Thoughts on Music and Peacebuilding


It has been a little over a month since I reluctantly said my goodbyes to my Musician Without Borders family. The training was intense, and required from me a somewhat uncomfortable level of inhibition;  we were not lectured to, but instead thrown into the deep end with singing, movement and musical exploration exercises. As a classically trained musician, I thought I was accustomed to ‘performing’, but this type of performance was quite different: there was no right or wrong, and there was no shame in what I could or could not do. Upon introducing the vision behind Musicians Without Borders, the founder, Laura Hassler focused on the some what forgotten concept that “we all have music in our bodies”. After coming through a tertiary institution with a music degree in hand, it is easy to forget the point at which ‘complex’ or ‘serious’ music begins. It starts with our human ability and need for rhythm, sound and movement. The first day or two of the training was a personal confrontation on my beliefs about the role of music in the lives of both individuals and communities. Surely there is just as much a place for a simple melody sung my an untrained voice as there is for a Mahler symphony performed by masterly musicians .

At this point I will mention that I have not lost my love for western classical music, or given up on the idea that “serious” music has a role in peace building and cultural diplomacy (I shall l touch on this later). It is interesting, and worth, mentioning that several of the MwB trainers maintain “serious” musical careers across Europe, while simultaneously recognising importance of community music. Why must one choose? I found this inspiring.

Before embarking on this course, an issue I was pondering, was the appropriate place of music, or the arts, in conflict transformation.Just three days after the Paris attacks of last year, the World Orchestra for Peace was granted special permission, despite the city being on lockdown, to perform a tribute to the victims at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. The orchestra, comprising of members of all nationalities, ethnicities and religions, gave a performance to commemorate those lost, as well as provide a peaceful statement of defiance to such violence.  How does such an event contribute to peace and conflict transformation? In fact, may we even make the implication that the concert acted as a positive force rather than a negative one? If the orchestra is as multicultural as it claims to be, how can we be certain that the direct violence which they are in protest against, is not reflected in subtle manifestations of structural and cultural violence within the group of musicians themselves? I find these sorts of questions intriguing, and somewhat essential to explore, should we one day wish to use music performance as a tool for social justice and peacebuilding. However, this example is not so much to question the validity of such an organisation, as a I feel it is a very exciting initiative, but rather to highlight that music does not claim to be a means of stopping bullets, or changing the hearts and minds of perpetrators. The Concert in Paris was not necessarily intended to try and ‘change the hearts’ of those committing such acts of violence, or convince politicians to make particular security decisions. It was simply a statement of solidarity, community and companionship, all human elements which are put into doubt following such attacks.

During the first week in Vermont we were introduced to one of the many models of reconciliation. Lederach’s model sees reconciliation as the culmination of four parts: Justice, Mercy, Truth and Peace. Whilst there are many models and theories, and no “proof” as to which is  the holy grail , these categories are useful the looking at the role of arts in reconciliation. When learning about this model during the first week of CONTACT, we received an exercise whereby we had to place ourselves (physically) into the category that best fit our vision or personal contribution to reconciliation. For those interested in law and policy reform, they sat in the ‘justice’ corner. Hon. Patricia Whalen, who served as a judge in the War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina, facilitated a discussion on the importance of restitution, and “making things right” following crimes against humanity. However, not everyone in the group felt called to the ‘justice’ corner. For others, ‘mercy’ or ‘truth’ were a better fit. Where ‘truth’ speaks to the acknowledgment and transparency of events that took place, ‘mercy’ assumes that the truth is often times subjective and inevitably unattainable. Mercy involves forgiveness, support, compassion and acceptance even in cases where the truth is not known, and legal justice may never come into fruition. To the best of my knowledge, no one can speak authoritatively on the precise nature of music’s role in overcoming violent conflict, as the field of arts-based peacebuilding is only just emerging. However, speaking from my personal experience learning from Musicians Without Borders, and studying with individuals who have all experienced conflict in a unique and profound way, I see music as a voice of mercy, above that of justice  or truth. We will never be able to measure music’s effectiveness in conflict transformation as love, tolerance and collective identity are unquantifiable. Just as we need authorities on the law, such as Hon. Whalen to defend the rights of those hurt, seek the truth, and bring those guilty to justice, so we need people who mercifully help communities find meaning and hope, especially in cases where the truth may never be known, and those responsible never brought to justice.

