Music, the universal language

Imagine spending time with a non-English-speaking person and telling him about something that’s really close to your heart. You know he doesn’t grasp every word you’re saying, yet you know deep inside that he truly understands your meaning.

Members of the George Walker Society (GWS) of Music and the Waterloo-based band Ultra Feel 'N experienced the same joy of mutual understanding this summer when they traveled to Costa Rica to share their passion for music and perform at the North American Cultural Center in San Jose.

The UNI students and band members were asked to travel abroad to perform black urban gospel music as part of the center’s Promising Artists of the 21st Century Program, which brings young artists with exceptional talent to Costa Rica. This opportunity resulted from the long-standing relationship with UNI School of Music and the Cultural Center.

"It was delightful to see our students and the young Waterloo musicians represent themselves, UNI and our country so beautifully," said Celeste Bembry, student recruitment and retention coordinator in College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. Bembry stated the GWS of Music first traveled to Costa Rica in 2009 and was asked to perform again this year in honor of Costa Rica’s 2011 African descendants’ celebration.

GWS of Music is a college branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (NANM), a historical music society of music educators, scholars, performers and composers. NANM is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of classical composition to include Negro spirituals composed by African-Americans. In 1996, George Walker was the first African-American musicologist to win the Pulitzer Prize for the music composition "Lilacs." UNI’s branch, which is the only branch of the national organization in Iowa, was founded in 1998 by former UNI associate professor of music Darryl Taylor.

George Walker Society

Performances by GWS of Music and Ultra Feel 'N opened with contemporary, celebratory gospel numbers and moved into a multimedia presentation complemented by the gospel classic "Fix Me." Audience members viewed images of destruction caused by natural disaster, underscoring the fact no matter where we live, we’re all impacted by tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes in some way. The energy was then elevated with songs of celebration, which closed the groups’ performances.

"Going to Costa Rica was a chance for me to get to know people from another culture on a deeper level even without speaking the native language," said James Gummert, a senior clarinet performance major from Laurel. "I know it sounds strange, but we connected, and it was through the sounds of music that we were able to meet in the middle and share in each others’ lives and passions."

The musicians performed at high schools, festivals, in theatres and in churches, and it often took as long as five hours to get to their destination. The long trips were well worth it, however, as the musicians saw volcanoes and traveled through mountainous regions and rain forests.

Each performance was followed by a question-and-answer session, which allowed the Costa Rican students who were studying English to practice their language skills while learning about the students and their music.

"The high school students know secular art from America, such as music by Beyonce, but they had not heard gospel," said Bembry. "Some student audiences clapped their hands while others just listened. This genre of gospel music often has phrases of few words in repetition, which can help non-English speakers learn and practice English. We are all one people, together on this planet, and we can all come together through music." 

To join or learn more about the George Walker Society of Music, contact the UNI School of Music at 319-273-2024 or Bembry at