Cara Smith arrived at Berklee in 2010 knowing that she wanted to pursue music therapy, but not on a conventional career path. It didn’t take long for her to find that opportunity. Encouraged by Karen Wacks, professor of music therapy, Smith was still an undergraduate when she launched a nonprofit in 2014—Umoja Global Community Music Therapy—that works with underserved communities in East Africa.
“I wanted to zoom out beyond what happens in more structured music therapy settings,” says Smith B.M. ’14, during a call from Cape Town, South Africa, where she lives while studying for a master’s in music therapy from the University of Pretoria. “I wanted to know more about the relationship between music and the human psyche in the various contexts of culture and sociopolitical landscapes.”
Inspired by her first two trips to Africa—Ghana in 2013 with Joe Galeota, associate professor of percussion, and Kenya in 2014 with staff member Sam Lutomia’s nonprofit, Global Youth Groove—Smith began establishing relationships with shelters, schools, and other organizations in Kenya and Uganda that provide services to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Umoja music therapists typically begin a site visit by sitting in a circle and engaging a group in music-making activities. “This is a way to build rapport and also conduct an assessment,” Smith says, adding that it enables her team to investigate the needs and resources of a community, paving the way for either educational or clinical interactions, or both.
Music therapy as a formal practice isn’t established in East Africa but the culture provides a fertile climate for such work because of the importance of music in African society, she says.
“Music is so deeply rooted in the culture and history of the continent,” says Smith, who grew up in New Jersey. “Music is being used for a therapeutic need. Africa has this ongoing narrative of conflict and oppression and colonization. Music is protest. Music is a way to preserve one’s cultural identity. And I also see it as a practice of resilience, to fight oppression.”
Smith’s Umoja colleagues are three women who also graduated from Berklee’s music therapy program: Brooke Hatfield B.M. ’14, Kristina Casale B.M. ’18, and Jenna Bollard B.M. ’12. Describing her colleagues as smart, tough, and talented, Smith relies on them to help manifest the nonprofit’s focus on female empowerment. The trio is based in the U.S. but travels to Africa about once a year.
“All the people we’ve worked with on the ground there are women. They weren’t just volunteers. They were doctors and nurses. Running orphanages by themselves. They were facilitating community music,” Smith says. They were also working with victims of gender-based violence.
Umoja also aims to help children. A trip to Uganda spawned a fruitful new relationship between a well-resourced school for children with disabilities and a “completely forgotten about” center for children with autism.
Smith is forging a collaboration with a Cape Town community music therapy organization, and Umoja is presenting at the upcoming World Congress of Music Therapy in Pretoria.
As she continues to establish Umoja, Smith earns her living through several occupations, including teaching English online and gigging and recording as a vocalist and singer-songwriter.
Smith says she doesn’t know what the future holds for Umoja, adding, “There’s an African philosophy of treading lightly on the earth. I can only tread lightly, be open and loving, and hope that I’m going to pave the right path.”
This article appeared in the spring 2020 issue of our alumni magazine, Berklee Today.