It's said that music is the language of the soul. But for composer Jorge Cozatl, it is also the key to hearing and understanding another culture.
Cozatl, a native of Mexico City, is an artist-in-residence at Burnsville High School, where he works with choral students on timbre and pitch. But his main mission is to teach the students about his homeland.
"This is a huge opportunity to share not just music, but culture, too" said Cozatl. "I want to tell them about my country. And I'm doing that with songs."
A cultural ambassador for Mexico, Cozatl came to Minnesota for Cantare!, Spanish for "I will sing." The year-long project, the brainchild of conductor Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of the Twin Cities-based choral group VocalEssence, pairs Mexican composers with student choirs to create works that bridge cultures.
Brunelle said he started the program because he was frustrated with the media coverage of Mexico, which he said too often focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border and the illicit drug trade. He wanted to offer Minnesota students another view of Mexico — one that showcases its cultural and musical traditions.
"I'm hoping that, through this program, Vocal Essence can make just a little dent in helping people to have a very favorable and positive idea about our neighbor country to the south," Brunelle said.
On this spring day, Cozatl leads the Burnsville High School concert choir through rehearsal. At the end of his stay, his students will perform the original choral work in Spanish.
A big hurdle for the young Minnesotans is pronunciation — especially mastering the different vowel sounds. Cozatl frequently returns to the fundamentals, sounding out their constant equivalents in Spanish: ah-ay-ee-oh-oo.
"Since he's not from around here, he knows that in Minnesota we say our o's like two separate letters," said Nick Nelson, 18. "It really was fascinating to have him come in and say, 'Oh. You guys are saying that weird so you should say it this way.' "
Performing a song in Spanish is a new challenge for Nelson, a senior who studies German. But he knows that singing in the composer's language is essential to capturing the essence of the song.
"Learning it in this different language, it seems more real," he said.
Classmate Zach Zambrano, 18, agrees.
"Just thinking this is the Hispanic culture, this is the Mexican culture, it hits more at your heart..."
"It's more pure in that way," he said. "You know, if it's a song about Mexico or whatever it is, it's gonna be more impactful in that other language even though you might not understand every word that they're saying. But just thinking this is the Hispanic culture, this is the Mexican culture, it hits more at your heart, I think."
Besides learning to sing in Spanish, students are also learning about Mexico and its mixed heritage. The song they're working on depicts the ancient Aztec view of the afterlife.
"It speaks about the place where dead people go," said Cozatl, who composed the piece for the project. His goal was to offer Americans a different way of looking at life — and death. The students are still processing the nuances of the work.
"It goes, 'Que, que dura de mi?' " explains student Kristina Butler, 16. "The phrase means, 'What will become of my body after this happens?' "
For another student, Nick Armstrong, 18, the song is about renewal.
"It's talking about more of a lifecycle — and then actually dying and becoming one with the earth," he said. "We tend to think of death as grave and sad, where in Mexican culture it's like a rebirth."
The final piece speaks to that.
"It's so glorious," Nelson said. "It's like, you've reached it and now here's paradise kind of thing. Oh, I love that last piece."
The members of the Burnsville High School choir work their way through the sections of their new song.
For some students, the collaboration with Cozatl has changed the way they look at the world. Nelson said he's become much more interested in what happens beyond the borders of Burnsville.
"Everybody needs to see other kinds of cultures," he said. "Will you look at a country and be like, 'OK. That's, like, weird. What are they doing over there? ' But now you can say, 'Oh, now I understand why they do this. OK. Cool.' "
The Cantare! project will culminate with a concert for the community. The students will perform May 22 at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.