At the end of my project, I reflected on the many ways in which I had seen music intertwined with healing. My experience mirrored a saying I heard spoken many times in Dakar: “In Senegal, one foot stands in the door of tradition, and the other stands in the door of Western influence.” Gaby used therapeutic music experiences as we might be familiar with them in the West to address nonmusical goals, but they were practiced with deep reverence for the ancestral traditions informing his work.
After my time in Senegal, I knew that music therapy was my calling. In the fall of 2012, I began the Equivalency/Master’s degree program in music therapy at Appalachian State University. I reflected on my time with Gaby in Senegal with the new knowledge I had gained about the field of music therapy. I could now connect what I had learned in my classes to the processes I witnessed in Dakar.
As my academic focus was on the role of music therapy in hospice and palliative care, I again became curious about Senegal. I wondered how music played a role in death and dying.
With IRB approval and an international research grant, I returned to Dakar to conduct interviews with medical professionals, professors of anthropology at Université Cheikh Anta Diop, and a religious leader in Ouakam. I found myself eager to learn all of the meaningful ways that music might play a role in the dying process. My assumption was that in this culture so intimately tied with music tradition, there would certainly be much to uncover. However, I was shocked when my interview questions were met with laughter and dismissal.
I learned very quickly that conceptions of death and dying in the West are very different from those in Senegal. First, the goal of mental health care in Senegal is to integrate the individual harmoniously into the community. Music is seen as a way of forming connection to facilitate this process. In dying, the individual is being welcomed into a new community – either in heaven or with his or her ancestors. Those I interviewed believed this to be a process requiring silence and little intervention from the living.
Second, the majority of the population in Senegal practices Islam. I learned from my interviews that dying individuals are to be comforted only by sacred verse from the Quran.
Finally, health care can be extremely inadequate in Dakar. Families may experience a more frequent and detached relationship with death and grief because it is simply more common to die from illness or injury.
This was a humbling and important research experience for me. On one hand, music is often a universal medium through which we process the universal experiences of life and death. But on the other, the concept of healing and what it means to be in healthy relationship with life and death is so intimately tied with place and culture. I left with deep respect for context and how this informs the dynamic role of music in transformation and healing.
Now in my second year of practice, I continue to be humbled by the important role of culture in our experience of music.
When working with individuals and their families in hospice care, I find that taking a moment to check my assumptions about the role of music in this family’s life can make the difference between providing beautiful music versus providing music experiences that transform the environment in a way that is meaningful to the family. While this is quite different from Gaby’s work with children with intellectual disabilities, I often return to the moments I spent in his classroom feeling a sense of connection with him, the children, and something greater.
It is this sense of meaningful connection that changed my perspective on music and life; and this is what I hope to provide my clients and their families during their time of significant transition.