Peacebuilding through music: the connector and the mirror

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Written by: Laura Hassler, Director, Musicians without Borders

Australia has never been invaded – not to the point where foreign boots tramped our streets. Except, from an Indigenous viewpoint, by the rest of us. Some Australians have direct experience of modern warfare – immigrant refugees or our own military abroad and the losses to families. But it is 72 years since our entire civilian population suffered even the lesser discomforts of war such as food rationing. Perhaps our sense of the outrage of war has lost immediacy.

 We have peace. But Laura Hassler, who has just finished a lecture-tour of Australia, writes that peace is not just an absence of war. Peace has to be treasured and worked on.


“Peace is an art. Not a science, but an art.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Most of my talks, here in Australia, have started with the complex and sometimes overwhelming issues confronting our world today — injustice, poverty, climate breakdown and war, and on the politics of fear, and how empathy can address fear and strengthen connection, and how music can create empathy. But this evening, I’d like to talk first about peace, and how a more integral look at what ‘peace’ is, and how different ideas about what music is might lead us to understand how and why musicians can be peacemakers.

John Paul Lederach, professor of peace studies and negotiator in many complex peace accord processes, speaks of the need for a ‘moral imagination’ in peacebuilding.

“Moral imagination arises through creative human action that arises out of the everyday and yet moves beyond what exists to something new and unexpected….This quality of providing for and expecting the unexpected is well-known in the world of artists and needs to be cultivated in the world of peacebuilders. Creativity opens us to avenues of inquiry and provides us with new ways to think about social change.”

Ideas about peace

The conventional definition of ‘peace’ is the absence—or cessation–  of war. A treaty is signed. The guns stop firing, the bombs stop falling.

However, the conditions needed for a genuinely peaceful society, the conditions needed to assure that the seeds of the next war are not already planted, are not only the absence of physical violence, but also the presence of justice, equality, accountability, opportunity, dignity: exactly those basic human rights that are always lost in wars, and frequently not restored when they end. And at the very personal level: the autonomy to define one’s own identity, the feeling of safety, the feeling of belonging, and of having a voice.

Lederach speaks about having a voice: “Quite often what people talk about when they talk about peace-building or they talk about violation or they talk about a peace process, their biggest complaint is they don’t have a voice in the things that are happening. We often take the notion of voice out to the notion of power, which is one element of it, but there is another element for which that word “voice” is a metaphor, which is that violation, violence, numbs people. It leaves people feeling numb. What music does is it permits people to touch again, to feel touched by, and to even maybe touch their own sense of personhood and voice. And so, while you may not be able to explain, you may not be able to speak your way through certain things, there are times in which music…. may in fact permit that to happen in a much deeper way.”

Ideas about Music

There are different ways of experiencing music, as we all know, but also very different ideas about what music is. In European related cultures the dominant idea of music has, over history, become ‘something’ outside the person, to be taught and learned, practiced, perfected, held to a standard of quality and achievement.

Music is taught in school, at music lessons, at conservatoria. Most of us would agree that studying music is good for us: it expands our horizon, enriches our lives, develops our creative talents. We go places to study it, seeking out experts to teach us this wonderful art form called music. Some types of highly schooled experts create new music—we call them ‘composers’; others teach or perform it or write critiques about performers and performances. Depending on skills, artistic vision and virtuosity, musicians are ranked as being good, better, best (or not so good). In this way of perceiving music, a relatively few people are ‘artists’, of whom a very few are ‘top artists’; but most of us are not — we’re listeners. And many listeners would tell you that they cannot make music.

Music connects hearts

There is another way of perceiving music which many cultures, including earlier European cultures, share: that music is in the middle of all life, a basic element of being human, one that plays a continuous role in the life of the community and of every person in it. Inherent in this understanding of music is that, just like the capacity for language, music is part of our DNA and ‘doing’ music is part of human existence. It is what we do as we work, play, love, celebrate, suffer, mourn. You might say that we are music: from the rhythm of our heartbeat, our breath or our walking or dancing step, to the perception of tone everywhere in our lives, to the melody of our voices: music is in our bodies and in our spirits. We can experience music alone, but, like language, music is fundamentally something we do together, it connects us. Music is a universally shared human trait, and all people have it in them.

Music as mirror

Within the understanding of music as a shared human trait, there have also always been people who best express themselves in the realm of the senses and the symbolic.  These we call artists. The arts here serve as a mirror, that those who see with the eyes of out-of-the-box creativity and a certain kind of non-practical vision, have always held up to fellow humans. As far as we know, humans are the only species that tells its own stories in symbols, and those stories are often uncomfortable. Throughout history, artists have often spoken uncomfortable truths in story, image, or sound. In times of conflict, often at a high price. See Freemuse to read some of the stories of musicians who are persecuted for speaking up for humanity through their art. Holding up a mirror. (www.freemuse.org)

And where are the arts in today’s modern societies? In the last half century, an age of hitherto unknown prosperity in the Euro-centric part of the world, the arts, for most people, like everything else, have been commodified. ‘Art’ has become mainly a form of entertainment or background diversion. Movies, concerts, museums to visit, books to read when on holiday: sometimes vaguely confrontational, but mostly entertaining and there to ‘enrich’ our lives.

