Make world music history with us!

Old Songs New Opportunities (OSNO) is an innovative program run by the Erie Art Museum. It trains former refugees who now live in Erie to work in early learning centers and to use their traditional children’s songs on the job.  Thanks to a major federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Service, OSNO has also coached hundreds of American teachers to use the OSNO repertoire in their classrooms and document it with videos. We are proud to release a new CD, Simba La La: World Music for Children. The album features 36 songs from Puerto Rico, Bosnia, Africa, the Middle East and Bhutan collected from the past 10 years of OSNO trainings.

Click here to purchase  a digital download or hard copy of Simba La La: World Music for Children

Download the Simba La La liner notes to get the lyrics and stories of all the songs on the album!

“I knew how to dance, I knew how to sing, I knew how to take care of children, but I didn’t know where to start…I did not think a childcare in Erie can use African songs. The training opened my eyes, it encouraged me to use my song and dance with kids to help them learn.” Victoria Angelo, 2004 OSNO graduate

Old Songs New Opportunities now featured in a national journal!

The latest edition of the Journal of Folklore in Education is dedicated to Newcomers and Belonging. Their editors state, “In Volume 4 we highlight how educators in K-12, college, museum, and community settings are working positively and successfully with refugees and immigrants across the United States. At a time of heated rhetoric and both heinous and heroic acts surrounding the topics of immigration, inclusion, and diversity, this theme has taken on even deeper meaning than when we chose it months ago. Our aim has been to shine a light on what ‘belonging’ means, not only on refugees and immigrants. Everyone has been and will be a newcomer throughout our lives, whether through a job change or moving in the middle of a school year, emigration or being expelled from a homeland. Everyone wants a sense of belonging, and at the same time ‘belonging’ connotes a privilege that may often operate invisibly in our classrooms and communities.” Read the article here

Go to our YouTube Channel to see OSNO songs at local preschools

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An Overview of OSNO

Erie is the new home for over 10,000 people who were forced out of their native countries. They have fled genocide, civil war, or terrible persecution because of their religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs. They come from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, the Ukraine, Bhutan, and other troubled areas. They are here legally and welcomed by the United States government, but they are expected to learn English, adapt to our culture, and get jobs — a large burden for people who have lost their homes, bank accounts, and even family members due to war.

Old Songs New Opportunities addresses financial and cultural needs: Erie’s refugee women are culturally rich, but economically poor. They need training and employment opportunities. Their rich folk culture can be an anchor for these women as they grapple with the challenges of a new life in a new country. It can also be a treasure for our community. While most Americans have lost the ability to sing with and to our children, immigrants from traditional cultures instinctively use song to bond with and educate their young. Our city’s childcare centers are seeking qualified employees as well as quality multicultural programming.

The Museum first works with local agencies that support refugees (the Multicultural Community Resource Center, the International Institute of Erie, St. Benedict Education Center, and Catholic Charities) in identifying women who love to sing, want to work with children, and have proficient English. Then the Museum’s folklorist teams up with the Better Kid Care Program of the Penn State Co-op Extension Office to give these women over 50 hours of accredited instruction in basic child development theory, discipline and alternatives, and how art, music, and movement aid physical and mental development. During the class the women teach their traditional children’s songs to one another, and create singable English versions of all the songs. The women all do over 90 hours of internship at local childcares such as Early Connections, St. Martin’s Early Learning Center, the YMCA Downtown Childcare, and Mercyhurst Child Learning Center where they practice using their repertoire in an American setting.

Brief History of OSNO

In the Spring of 2004, nine African women took part in the first training. The project was a resounding success. Eight of the nine women gained employment in a local childcare, and one of the trainees opened her own accredited, home-based daycare in 2012. We since done trainings in 2005, 2010, 2013, and 2015. We’ve trained a total of 62 women and two men from Somalia, Congo, Eritrea, Sudan, Burundi, Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Puerto Rico and Bhutan.  Sixty percent have gained employment as a result, and all of them have shared their songs, cuisine, and culture at a variety of community settings, after-school programs, teacher trainings, and festivals.


Current Initiatives

The Erie Art Museum recently finished the final year of a three-year project funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Service. Year One and Two provided professional development at every site of Erie County’s three largest child care providers, Early Connections, the Y of Greater Erie, and GECAC Head Start. All childcare professionals learned how to fully integrate song into their curriculum and why singing is vital to children’s development. Each classroom learned three to five songs to use throughout the day. These songs were chosen from a repertoire of over 50 songs from over 10 different languages collected in Erie from the refugee community. Recent OSNO graduates acted as song coaches, and visited each classroom 5-6 times to assist them in learning and using the songs. Year Two and Three provided additional training and support for every classroom to create a short music video that documents how the songs are being used in their classroom. In the fall of 2016 we will celebrate a national release of a compilation CD that features all of the OSNO repertoire collected from Erie’s New Americans.

The project directly address the fact that one in four Erie City residents—and almost one in six Erie County residents live in poverty which is well above state and national averages. Children suffer disproportionately; approximately 25% of those living in poverty in Erie County are under the age of 18. This has a detrimental overall impact on the community’s quality of life and economic growth, and on children’s chances of future success. Children growing up in poverty are often not prepared to start school compared to their more affluent peers. This project will reach 409 staff the three partnering childcare agencies, the 1800 children and infants they serve, and all the children’s parents.

The outcomes of this project are to improve the lives of Erie’s young children by making their environment musically rich. This builds children’s social, cognitive and motor skills and allows them to start kindergarten at the same level as their more affluent peers. Benefits also accrue to the early childhood teachers and parents as they learn to use music effectively. Finally, this project assists refugee women in leveraging their traditional knowledge to gain employment.

Putting traditional songs to work has put women to work, and the benefit ripples out to touch American teachers and their young students. Music makes for strong cultures, strong education, and strong economic growth!

Project Impact

This project is gratifying on so many levels. All the participating women remarked that up until this project they had virtually stopped singing their native songs. They were living American lives where, due to school and work schedules, televisions and video games, they had very little direct contact with their children. This project helped them spend more time interacting with their own children as they taught them the songs they learned from the other women. They also made several poignant and heartfelt comments to our child development trainer that the classes had immediately improved the peace of their own households. These women were entirely capable of raising children in their native countries, but felt at a loss to parent their increasingly Americanized offspring. Their experience of childhood was to be respectful and quiet around adults and not to question authority. American children, in contrast, are allowed to be strong willed, ask bold questions, and complain. The training gave the women concrete skills to redirect their own children, and to see their behavior not as bad, but different and typical of the American way children become self-reliant and discover their own identity.

The songs are truly a treasure to anyone who works with young children. There is a reason that they have been passed down generation after generation. They are catchy, encourage physical coordination, strengthen improvisation skills, teach co-operation, and bring real celebration and joy to any classroom.

It is wonderful to see these immigrant women valued as a resource, and that properly leveraging their indigenous knowledge has turned them into marketable employees. Those working in child cares have blossomed. They have more confidence, and clearly love their jobs. One supervisor who hired several refugee women was effusive about what they brought to her center. She was humbled by their gratitude and constantly amazed at how much patience they had with the children. She related that one worker discovered that a particular traditional lullaby was the only thing that would calm a sick baby. She sang that song for four hours straight, something that an American would never have had the stamina for. Old Songs New Opportunities is putting diversity to work, making the lives of Erie’s New Americans more stable, preserving threatened culture, and bringing joy to thousands of Erie children.

The project director, Kelly Armor, is seeking partners in other cities who would like to pilot Old Songs New Opportunities in their community.

For more information about OSNO contact Kelly Armor