In step with Australian life, culture

Native's assemblies draw eager students to learn country's history and dance

November 18, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

Seona McDowell searched through a sea of hands in the auditorium at Rippling Woods Elementary and plucked 10 eager children to form her eclectic bush band of homemade instruments.

The Australian folk singer also had no trouble finding volunteers to take part in dances that resembled American line dancing. complete with do-si-dos.

With her curly red hair tucked beneath a cowboy hat, McDowell looked a little more like her adopted American compatriots than her Aussie relatives. But her accent gave her away as she explained her country's history to the students in Glen Burnie on Tuesday.

In a series of assemblies this month at Anne Arundel County schools, McDowell is educating students about her native culture, but she also is showing them the similarities between music and dance in the United States and Australia. Both countries were influenced heavily by their European settlers.

"I really want them to have a world vision," said McDowell, who lives in Columbia. "I want them to think of themselves as living on this planet together as world citizens."

When McDowell finishes her tour at the end of the month, she will have reached more than 6,000 students with her assembly on Australian history, animals, instruments, songs and dances. She performed last week at Central Elementary, Central Special School, Shipley's Choice Elementary, MacArthur Middle and Seven Oaks Elementary. By month's end, she will have performed at Central Middle as well as South Shore, Solley and Rolling Knolls elementary schools.

The program is funded in part by grants from the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County and the Maryland State Arts Council, where McDowell is on the visiting performers roster.

McDowell was born in India to Irish-English parents and raised in New Zealand and Australia. She married an American and lives permanently in the United States, but she makes annual visits to see her family in Australia. A noted musician Down Under, McDowell won the OZ Music Award for Best Female Australian Folk Singer in 1979 and 1980. The popular awards are given to unsigned and independent artists.

McDowell brings along visual aids to her school performances. In addition to stuffed koala bears and kangaroos, she has a range of instruments, including the quintessential Australian instrument, the didgeridoo. The Aboriginal wind instrument emits a sound similar to a foghorn.

But McDowell also totes around homemade instruments. There is the Australian lager stick - named by beer drinkers who used nails to loosely tack their bottle caps to a stick - which makes a tambourine-like sound when hit with a smaller stick. There are seed casings that performed the same type of percussion in Calypso bands. And there are the instruments created by American slaves - the washboard and wash-drum bass.

McDowell brings them along to show students how music evolves around the world and how beautifully it can blend together. She uses all the improvised instruments in her bush band. Students were surprised by the sights and sounds.

"I didn't know you could make an instrument with a stick," said Toniya Braxton, a third-grader who joined the other students onstage.

Students and teachers took part in the dances, such as the Queensland Backstep, the Stockyards and the Kangaroo Hokey Pokey. McDowell wove in stories about how the dances developed.

The students also got a taste of Australian slang. Hunter Martin, a third-grader, practiced his after the event. " `Ta ta, mate' means goodbye," he said.

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