Pittsburgh is lucky to welcome Adriana Helbig, who is adding extra zest to the already vibrant ethnomusicology roster of the University of Pittsburgh's Music Department. A Columbia grad who studied piano at the Vienna Conservatory and taught at Champaign-Urbana, Helbig recently took over Pitt's popular world-music class, a course that's fairly rare among colleges, offering students from all backgrounds an immersive, yet comprehensive overview.
"It gives them a sense of geography and time," says Helbig. "We hit almost every major culture we can, covering types of instruments and socio-cultural aspects of how genres are used for certain purposes. When we get into music theory, they train their ears and pick up on polyrhythms, textures and timbre."
The class is also interactive -- any student with something "remotely relevant" to share can perform. "We had a Latvian singer come in, someone played Armenian folk songs on the violin, and we also had an Appalachian day. KAL, the Serbian gypsy brass band [coming Oct. 14 to Your Inner Vagabond], will stop by to play, talk about their instruments and how their genre developed."
Helbig's dissertation involved an Everything Is Illuminated-style journey to the Ukraine to study how the Roma culture was coping with both the collapse of the USSR and Soros-funded grants flowing into regional NGOs. Roaming with a guitar from village to village, "I integrated myself with people who were the poorest and had fallen through the cracks," she says. "With festivals happening, there was a revival of the culture, but only [among] a closed circuit of people, which led to corruption and a restructuring of the Gypsy society."
Her interest in Eastern Europe led her to organize a Carpathian music ensemble that also learns Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Gypsy songs and even a bit of klezmer, thanks to an adventurous clarinet player. She looks forward to the ensemble's coming-out party on Dec. 2 in the gym at Bellefield Hall.
In the meantime, she's focused on another new effort: her course on global hip-hop. "We use hip-hop to explore contexts where music is used in political statements, to empower discriminated groups," she says. "We're watching a lot of films, doing Internet research, and taking the literature that's been written on hip-hop in South Africa. A lot of global rappers are part of social movements, just like the way it developed in the Bronx."
"Hip-hop is very quick and easy -- people can make it on their home computer," she continues. "My own research in Ukraine was relevant, because one of the main rap songs, 'Together We Are Many,' got uploaded 100,000 times in two days. All of a sudden, everyone was singing it, and it became an anthem of the Orange Revolution."