~Interview of Natalie Cooper, a graphic designer from London and author of a children’s book about African musical instruments.
Hi Natalie! Please tell us about yourself, your family, and your heritage.
I am a graphic designer and illustrator from London, England of African-Caribbean descent. My mother’s side is from St Lucia, and my father’s, Jamaica with great-grandparents from Barbados and Cuba. My parents were born in London, UK as was I, and my four siblings. I am the eldest, we are four girls and one boy, we are a close family. Music is always playing in the house!
I was at a black history event in 2010, the screening of ‘500 Years Later’ where I met an Ethiopian gentleman, Samson Isaac, who was looking for a graphic designer to design some children’s books: an African musical instruments colouring book (he was from the music industry and was the manager of Fela Kuti at one stage) and an African patterns colouring book. It took some time to start as I knew nothing on the subject. This developed into my own project when I understood I wasn’t producing the book for him as such; he just felt there was a need for the books! I started by tracing some images of musicians playing and that didn’t work too well so decided to have the instrument on it own but realised quickly it would need some sort of description as well as an introduction to the topic as a whole. Really it was a logical trial and improvement process.
Do you play an instrument? What is your favorite instrument?
I don’t play any African instruments sadly, just guitar and bass, which I have played since I was 15/16 (about 8 years). My favourite African instrument is the Kora, second, Mbira. I love a good drum rhythm. I can’t pick a single favourite instrument, but there is nothing like a good ensemble where the sounds compliment each other. A very good singer always moves me.
How does listening to world music help kids to be more culturally-aware? How can teaching kids about music help them to understand other cultures?
Music is universal, and an aspect of every culture whether its use is purely entertainment or has a societal function, it can be used to tell stories, convey a message or feeling, critique and challenge. Teaching children about music of other cultures can give an insight into the ethos of a people, their myths, legends and stories, past kingdoms, great feats, etc which fosters understanding and can generally just inspire. Exposing children to different cultures is vital in creating worldly and cultured individuals. There are a limited number of types of instruments e.g. wind, percussion etc so people can always identify and make connections with instruments they have in their own culture. It is also interesting to learn about the origins and spread of familiar instruments to see more of what different cultures have in common. It’s world history and we are all citizens of the world.
Why is it important for children to be aware of world cultures? How will it help them in the future?
It is important for anyone but particularly children to be aware of world cultures as it widens ones horizons and a lot of us live in multinational societies. It also gives us a chance to look in our own cosmopolitan cultures and learn about musical traditions we take for granted such as the fact that rock and roll originated in African American blues, country, jazz and gospel music in the 1950s and laid the foundations for pop music today.
This book is also important for African-born and African diaspora children (African-Caribbeans, African-Americans and African Latinos) to help understand and learn about their own cultures and traditions, and to help form positive identity and self-image through knowledge of our rich ancient art forms and cultural tools. With a solid foundation and nurturing, children can achieve anything. In making this book, I have learnt a lot about the origins and cultural traditions behind the music I’ve always known and loved. This was very important to me as it filled in the gaps in my knowledge (and therefore identity) of the relationship between the Caribbean and Africa, which is vital to understand in an equally deeply musical culture. I have also challenged the idea that African cultures only have drums to offer in terms of music with a host of instruments of all kinds.
African Musical Instruments is an educational children’s book written and illustrated by Natalie Cooper. It includes 21 full colour illustrations of instruments from mainly sub-Saharan Africa, with a little background on each. The book looks at when, where, and with whom it originated; when and how it is played; what the instrument is made of and its cultural significance; religious and spiritual usage; and its spread throughout the continent and indeed the world via enslaved Africans. Other titles include African Musical Instruments: Colouring Book and African Patterns Colouring Book.
If you are interested in learning more, check out AfricanMusicalInstrumentsBook.