In June 2017, I found myself in a cramped, sweltering apartment in New York’s East Village. I was there with three high-school students to interview William Millan, founder of the seminal 1970s Latin band, Saoco. The students were working on a documentary film about the history of musical communities in New York City. After playing several Saoco albums for us, William described how his interest in the roots of Latin music led him on an intellectual journey to understand the cultural history of the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Then he said something profound:
“I wasn’t a very good history and geography student when I was in school… it wasn’t until I really got into the music that I realized it’s not that I don’t like history and geography—I really love history and geography. It was the information they were giving me in school that I couldn’t relate to because it had nothing to do with what I was living. If you go into the music, and you check out the artists’ lives, that’s going to give you a truer picture of history; and in their body of work you’re going to see what the truth is.”
In 20 years of teaching, I have never heard a better articulation of music’s power to engage students in the study of history and culture.
Reflecting on the interview with William, I realized that he was describing the very learning experience my students were having as they created their documentary. By investigating the relationship between individuals and the music that shaped their lives, the students were in fact developing deeper understandings about the history of neighborhoods, their city, and American society—and seeing connections across time and place. Like William, their interest in music led them to think like historians. That day reaffirmed my commitment to interdisciplinary learning and, specifically, to using music and art wherever possible to help students make meaningful connections in my classroom.