Many readers of Left Field have told me that the chapter on music and war resonated strongly with them, so for those who haven't yet read the book, here it is ….
The Bible says, ‘In the beginning was the word.’ Wrong. First there was the rhythm. From the time of the Big Bang, it is the beat that gives the cosmos its pulse. All else may be chaos, but it is there in mathematical time, something primordial.1 In one sense, however, the Bible is right. Man’s first attempt to communicate involved rhythm, movement and dance which represented the first language, the first word. At the time of what Engels called ‘primitive communism’, when Homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, humans signalled to each other by beating stick on stick, stone on stone. The first vocal syllables were whistles and calls based on rhythmic patterns which allowed human communication to take place. Rhythm was there at the start of everything. It was there at the start of our species and is there at the start of our individual lives.2 Whether or not we evolved from the sea, we all emerged from the waters of our mothers, and water is a perfect transmitter of sound. Place a waterproof watch under the surface at one end of a swimming pool. Get there early in the morning when no one else is around. Have a friend swim underwater at the far end of the pool and ask them what they can hear. Both the heart of the foetus and that of the mother beat to a cycle of dash dash, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum. Mother and baby are in syncopated rhythm. Sounds exterior to the womb may also be heard and absorbed by the foetus. Many pregnant women will tell you that they are aware that their babies react to external sounds. So music and rhythm, or rhythm and music to be chronologically correct, are central to our lives. It is a physical and emotional link, both to something in us and beyond us, linking us to the music of the spheres.
Music can move us to extremes of joy or sadness, elation or depression. Perhaps it is a piece we associate with some event in our life: when we first kissed, when we went to our first teenage party, when we first made love. This musical association is strong in all of us. Perhaps it is with Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’, Ali Farka Touré, blues, a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald, an Indian raga, hip-hop or drum and bass. In all types of music we can be emotionally, and even physically, moved.
If you project sound waves at piles of sand, iron filings, water or mercury, you can create varied patterns, from spirals to grids. Given the sound conductivity of water and its high level in the human body, it is hardly surprising that our cells react to sound vibrations, even those at the far end of the spectrum which we are unable to hear. With this knowledge, holistic healers place vibrating forks close to the energy field of the human body and hospitals use high-pitched sound to shatter kidney and gallstones. Conversely, the negative side of the use of sound are experiments undertaken by the US military and other governments, utilising sound waves as instruments of war. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have shown us that music can be a weapon.
Music therapist Olivea Dewhurst-Maddock has argued that the vibrational energies of different notes affect different areas of the body. For instance, C major affects the bones, lower back, legs and feet. D major transmits energy waves to the kidneys and bladder, lymphatic and reproductive systems and skin. A major is related to pain and pain control.3
A few years ago, a friend of mine had major heart surgery. This is what he told me about his recuperation:
‘My post-operative experience was quite disturbing. I’d brought some of my favourite music to listen to in the hospital. I have always been passionate about classical music. My mother and stepfather were professional musicians and I was brought up, from the embryo onwards, listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Haydn and Schubert. Once I was a bit more than an embryo, I learned to play the piano, cello and guitar. During the week following the operation, I lost touch with a lot of things – my sense of taste, smell, my enjoyment of books, but the worst was being cut off from the meaning of music. Something central to my life seemed to have died inside me. I would listen to a Mozart piano concerto; I could understand the harmony and counterpoint, but found no beauty in it, nor could I appreciate its extraordinary passion and inventiveness. Listening to Mozart was like listening to Salieri. That loss and the frequent moments when I burst into tears, for no apparent reason, convinced me that lengthy and violent operations have a much deeper effect on our inner selves than medical science acknowledges. Only part of me was put to sleep. Many levels of my subconscious and my body were awake when the knife cut me open. They went into a state of shock. They switched off. They needed time to mourn. My enjoyment of music now, three years later, is even more intense than before. I don’t know if that comes with age, or whether it is the result of the operation, but it is now a passion only second to my closest relationships.’
Perhaps it is for this reason that in ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph for music was also that for well-being and joy. But what about music in non-joyful situations, in war? When the lights go out and all that is left is hunger and the threat of death, you will still find music.
