Music: The Power to Connect

Liza Barley, BMus’05, always knew she wanted to do something with her music that would bring people together. She never dreamed that would mean starting an arts center in the East Africa nation of Tanzania.

“I went to the arts high school in inner-city Pittsburgh and was greatly influenced by the power of the arts to connect people from different backgrounds,” explains Barley, whose degree from Vanderbilt is in violin performance. “I knew that I wanted to create something similar with my music.”


Liza Barley, BMus’05, and students from the Umoja Arts Centre perform at the Christmas Fair in Arusha, Tanzania.

Through her former Suzuki teacher, Michele George, Barley connected with Kimbra Dixon, an American who started the Suzuki violin program in Arusha, Tanzania, a city of 1.2 million people with a large international population. Within months of graduating, Barley was teaching children of expatriates at the International School of Moshi in Arusha, where she was quickly struck by the lack of arts access and education for the average Tanzanian. Barley joined forces with violinist Jessica Welch, visual artist Linda Willms and dancer Tiana Razafy, and the Umoja Arts Centre was born.

Umoja means “unity” in Swahili, and Barley chose the name for two reasons. “Umoja is meant to be a place that brings people together through the arts,” she explains. “Also, I knew we would have to involve all art forms in order to reflect the way people here think about the arts, which is all-encompassing. In ngoma [Tanzanian traditional music], for example, singing, dancing, and the use of percussion or other instruments are inseparable.”

Five years after its founding, Umoja has evolved from an arts center in a physical location to a series of programs offered entirely in Tanzanian schools and other organizations throughout the community. “The overhead costs at the center’s building were too large,” says Barley, “but we also wanted schools and other local groups to feel more ownership of the programs we do with them.”

Barley is currently devoting her time to fundraising and building awareness for Umoja’s concept of unity outside Tanzania. “It’s not just within Arusha and Tanzania that we want to promote umoja through the arts,” Barley says. “We also aim to create cross-cultural exchanges by bringing in musicians and other artists from all over the world to perform and teach here. This is a great way for people in Tanzania to be exposed to the cultures of the rest of the world and vice versa, using the arts as the vehicle.”

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