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Welcome to this new country

by Tom Eelen


Both experience and research shows us that singing and choral participation promotes integration and stimulates the learning of a new language. So naturally, Europe didn’t hesitate to support the “Sing Me In” integration project, and Koor&Stem will continue to look for examples in which singing has aided the integration process for young migrants and refugees. We listened to two Antwerp initiatives that sing with children from various cultural backgrounds. We heard their demands for an adapted repertoire, specific methodologies, support, and more expertise.


Zing Zang Zong is a children’s choir for kids between the ages of 6 and 12; they meet once a week. Veronica Joris and Joost Gils are the driving forces behind the choir. They bring together children from various cultures and every social stratum, connecting them to art and culture. The newcomers learn Dutch through song. “We adapt the language level so that everyone can sing,” says Veronica Joris. “Kids are very curious and they can quickly pick up a language and music. For example, a Peruvian child made up a Dutch text for a familiar melody after just a year. Isn’t that incredible?”

Veronica Joris continues, “We choose songs with few words and clear concepts. Sometimes, we work with pictograms to illustrate new words. Zing een lied voor vrede op aarde (Sing a song for peace on Earth) is one of their favourites. Concepts like war and peace are covered. We sometimes add signs to the song. For example, by joining hands with one another, the children feel those emotional bonds as well. Choir and music connect children from very different backgrounds. You don’t have to be a performer to join us.”

Clichés and role models


“When a new child joins, the others help him or her,” says Joost Gils. “It happens very naturally. We get the feeling that the kids very quickly feel at ease here. The parents who usually bring their kids to rehearsals are also respectful to one another. We have believers and atheists here. When we picked up some black Muslim children at the mosque recently, the other children already in the car were surprised that black children could also be Muslims. This is how their differences also contribute to their enrichment. And the Flemish employees at Zing Zang Zong have also broken through some of the clichés among the children and parents. One of our male language teachers is there during rehearsal every week. He brews the coffee, gets the juice ready for the kids, does the dishes, and serves the kids’ parents. He undoubtedly shatters that role pattern cliché that many of them are familiar with.”

Good, made-to-measure music


Veronica Joris has built up a great deal of experience while teaching in Antwerp’s Zomerschool for 15 years. Newcomers here are immersed in the language. They also use music to teach Dutch here. “At first, I just watched my predecessor, Elka Joris, with awe and learned so much from her,” says Veronica. “I eventually added more accents of my own and started to use my own songs. And then Joost joined in. The Zomerschool works with children of newcomers who are sent there via Atlas. We work around themes like colours, numbers, days of the week, etc., and the music lessons flow from this. There is a lot of practising and a lot of repetition for about six weeks.”


“At Zing Zang Zong, we usually sing seasonal songs, so Christmas carols at the end of the year, etc. We adapt the texts because the old texts are often too complicated, even for Flemish children. We always make sure that the texts are socially relevant as well. So Nu sijt wellecome (You are welcome) becomes Wees welkom in dit nieuwe land (Welcome to this new country). We try to make the songs as neutral as possible. Although God or angels can still appear in some: everyone sings their heart out in Gloria in excelsis Deo without any problems. Naturally, religion is not a taboo at Zing Zang Zong.


Zing Zang Zong performs simple songs. Instrumental accompaniment is written using a recorder and Orff instruments. “The quality of the repertoire is always a priority” Veronica Joris emphasises. “A piece from Mozart’s The Magic Flute or a choral melody by Bach becomes a fun song when you add your own words to it. In addition to learning Dutch, another of Zing Zang Zong’s objectives is to pass down good music. Children also appreciate this quality.”



