Arts, society & culture

Thank you for the music

Art is often seen as in need of support, but what about when musicians are doing the supporting? Musicians without Borders works with local musicians and organisations in war-torn countries to build bridges of reconciliation between societies, develop skills and talents, and process grief and loss. Abi Millar asks Laura Hassler, the founder and director, how this can be achieved.

 In Western societies, being an accomplished musician tends to hold a great deal of cachet. Hone your craft, often by way of a classical training, and you have access to a rarefied world of music-making, in which you create the product others then consume. However, as Laura Hassler, founder and director of Musicians with Borders (MwB), sees it, this view of musical education has its limitations.

“There’s a tendency in our society to understand music as something you learn, and there’s a real hierarchy of talents,” she says. “Some people become great musicians, other people become good musicians, and most people are connected to music mainly as listeners. But there’s another way of understanding music, dominant in some other cultures, which is where it’s just part of life. It’s impossible to imagine a child in a West African village saying they wouldn’t sing because they weren’t good enough.”

Musicians at all levels

For Laura and her colleagues at MwB, the question of what music means is far more than an abstract debate. With its impassioned tagline – ‘using the power of music to bridge divides, connect communities, and heal the wounds of war’ – the organisation holds little truck with the idea of music as a meritocracy.

“While we have a lot of very skilled musicians, we occupy the middle ground in those two ways of looking at music,” says Laura. “We want the space we work in to be safe for everyone to be a musician at whatever level, so there’s no judgment about whether you’re good or not, and there’s no way of making a mistake.”

Musical mission

Laura is chatting to me from the MwB headquarters in Amsterdam, a quick hop on the ferry from Centraal Station. With its relaxed yet bustling feel and lush garden, the office could belong to any arts-oriented organisation. There are only a few clues – an African print on the wall, a guitar in the meeting room – to indicate the nature of its mission.

Since 1999, MwB has specialised in running community music projects in war-torn parts of the world. Notably, it has created a rock school in ethnically divided Kosovo; a project for marginalised youth in Palestine; therapeutic music groups for young Rwandans with HIV; and mixed-identity music programmes in Northern Ireland.

In every instance, the organisation works closely with local musicians to understand what is needed and develop a suitable response.

“Although we have a particular form of working, it’s never copy-paste,” says Laura. “I’m proud of our projects not only in terms of what each has accomplished, but also because they show the very wide range of ways that music can be effective in post-conflict regions.”

Laura herself has a rich background in both music and peacemaking. Originally from New York, she moved to the Netherlands in 1977, where the two strands of her career became increasingly intertwined. She founded a World Music School, worked as a diversity consultant to arts institutions and led various singing groups before Musicians without Borders took shape.

“During the Kosovo war, I conducted a Second World War memorial concert, which aimed to send a message about how people on all sides of wars are just the ordinary people who get caught in the firing line,” she recalls. “This sparked the idea that perhaps we could do some kind of intervention, connecting with musicians in the Balkans.”

That summer, Laura’s group visited the refugee camps in the Netherlands, where around 6,000 people from Kosovo were being housed. They raised money, performed Balkan folk music, and donated instruments to Kosovan musicians who had lost theirs en route. Nine months later, at the dawn of the new millennium, they registered as a charitable foundation.

“Within a year we’d been invited by one of the big Dutch peace organisations for me to go with them to Kosovo,” says Laura. “Gradually we met more musicians there, as well as human rights organisations that were trying to organise projects around the idea of reconciliation. So for the first couple of years we mostly did that, sending musicians to those regions to perform, and organising participatory workshops.”

The multiplier effect

The group’s ambitions began to broaden at around the two-year mark. They started to explore the idea of longer-term projects that could really take root in a region, and would have a snowballing impact over a period of time.

The first project of this nature was the Music Bus, which ran from 2002-2011. A music project for children in eastern Bosnia, it brought music, dance and theatre to the towns and refugee camps across the region, as well as training local musicians.

“The model for this kind of project is that we send out two or three musicians to train 20-25 local people over the course of a year or longer,” says Laura. “They can then work with 1,000 children in turn, so it has a kind of multiplier effect.”

The School Bus was followed by the Kosovan rock school, which, since beginning life in 2008, has attracted over 1,000 attendees from both sides of the Serb-Albanian divide. As well as offering young people a high quality musical education, the school has enabled students to form friendships outside their own ethnic bracket.

“If you don’t talk about being a Serb or Albanian, suddenly there’s this whole other space in their identities which gets freed,” says Laura.

Global footprint

The Palestinian project came along a few months later, with work in Rwanda commencing in 2010 and in Northern Ireland in 2014. As Laura explains, each of these projects provides a case study in what MwB’s template can achieve.

“In Palestine, we’re working with groups of children and young people who otherwise would have no opportunity whatsoever to make music, explore their creativity or even feel connected, “ she says. “And then if you look at Rwanda, we’re using the power of music to help kids deal with the stigma and physical challenge of HIV. In Northern Ireland, we’re working with the divided communities in Derry-Londonderry.”

There is also a new project in the pipeline, this time in El Salvador. This is being developed in conjunction with Unicef, as part of efforts to protect children from violence, and will bring in MwB in what is almost a consultative capacity.

Factor in the work they do closer to home, and it would be an understatement to say MwB is keeping busy. In the week prior to our interview, the organisation was involved in the launch of Art.27, a platform for artists across Europe to engage on questions of refugees and social inclusion. In July, the team will be in London for a seminar on war, fear, empathy, and music, and in September Laura will be the keynote speaker at a Melbourne conference on a similar theme.

So, just what has she learned about music and reconciliation after almost two decades at the helm of MwB?

“One thing is the importance of being patient – taking your time and working on long-term interventions,” she says. “Who’s even thinking about Kosovo these days? It’s completely off the radar. But if we had just moved onto the next conflict, we never would have achieved what we have there. Something else I’ve learned is to get your priorities straight. We don’t see ourselves as a charity in the sense of being a rescuer – we see ourselves as an ally, who is building this network of musicians around the world.”

In short, it’s less about being a Band Aid on high-profile problems, and more about trying to enact real, systemic change.

“It’s about understanding the ways in which the dilemmas in the world are interconnected, and have to do with us as well,” she continues. “Sometimes I think the long-term impact of our work won’t be seen for many years, but the short-term you can feel it – it’s tangible when you’re there.”

Music together

Since MwB holds that music is a shared human quality – the province of every person, not an elite – it follows that making music with others would help to foster real connections.

“There’s neurological research going on now about this direct link between music and empathy,” says Laura. “We are looking at establishing collaborations with academic communities who are trying to understand the dynamics of what the arts can mean in society. There’s so much we have unlearned, or not understood, as a culture, about how you develop this link with people you’re making music with.”

She adds that, in war-torn regions, music can empower people to discuss subjects that would otherwise be too hard to broach.

“It can be a reminder of other times that were better, a place where people can meet in a neutral space,” she says. “When you make music together, there’s is something that gets awakened in a person’s spirit, and that kind of power is what we’re trying to use.”

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This article appears in the Sept-Nov 2017 edition of Overseas magazine

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