Women of the World unites cultures through song

The Women of the World formed with a number of goals in mind — as a showcase for diversity of cultural music and a study in global sociology — but most of all, as a way to bring people together.

Ayumi Ueda formed the group in 2008 with fellow students of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. For the last four years, the lineup has included Ueda, a native of Japan, Italian Giorgia Renosto, Annette Philip of India and Débòrah Pierre, an American of Haitian descent.

"She had this dream to work with musicians from all over the world and create a platform for all these different cultures to come together," Philip said.

The a cappella group's repertoire has grown to include songs in 31 languages including dialects from Bulgaria, Turkey and Cuba.

With more than 100 countries represented by students and faculty at Berklee, the quartet has plenty of sources for new material. And with social media, there are plenty of opportunities to crowd-source.

"We're often looking for something that's thematic," Philip explained. "Maybe we need to find a song in Hebrew. We might go on Facebook or other social media, and ask: 'Would you suggest a song for us and help us with the pronunciation and help us understand the meaning, maybe put us in touch with a guru (who would have a greater understanding of the song)?' "

At the point in which they select a song, their own musical backgrounds start to inform the way they perform it.

"We're coming from such diverse backgrounds, we find a way to bring our cultural background into the arrangement," Philip said. "We might add unusual instruments or cross-pollinate rhythms."

Included in the Alaska tour is the group's percussionist, French-Canadian Patrick Simard, who is also married to Pierre.

Philip said the group is trying to promote understanding by bringing people together to share their stories. It's a tactic she said has worked within the group, and she believes it's just as successful on a macro level.

"We're introducing our audiences to music from each of our five cultures and talking about certain themes we find important," Philip said. "As five people coming from diametrically opposite cultures, we see how many biases and preconceived notions we have grown up with that have dissolved because we've been able to ask each other firsthand. The whole point is to learn more about people through interaction."

And a week into their 22-day journey through Alaska, the singers have been able to experience some of the state's culture.

They've already made stops in Kodiak, Bethel and Homer. In Bethel, the singers got a taste of Yup'ik traditions, with a performance from nationally recognized teenage singer Byron Nicholai.

Philip said she was impressed by efforts to "revive forgotten languages and traditions that are disappearing," a mission the Women of the World shares.
"We need to dig deeper," she said. "Our endeavor is to understand things holistically."

Musically, the quartet features harmonies that are both tightly bound and serene.

Philip said the quartet has produced a pair of albums and has plans for touring to Greece, Turkey, India and Sri Lanka in the next year.

Although music is the main feature of their performance, Philip said there is plenty of interactivity and promised to have audiences dancing.

"We sing in as many languages as we can fit in, but there's also storytelling and improvisation," she said. "We just try to do songs that make us happy."

Women of the World

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday at Discovery Theatre

Tickets: $40.25, $48, $54.75

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.