Zing Zang Zong currently has about 20 singers. These include children from disadvantaged families, as well as children whose parents are highly educated, from many countries and many cultures. In addition, an adult choir has also been set up. It is usually the parents of the children, friends, or supporters of Zing Zang Zong. This is also a multicultural, low-threshold initiative. However, it appears that it’s not easy for people to find out about these activities. “It is difficult for us to recruit for an afterschool project,” explains Joost Gils. “Children and parents must understand who we are and what we do. At Zomerschool, we met with the parents, together with an interpreter. But what works the best is to sing outside so that others can see what we do. Kids who want to participate must also be able to get to us. The choir is free, but oftentimes, the entire family comes with, and then public transportation costs can build up. We’ve dreamed of having a music bus that we could use to travel out to the neighbourhoods. But that’s still a long way off.”

Combat on multiple fronts


“Zing Zang Zong can serve as a stepping stone to more music, but that doesn’t have to happen,” explains Veronica Joris. “We’ve seen that involvement is very high. If we perform on location somewhere, then everyone shows up, even if they have to take several trams or busses. They’re making a lot of progress musically as well, sometimes because they also play the recorder or Orff instruments. This is also good for developing their motor skills.”


Joost Gils adds, “An initiative like this also has social results. We have been able to help a few families out of destitution. They’ve developed a network here. You also become someone that they trust, and may even read a letter that they’ve gotten. Then you take them to the right organisations and you get to watch them rise out of poverty. We are also incredibly proud of that.”

Our dream is for every school to have music teachers so that all children can interact with music and culture, which creates a bond between everyone” explains Joost Gils. “And we hope that the DKO (part-time art education) schools will offer separate courses for newcomers” adds Veronica Joris. “The current structure still scares away too many newcomers. It is great that Europe now wants to provide subsidies for working with young people who are often excluded.” (ed. note: the “Sing Me In” project )

The native languages choir


The people of the Wereldreiziger school in Antwerp, which has children from more than 60 different nationalities enrolled this year, are already on the right path to reaching out to all children. They want everyone to learn Dutch well, but they consider using one’s native language to be an asset, and not a handicap. That is why students are not forced to leave their native language at the classroom door. On the contrary, the folks at the Wereldreiziger know that letting the kids speak their native languages at school ensures students’ well-being, better integration and a positive learning environment. Several years ago, they created a native language choir that was held during the afternoon recess, but in the meantime, there is much more singing going on in the classrooms. Justine Caluwe is a teacher here who wholeheartedly supports making multilingual music. “For a while, we worked together with Ruby De Bruyne on starting up the Singing Playgrounds project,” she explains. “This concerned singing on the playground combined with a play element. These results ultimately lived on within the classrooms. We are currently trying to include these experiences and methodologies in our music lessons during school hours. We let the kids suggest songs themselves: Are you sleeping (Brother John) exists in several languages and the kids can sing this song in their own language. We get our inspiration for songs from the internet or books. Parents are invited to come sing lullabies and then explain the context of these songs. A former colleague started recording these songs and writing down the contexts as a result, creating a native languages song book. We would like to complete that project this year.”


“The biggest challenge,” according to Justine Caluwe, “is getting all of the teachers to go along with this kind of approach. Sometimes, they aren’t brave enough or don’t have the musical knowledge. We did get music in high school, but that sturdy foundation in note reading or harmony is still lacking to be able to start from a score or create an arrangement. That’s why more support is needed. I also hold workshops for our colleagues on our pedagogic study days. I try to convince them as much as I can, by sending them films of successful examples, so that they screw up their courage to take that step and start working with text and music.”

Sing Me In


“Sing Me In” is a European strategic partnership that runs from October 2016 to September 2018; it is coordinated by the European Choral Association - Europa Cantat. The various national choral associations, including Koor&Stem, will carry out research into using singing together as a means to help young refugees and migrants (children and teenagers/young adults) participate. This concerns both true newcomers (in, e.g. refugee centres) and newcomers that are already in mixed groups, like in primary school.


We are looking for good, inspirational, practical examples in Belgium. We will distil successful methodologies and the appropriate repertoire from these practical examples. We will also be developing new song material. All of this will be made available on www.doewap.be in 2017, and practical workshops will follow.


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