A few years after moving to the United States from her home in Jamaica, Tamara West found herself onstage singing a Korean ballad to a packed crowd in Texas.
Two large screens flanked either side of the stage, broadcasting her performance as she sang and illuminating the field of people spread out on picnic blankets watching the show.
“It takes a lot of courage to go and perform or especially sing in a language that you don’t speak (fluently),” West said. “It can be intimidating.”
West, an intercultural program adviser at U-M’s Center for Global and Intercultural Study, was performing at the 2017 Korean Festival in Carrollton, Texas.
Earlier that year she had auditioned to be the U.S. representative at the Changwon K-Pop World Festival, a singing competition that takes place each year in Changwon, South Korea, with a single representative from 13 countries across the globe. West came in second place, and while she didn’t advance to the competition in South Korea, she was invited to perform at the festival in Carrollton.
West’s interest in learning about different cultures developed at a young age. She recalls growing up in Jamaica and watching a TV program that featured Chinese cultural dances. As a teenager, she joined her high school’s choir and developed a passion for singing before moving to Texas to earn her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington.
After graduating, West accepted a teaching position at an English language institute on the Texas Wesleyan University campus where she taught students from across the globe. During class breaks, West played music from some of the students’ countries.
She remembers telling the students, “It’s from your culture and I want you to be comfortable. I want you to hear something that’s familiar to you.”
Seeing her students’ enthusiasm for singing in their native languages sparked West’s interest in learning the songs as well. Although she didn’t know more than a couple words in many of the languages, she was excited to take on the challenge.
“Language competency inclusivity is what I’m a big proponent of,” West said. “Because a lot of times people don’t even attempt to learn a language because they feel like they have to be fluent, that the goal is always fluency, and that’s not true.”
West has explored singing songs in Hindi, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese and the Jamaican Patois dialect. She often goes out to sing karaoke to practice performing in front of an audience.
“Sometimes I do get a little nervous, I will be honest,” she said. “But typically, I’m able to overcome it … and the most important thing is that you are there to share something with people.”
Prior to coming to U-M, West worked at the University of Texas at Dallas where she entered the school’s annual talent competition, Comets Got Talent. She performed a heartfelt Korean ballad with photos from a popular Korean drama series projected on a screen behind her. West won first place and the university’s mascot presented her with a large gold trophy.
“It can be risky whenever you’re performing a song in a foreign language that other people don’t speak because you run the risk of alienating the audience if they don’t understand exactly what you’re saying,” West said.
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That is one of the reasons she prefers performing slow ballads that show emotion — people don’t have to understand the words to know the feelings she’s trying to convey through the music.
“I don’t want people to think that I take the language or culture for a joke,” she said. “I probably will make mistakes, but that’s OK. And hopefully that’s OK with the audience, because it’s my intention to have them hear a song in another language that’s not English, and hear that that’s beautiful, too.”
West hopes her performances showcase how music can bring people together, transcending race, ethnicity and culture.
“As being a Jamaican, and then being a person of African ancestry, I like to show that there are people out here that look like me that are open to learning about other cultures,” she said. “I like kind of being that bridge between Korean culture and Jamaican culture, Korean culture and Black culture.”
West believes that listening to music in other languages can inspire people to learn more about different cultures and explore the world around them.
“(Listening to music in a foreign language) can be a gateway to other things,” she said. “Like maybe you could watch a foreign film … maybe you could try different foods or visit a different country where you don’t understand what people are saying around you.
“You don’t have to wait to go to Spain … or South Korea to practice your language. You can take opportunities in the here and now. That’s what I would say — seek opportunities to learn languages because a language system is a different way of thinking. It opens your brain to a different way of seeing life.”