In 1993 and 1994 I was in cellars in Sarajevo and Mostar. Shells were exploding, the snipers were at work, but people – particularly young people – gathered together and, if they could not listen to music as there was often no power, they played it. The louder the shelling, the louder their music. It was an expression of defiance, a testament to the survival of the one thing that kept them human in an inhuman situation – the primordial language of rhythm and music which connected them to their essence.
A young soldier in Mostar visited me after his time on the front line, a Kalashnikov on one shoulder and a guitar on the other. He tapped the guitar and told me, ‘A much better weapon.’ This young man faced his former classmates across a narrow street, playing music to them when it was too dark to fight. Cigarettes were thrown into the building where he was crouching as he performed for his enemies.
Just before the war ended in 1995, I helped smuggle a Bob Marley photo exhibition into East Mostar. Sponsored by Island Records, we took in tapes and CDs with the photos. The local war radio station broadcast these non-stop for two days from their cellar studio. The exhibition opened underground on the front line. I will never forget how the town pulsed to Marley’s rhythms in the middle of the thuds from incoming shells.
These are examples of overt and easily recognisable influences of music in extreme situations: music as defiance with an external enemy in mind. But what of the influence of music in relationship to the enemy within? What is its effect on the disturbed and traumatised minds of those who have been too close to the barbarism of war, who have shot and killed, have been shot at and wounded, physically and emotionally? Who have seen friends die, who have lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters?
The PMC was constructed in East Mostar, a part of the city that had been devastated by two consecutive wars: first in the war of the whole town against Serb forces, then in the much worse war between the Croats on the west bank of the Neretva River and the Bosniaks on the east: former allies that had once formed an alliance to defeat the Serbs. When the Croats brokered a secret deal with the Serbs, the Croats turned on the Bosniaks. Thousands of families were driven into what became a ghetto on the east side of the Neretva River.
The term is ‘ethnic cleansing’, but a more accurate phrase would be ‘ethnic purging’.4 The Bosniaks were forced to live in cellars for ten months, eating grass soup and emerging into the streets only to collect water and, in the case of the young men, to fight. When the Anne Frank exhibition arrived at the Centre in 1998, I was asked to say something at its opening. There was not much to say, only that the Mostar Ghetto had contained thousands of Anne Franks.5
The Centre allowed the healing power of music to enter this community. The young were particularly affected by the war and, from the day the PMC opened its doors, they flooded in. Some of them used music to escape their darkest memories. They would tell me that only when they played, or heard music, could they escape their nightmares.
Children and young people were brought together to make and listen to music: to sing, to beat drums, to strum guitars, to act and react together through music. These workshops took on a structured form, thanks to the work of Nigel Osborne. This was to quickly develop into our successful schools’ outreach programme.
The first schools’ project was called ‘The Oceans’. First, our teachers started with the Neretva which flows through the centre of Mostar. They went to the schools and took with them music from the banks of that river – Croat, Serb and Bosniak songs. On the next visit, the theme became the Mediterranean because the Neretva flows into that sea: Tunisian love songs, flamenco, French, Italian and Greek music. Next, the Atlantic because that is the ocean into which the Mediterranean flows: everything from Brazilian, to blues, to Celtic and West African music. Then the Indian Ocean and, finally, the Pacific. The children became aware that they did not just live in Mostar, or more specifically in the small ghetto of East Mostar, but that their town and river had links to the world.
At the opening of the Centre, some of these children performed a Hawaiian boat dance for Pavarotti. After his long and hazardous helicopter journey across the Balkan winter skies, the Maestro looked puzzled, not knowing why these children had chosen a dance so foreign to their experience.
The Centre employed more than 30 young musicians who travelled to schools and kindergartens in Mostar and the surrounding villages to bring music into the lives of the children. Centre staff also worked in special needs’ schools, the Sarajevo Blind School and in the Srpska Republika.
The Music Therapy department, staffed by the first resident music therapists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, worked with the most disturbed and distressed children. The results were amazing and a credit to a small, dedicated department who achieved so much in a damaged town with its equally damaged population. This small team were responsible for groundbreaking work. Traumatised children were treated and, on occasion, responded so well that some of them ended up joining the Centre’s more mainstream activities.
