How do you say hello when no one speaks the same language?

The World

When you collaborate with musicians abroad, sometimes language can stall the creative process.

(This is a blog post by Pierce Freelon about the Beat Making Lab project. Read to the bottom to find more about our partnership with Beat Making Lab.)

Meaningful exchange is all about synergy, which can be difficult to achieve when you have to wait to have your words interpreted. One way we tackled this challenge during our Beat Making Lab in Ethiopia was with an ice-breaker called "Unify."

Unify is a workshop where no one speaks the same language. Every participant is required to develop a unique "dap" or greeting, pairing a sound and body motion. This wipes the slate clean, and forces students to improvise as they communicate. It also allows people who do not speak the same language to engage each other in lighthearted and creative dialogue. 

When the facilitator says "unify," students are required to merge their greetings. Students are not allowed to use words — only body language and sounds to reach a consensus about how to fuse two distinct expressions. The participant-led choreography builds communication, collaboration and the ability to solve problems and think fast. 

At the end of the workshop, we created our own dap. It's our own unique way of acknowledging each other — somewhere between a secret handshake and an inside joke. Across cultures, dap can vary depending on social situations. Whether shaking or slapping hands, embracing, bumping fists or snapping fingers — it is most often an expression of solidarity, recognition and respect.

Unify is our attempt to nurture these values as a precursor to the musical exchange. 

It's also worth mentioning that few things get the creative juices flowing like 20 minutes of awkward flailing while speaking gibberish in front of strangers.

Editor's Note: Over the next few weeks, we'll be checking in with the team at Beat Making Lab to find out how the project in Ethiopia is progressing. In mid-November, Levitin and Freelon will head back to Ethiopia to make a presentation about the project at the International Conference on Family Planning. It's the first time the pair has ever returned to a city where they set up a lab — and we'll be able to join them. Check back each of the next few Wednesdays for updates on the Beat Making Lab.