Today, with a few wonderful exceptions, musicians are superstars on the great stages of the world, or they are teaching those trying to reach those great stages, or they are a source entertainment on TV or cruise ships or at our weddings and parties. And most of us who engage in art in our free time consider it a hobby, something enjoyable to do when we need diversion or relaxation: in short, we are consumers.

I am a musician and I believe strongly in the concept of music as an art to be studied, practiced and performed, as one of the many elaborations on that basic concept of shared humanness. I’m sure we have all had transformative experiences, listening to wonderful musicians — or even being those wonderful musicians — performing beautiful music, that goes straight to our heart and soul and makes us feel clearer about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive.

Music without Borders in Palestine

And yet, when music is relegated to the sidelines of entertainment, relaxation and diversion — or even when we limit its definition to ‘an art’ to be practiced to a perceived standard of excellence — we miss both the essence of its potential in building community and we miss the mirror, challenging us to look critically and carefully at our lives.

When we consider these two views of music — the universal quality and the mirror — we realize that, in music, we have both the ultimate social connector and the ultimate means of expressing and communicating truths about our time.

Where politicians and media raise and exploit people’s fears, dividing us from each other along lines of religion, ethnicity, or history, musicians can tell different stories, hold up the mirror showing other realities, help us to reflect on a more complex narrative, help us take responsibility for our part in that narrative.

And when we understand the commonality of musical potential, we have new tools to help people to connect in their communities, to deal with loss and experiences of traumatic events, to start to heal and connect back to themselves and outward to their new environment.

This is the vision behind Musicians without Borders. Since 1999, Musicians without Borders has been bringing music to people and places suffering from the collective trauma of war and the residual wounds and divisions left in its aftermath. In cooperation with local musicians and cultural/ health/ educational organizations, MwB works to transform lives by creating the musical space in which people can rediscover their voice, and raise it.

We also connect with musicians who raise their voices for social justice and human rights www.musiciansforhumanrights.org, and cooperate with academics who are looking at the power and potential of community music and other ways of musical social engagement.

MwB’s projects in Kosovo, Palestine, Rwanda, Uganda, Northern Ireland, El Salvador and with refugees in Europe vary greatly in content, approach and target group, as situations, cultures and local needs differ. But they all have in common the creation of safe musical space in which people can experience their own creativity, connect with others through shared passions and enthusiasm, break through isolation and experience joy and the possibility of hope in a shared future. www.musicianswithoutborders.org

Principles of MwB’s practice

  • We don’t initiate projects, but respond to invitations from musicians or local organizations.
  • We then develop project content collaboratively with local partners.
  • We create fluid structures, in which students or trainees can rise through levels of proficiency to become community music leaders, trainers, teachers and organizers/ managers. This leads to local ownership and long-term sustainability.
  • We stick around. We have learned that long-lasting impact requires relationship building, mutual trust and learning. Even when conflicts fade from (international/ press) memory, the needs remain urgent. And true processes of transformation take patience and time.

Principles grounding our work

  • EQUALITY: Everyone welcome, everyone honored, everyone can make music.
  • SAFETY: The group is a safe place for everyone.
  • CREATIVITY: Using the creativity of individuals and as a group we can experience the connecting power of (shared) ownership in music.
  • INCLUSION: Music provides a neutral space, where people from different backgrounds can meet through their common love of and engagement in music-making and are not defined by their differences.
  • QUALITY: We strive for a high quality of music-making, as this leads to a higher sense of connection and empathy.

Music without Borders in Rwanda

Most important lessons so far

  1. Be an ally, not a rescuer

We are not a ‘charity’ or an ‘aid organization’. Rather, our aim is to work with musicians worldwide for social justice, harmony with the earth and an end to the culture of exploitation and war.

  1. ‘Refugee’ or ‘war victim’ is an experience, not an identity

Labels such as ‘refugee’ or ‘war victim’ deny the complexity of identity, leaving to persons and communities isolation and excluded.

We believe in the strength and resilience of people and communities and appreciate the complex identity of every person. Our work strives to create safe environments where that complexity can be explored.

  1. Be safety. Be empathy. Be hope.

We strive to be the change we want to see. We pay attention to the importance of presence, and acknowledge the reality that, while plans and strategies are important, real change often has more to do with the ability of change-makers to exemplify the values they profess and create deep connections with others.

  1. Build community. Take care of each other.

Not only people in conflict regions suffer from isolation, de-humanization and despair. In different forms, these have become common manifestations of today’s global societies. We strive to build community—both within our project work and among our colleagues, associates and broader network.

In the space where peace becomes an art and music becomes a process, lies a huge opportunity, and, if we musicians take up that challenge, a genuine reason for hope.

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