For some in Bosnia-Herzegovina, much that happened at the Centre was dangerously political because music was being used to counter cultural exclusiveness – what I call cultural incest when expressed in its most extreme form. Negative and threatening music comes from this tradition: national anthems and military marching songs. To the contrary, the best music, as with the best art, architecture and whatever else expresses human creativity, comes from cultural mixing.6 Göring once said, ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.’ I would counter that with, ‘When I hear the word gun, I reach for my culture.’
This attempt to universalise music and culture at the Centre was deliberate and methodical. For the first two years of our work, Eugene Skeef was responsible for setting up what became African percussion workshops. On Sunday afternoons, you could find up to 60 children and young people taking part with djembes, maracas, handbells, marimbas and wood blocks.
These workshops were developed, both at the Centre and, as part of the outreach work, at orphanages and hospitals. After the first half hour of drum tuition, I saw very young children express rhythmic talent as if it were latent in their essence and being.
On a recent visit to the USA, I came across an article by Feeny Lipscomb, drummer and writer, who wrote, ‘Recently, medical research has testified that drumming produces an altered state similar to meditation, thereby reducing stress. Drumming is also a right-brain activity which increases intuition, shuts down the ‘rational’ mind, and centers us in our hearts... I have often heard drumming compared to the high produced by endorphins. In fact, many people have taken up drumming because they’ve heard it’s a way to get the same endorphin-produced high without running and/or doing aerobics.’7
For millennia, shamans have argued that drumming is ‘the horse that takes you to the gods’. The state induced is a type of meditation and, in fact, the Centre offered meditation classes after an acupuncturist at the Centre was asked to teach it by her patients. Through Chinese medicine and meditation, the practitioner achieved some extraordinary results: helping the traumatised sleep for the first time in years, curing migraines, helping stroke victims and the wounded.
From the start, the ethos of the PMC had been to make a difference, not just in terms of the type of aid work that was carried out, but also the reasons why it existed. It is time that we question those aid programmes which lead to dependency and ensure the continuation of the outstretched hand. This form of aid becomes an appendage to war and does not address the larger questions of physical, spiritual and psychological reconstruction needed to minimise the possibility of future wars.
Europeans travel to Africa to teach the people how to grow their crops. One of the places they go to is in the Rift Valley, where agriculture was practised before Europe was populated. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying they should not be there doing what they do, but they should be aware of the history, economics, culture and politics of the people they have come to help. If to this is added a passion for justice and, dare I say it, an understanding of the need for political change, then their work can be more than a ‘flash in the pan’.8
In the words of Eugene Skeef, ‘The destruction visited upon the planet in the name of advancement is more than sufficient proof that those of us whose basic education and development was fired in the Western mould need to exercise a rare humility before proceeding to administer aid to others. We all know that the so-called First World (strange notion this, if we are to accept Africa as the birthplace of human civilisation) has a great deal to learn from the so-called Third World, if they can just step back, join the circle and let someone else lead the song with a different rhythmic melody.’
It was my hope that the Pavarotti Music Centre could be a resource centre for a worldwide music-based project whose purpose would be to sustain the lives of those traumatised by war and conflict. To join and widen the circle.
Here is what I wrote on the first birthday of the PMC:
‘One year old, the Pavarotti Music Centre has surpassed all expectations. A schools’ music programme working in more than 20 schools, kindergartens and special schools, the first music therapy department in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a hospital outreach programme, a music school, a busy recording studio, a rock school, percussion workshops, guitar classes, a youth choir, drama workshops, dance and ballet, concerts and exhibitions, even acupuncture and meditation. Above all else, a place where children and young people can find themselves and their friends. In the middle of this damaged country, this wounded town, and working from within that town’s ghetto, we have done what no politician would dream of doing – produced solutions to political problems by ignoring politics altogether. We have let the music play. Of course, none of this was possible without the generosity of the many musicians who performed at the Modena concerts, none of this was possible without Brian Eno and his wife, Anthea. And none of this was possible without Luciano Pavarotti. But with them alone, we would have a building. We needed a ticking heart. That we found in the young people of Mostar who have dedicated themselves to making this place a success. And we have found it in the international workers here who seem, like me, to have fallen in love with the earth upon which the Centre stands.’
