Delegates from around the world arrived in Bogotá on 3 October for the International Seminar on Music and Social Transformation – one of the biggest events of its kind in recent history, organised by the Batuta Foundation and British Council.
As our plane touched down, the results of a peace referendum in Colombia came through. Following decades of war (which has claimed 300,000 lives) and four years of negotiations, the public had been asked whether they wanted the government to sign a peace deal with FARC, the guerilla organisation. The country was divided and 50.27% voted ‘no’.
This gave the conference a somber opening and many of us attended a silent peace march in Bolivar Square. And yet despite the dejection we felt, I have rarely witnessed a more positive gathering as project after project described how the arts can make a difference in health, neuroscience, disadvantaged communities, criminal justice, inequality and, appropriately, conflict resolution.
One reason for the upbeat nature was no doubt that in South America, the arts and creativity are regarded as a human right and part of the UN Charter of Human Rights. This means that government officials generally come out to support the arts and do not need to be lobbied in the way that is familiar in the UK.
This was illustrated perfectly in the seminar’s opening remarks. Firstly, a statement sent in by President Santos of Columbia said that he believed music should be part of daily life and wherever there is music there is no room for violence. This was followed by the Head of Culture at the mayor’s office of Bogotá saying that they had recently been criticised for putting ‘happiness’ in the city’s strategy but they stood by this and were using the arts as the main way to deliver. ‘When you are happy, you can change society around you,’ she said.
I shared a panel with two Columbian projects – Crew Peligrosos (Dangerous Crew), which uses hip hop to fight against conflict, and Why the birds sing, a collective of female war victims who sing together. Next came the brilliantly-named Landfilharmonic – a group that makes music with children who work on a rubbish dump in Paraguay, creating instruments from discarded oil cans and boxes.
South America has successfully used orchestral music to direct young people away from violence and gangs since the 1970s and Il Sistema. We heard from Para Orchestra, the first orchestra for musicians with disabilities, and Drake Music, which has worked in the music and disability field for many years. Next came Musicians Without Borders, which trains local musicians to work in conflict areas. The CEO of the latter, Laura Hassler, urged us never to apologise for needing subsidy from governments who pump millions into war and industry.
Sara Lee, the founder of Music in Prisons from the UK, gave an excellent presentation and also explained how the arts and criminal justice system have set up an arts action group in the Ministry of Justice.
There was an amazing keynote speech by neuroscientist Dr Aniruddh Patel, showing that communal music promotes co-operation, sociability and pro-social behavior. He cited the Kirschner/Tomasello study (2000) about joint music-making a pro-social behavior and we chatted about the work of People United over coffee. Technology is allowing us to study brain function in a way that hasn’t previously been possible, giving more and more scientific proof that the arts create positive change. This will help us all to lobby and campaign for this work, particularly in places where the arts are not as valued as they should be.
The conference was the second time I heard a presentation by the Afghanistan Institute for Music which enables orphans and children from the conflict to play musical instruments. Founder Ahmed Sarmast said that ‘the dark forces in Afghanistan can’t silence our music. We respond with what the Taliban hates the most – beauty and gender equality’.
Another music and conflict project closer to home, Beyond Skin in Northern Ireland, presented its work collaborating with musicians from different countries to bring local communities together. Its founder Darren Ferguson also said one of my favourite quotes of the week: ‘young people aren’t hard to reach – politicians are’.
In the afternoons, a few international projects were paired with local projects to come up with ideas for collaboration – a brilliant idea that should be replicated more in conferences. Streetwise Opera/With One Voice was paired with Laboritorio CLAN, a local government initiative to give disadvantaged young people and adults more access to the arts. It has just started programmes with homeless people including dance, hip hop and theatre groups.
I participated in CLAN’s break-dancing workshop in a homeless centre (see photo) which was brilliantly run. They asked me questions around methodology, retention of participants and, in a country with no benefits system, how to use music as a pathway to professions in the arts. ‘How did you make it work – what were the factors of success?’ In some ways, I think we have a lot more thinking to do as a sector in order to answer that. Ultimately though, I am a passionate believer in the power of encouragement and togetherness – if we support each other and stand together as a sector, we can achieve greater success.
The final day was perhaps the most moving and significant – kicked off by Canadian academic Craig Robertson speaking about how music affects the interaction between memory, emotions and identity. We then heard from Cantadoras del PacíficoSur, where the tradition of cantadoras (female singers) goes deep into the community psyche and they are regarded as healers and keepers of generational knowledge.
Next was Odile Gakire Katese from the Rwandan women’s drumming group Ingoma Nshya, who spoke about what happened after the genocide. She was upbeat, saying that women wanted to ‘escape from our daily life and have fun, fun, fun!’. Playing drums is illegal for women in Rwanda, but the group has persevered and now travels the world giving concerts. Odile quoted one of the drummers who said: ‘it gave me an identity – I exist. I was on the streets and now I am a drummer’.
Identity was, for me, the strongest theme that united all projects in the seminar. Music and the arts can remind us all that we have a creative side and that this can become our identity.
Finally, we had a selection of testimonials from those who had benefitted from programmes, rounded off by Eileen Mascoll from Music in Prisons with a passionate account of sending her five-year-old a recording of her singing while in prison.
We left the conference hearing the news that President Santos had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, book-ending an extraordinary week in Colombia. This was a seminar that left everyone feeling more resolved and more certain than ever that music can transform lives.