Upon my return to Cape Town, I have sat with a heavy sense of responsibility not only to share the incredible wealth of experience I have been fortunate enough to receive, but to also actively seek out means of using music to address the profound violence, both direct and indirect, faced by groups across South Africa. To be accountable to this, is of utmost importance to me, however I found myself overwhelmed when realising that I am just one voice. The obvious choice may be to start my own music project which uses music to address a specific form of violence, whether it be violence against women interfaith conflict, or xenophobia. However, based on the plethora of music projects already in existence, perhaps it is wiser to look at how peacebuilding concepts could be incorporated to broaden a project’s range and scope of impact.

I have been volunteering with a highly impressive secondary school choir in Bloekombos,  an area of Cape Town which would be categorised as lower income. Historically, the area was a site in which people of colour has to resettle following forced evictions during apartheid. Consequently, the community is rife with crime and gang-related violence. Despite such challenging circumstances, I am continually impressed by the dedication and talent of the choir members. To them, it seems singing is as natural as eating and sleeping. I found myself questioning just how much I had to offer them in terms of expertise; it seemed they had more to teach me about the shaping of phrases and musical gestures. t was in the States that I first heard the term ‘white-saviour complex’: the notion of a white privileged individual ‘saving’ poor Africans through their generous charity. While the concept of giving to the poor is wonderful, this notion is problematic as it perpetuates lingering stereotypes hindering the development and advancement of people of colour. Many music projects are framed under the concept of “outreach”, which is a term I find problematic as it denotes a unilateral exchange of resources. However, music is not only a means of ‘giving back’ or ‘reaching out’ to those less fortunate, but also a way of receiving new and wonderful gifts, if we choose to use it as a mutual exchange. The acceptance and celebration of both parties is a fundamental aspect of peacebuilding and reconciliation. While, celebration of ‘the other’ is the ultimate goal, this cannot happen without the fostering of empathy and tolerance. Going back to the example of the choir in Bloekombos, I am excited by the prospect of developing an initiative that sees the ongoing interaction between this choir and a choir from a Southern Suburbs. There seems great potential to learn from each other, not only about the technical aspects of singing, but also skills that I consider essential for a country of such diversity: these include, cross-cultural communication, cultural appreciation and empathy-building. It is here that we are reminded that music, being a non-verbal form of dialogue, is a truly unique mechanism through which to exercise such skills. When words fail, music is able to speak.

Whilst I do not have the answers, and often times find myself wondering if I am just speaking a load of nonsense, I am always reminded of the need to ask such questions in today’s world. We are no longer faced with formalistic international violence, but rather infinitely more complex, interstate wars. I maintain that we are therefore entrusted with the responsibility to respond to this with greater ingenuity and insight, so that we can fight fire with fire. I may just be a girl with a head full of jumbled thoughts and fingers that love to dance on the piano, but I am determined to use this gift of music as a weapon of warfare against violence and discrimination. Infinite thanks to the amazing support of those who helped get me to the course, as well as to CONTACT and Musicians Without Borders.





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  1. I just went through the entire text by Emma. Putting my urgent needs to check several words with my dicitionaries, the first comment of mine is “good”. i.e. Emma is on a way to create something which will do great good to many people, if I would dare to say, to a larget portion of human kind. There is already a movement and institution there in Vermont, America, and Emma found it and learned seemingly a lot in the recent months. The real creation by Emma is still to come. If I understood right, Emma decided that in “Mercy” is something she can conctribute to with music, out of the three basic concepts “Justice”, “Truth”, “Mercy”. Grown up on the same soil of “classic” and “serious” music as Emma and though short having got chances to experience her music (including playing my clarinet and/or my wife’s violing together with her piano), I entirely admire what she wrote, especially that music can be a basis for solidarity bridging difference of colors of skin, or how much money you have, or now the most important here, having dreadful experiences caused by violence or not. My wife and me, in Tokyo, both already in closing phase of our lives but too far from seeing the real end nearing, will continue to watch her and will be delighted with her progress in building up her activities and experiences both in theoretical development and organizing people. My wife is for several days out of country for music course, but together with her I wish Emma good luck.


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