's Czech bluegrass community had emigrated to the United States and mentioned a school in Boston that would suit Trasak's musical eclecticism. At 15, Trasak had an opportunity to attend Berklee, but his mother didn't want to send him off to another country at such a young age. Instead, he completed a diploma at the Jaroslav Je-ek Conservatory. But he still thought about attending Berklee. After winning a Berklee Achievement scholarship at a Paris audition, Trasak enrolled.

The move to Berklee presented both musical and cultural challenges. The class "Intercultural Communication" eased his transition by discussing how to deal with feelings of isolation, establishing a support network of friends, and grasping the vast array of options offered at Berklee. "Focus, focus, focus," Trasak says. "That's how I got through it. It's the only way."

Trasak's sharp focus has allowed him to take advantage of some of Berklee's best opportunities. Last year, Associate Professor Eugene Friesen led the Berklee World Strings ensemble in a concert with legendary bassist Ron Carter. "I had an opportunity to perform one of the solos," said Trasak. "When you have Ron Carter playing bass and Terri Lyne Carrington playing drums for you, you're like, 'OK, it really can't get much better than this!'" He has also found fertile ground for exploration in Jamey Haddad's Mixed-World Music Ensemble. "We have a singer from Greece, a flute player from Turkey, percussionists from the Dominican Republic with East Indian influences, and we're all trying to find a common language."

At Berklee, Trasak has also capitalized on professional development opportunities. Putting together ensembles and recording sessions offered real-world experiences in microcosm, requiring both talent and professionalism. In November 2010, he organized Berklee's first-ever String Showcase at the Berklee Performance Center, a concert of jazz, bluegrass, r&b, Latin, swing, and Celtic music.

After graduation, Trasak plans on staying in the area to mine the richness of Boston's string community. "The String Showcase was just a starting point," he says. "Right now I'm interested in putting up an interactive website to feature the artists from the showcase, Berklee faculty members, and other artists from Boston. It's truly a melting pot of violin playing. I'd love to use the Internet to show the rest of the world what's happening in Boston and at Berklee."