[An abridged version of this chapter was published in the European Journal of Intercultural Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1999 and in The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, The University of Kansas, Fall 2000, Vol. XV, No. 8]
1 Western orchestral music would not have been possible without Pythagoras’ visit to a blacksmith. Hearing a hammer strike an anvil he asked if he could weigh the hammers. He found that one was two- thirds the size of the first. He showed that by continually dividing by two-thirds, an infinite spiral of notes emerges. He had hit upon ‘natural harmonics’. He concluded that the cosmos was a harmonic ratio, that we lived in a musical universe and that music obeys the laws of physics.
2 Look at the honeybee to see how this is true for beings other than mammals. In Following The Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Bee Keepers, Beacon Press, Boston 1991, Douglas Whynott says that bees produce ‘sustained wing vibrations and measured sound pulses. Tempo corresponds to distance. [Bees] remain in the hive dancing through the day and into the night, altering the straight run to create a gravity symbol that refers to the sun’s position on the other side of the earth – a position the bee has never seen.’
3 Book of Sound Therapy, Olivea Dewhurst-Maddock, Fireside 1993.
4 The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights acknowledged in their 1993 report that ‘what is taking place in Bosnia-Herzegovina is attempted genocide – the extermination of a people in whole or in part because of their race, religion or ethnicity’, with the international community (the parties to the Geneva Convention and the United Nations) ‘displaying nearly incomprehensible incapacity; having failed to put an end to a war between one of the best equipped armies in Europe and a civilian population, who were neither psychologically or physically and materially prepared for it.’
5 My opening remarks made at the Anne Frank Exhibition, PMC, September 3rd, 1998: ‘The PMC is honoured to host the opening of the exhibition. On a personal note and, as one born right at the end of the Second World War, my politics, in fact my presence here at the PMC, has been shaped by Anne Frank. My father was one of the first British doctors to enter Bergen-Belsen and I still have his photographs of the emaciated survivors imprinted on my brain. He told me that he had been ashamed at how many died after Liberation because British soldiers fed the people too much, too quickly. Anne Frank would recognise Bosnia and Herzegovina. We should not hide from the facts. Nothing was learnt from her experiences and we sit here today in the Mostar Ghetto, a place where thousands of Anne Franks ate grass soup for ten months at the worst time of the war. We also sit inside a European country where events took place which were the equal of those that happened during the time of the last European Holocaust. It is to our shame that the same speeches were made, the same eyes were averted, Munich went transatlantic. And it goes on. The twentieth century has been the century of Anne Franks. From the Armenians at the beginning of the century on to the Nazi terror, the Stalin Gulags, Cambodia, Rwanda and onwards to Iraq. It has been estimated that in the last decade we have had millions of Anne Franks: two million children killed in wars, four million orphaned and some ten million psychologically traumatised. One survivor of Auschwitz, Bruno Bettelheim, said that there is no meaning at all to life but we must behave as though there is. Anne Frank lived that dictum almost to the end of her short life. If she was here now – perhaps she is here now in all of us present – she would understand and enjoy what we are doing here.’
6 ‘Music is the weapon’ declared the Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti (from the 1982 film about Kuti of the same name by S Tchal-Gadjieff and J-J Flori). Aware of that fact, politicians around the world use music and musicians to achieve their goals or try to control musicians who they perceive as a threat to their power; the treatment of Kuti, for example, in Nigeria or Victor Jara in Pinochet’s Chile. Even instruments are sometimes seen as a threat and are banned.
7 ‘Your Child’s Brain’, Newsweek, February 19th, 1996, presented evidence for the brain’s need for rhythm. The article described the stress produced when the brain is deprived of this basic need.
8 For those interested in the aid debate as applied to former Yugoslavia, I would recommend Barbara E. Harrell-Bond’s ‘Refugees and the Challenge of Reconstructing Communities Through Aid’, in War Exile, Everyday Life, published by the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagreb. For an overall political perspective, see Noam Chomsky, World Orders and other writings on Cold and post-Cold War International Politics.