A Memorable Musical Exchange

By Cecilia Kennedy

A group picture of my family and host family during our walk along the river

My host uncle strums away on his guitar as the rest of the family sings and claps along to the upbeat song “Chola Cuencana”, full of smiles and cheerful laughter. Each note escapes into the air and bursts into a mist of joyful energy, filling the room with an aura of wholeness and bliss. We’re gathered in my host family’s living room in a circle of couches and mismatched chairs collected from around the house, taking in the beauty of the combination of sounds whirling around us. The pre-existing tension in the room begins to fade away and is replaced by a sentiment of peace and unity. I notice how important to me each and every person in this room truly is and how they’ve each impacted my life, and I’m immediately overcome with gratitude. This is a moment I never want to forget—sitting in a circle with my family and host family, exchanging aspects of our cultures free of the struggles of the language barrier, simply enjoying the beauty of the music surrounding me and appreciating the way in which it’s bringing us together.

When my host mom learned that my family was planning to visit from the U.S., she couldn’t wait to invite all of her siblings and their respective families over to our house for a big lunch celebration—which, in the Narvaez family, really means a big lunch celebration and a jam session. My host uncle who lives next door, his wife, and both of their kids are all talented musicians and regularly bring their guitars, talented voices, and musical excitement to every family gathering. This get-together was no exception—they showed up with their instruments and positive attitudes, ready to share the joy of music.

I was initially worried about my family and host family meeting, considering most of my family members don’t speak very much Spanish and the same goes for my host family with English. The first hour or so of the gathering was full of awkward interactions and confusing miscommunications, but the genuine affection provided by my very welcoming extended host family was enough to deem the get-together enjoyable. When we eventually sat down and started to sing as a group, my worries about my two families coming together disappeared almost completely. As the music began to fill the room, the language barrier began to fade away. I felt a sense of unity between all of us, despite our many differences, through this shared musical experience. 

My Ecuadorian family played and sang a few of their favorite songs—including Cuenca’s classics—then passed me the guitar, encouraging our family to present something to them. I have to say, my family isn’t on the same musical level as my host family is, but they were quite persistent, so we came up with something to perform for them. We sang a round robin of “This Pretty Planet”, a song that has had a strong presence in our family since my siblings and I we were young. To be completely honest, the performance was a bit of a disaster, but it was incredible to be able to share something so special to my identity with my host family and create an opportunity for connection between the two groups of people who are strangers to each other but both so important to me. We all laughed through our off-pitch and rhythmically disastrous singing, and when we finished, my entire host family clapped and cheered, thankfully caring less about the quality of the music and more about the beauty of this opportunity for cultural exchange.

This is one of the most memorable days I’ve had in Cuenca so far. What has stuck with me the most is the emotions I experienced in those moments—a combination of wholeness, bliss, joy, and connectedness, surrounded by so many people that I love and who love and support me. It’s incredible to me how the experience of sharing a few songs was able to bring together two groups of such different people—I’ve certainly learned to never underestimate the influential power of music. A piece of my musical identity now exists in Cuenca, right next to the people who have lovingly welcomed me into their family and made me feel like I belong.