Monday, October 30, 2006

Music as a healing force in Palestine

Today’s Independent makes the vital connection between music and current affairs in both a double page feature and a thoughtful leader praising the work of contemporary composer and human rights activist Nigel Osborne (left). Here is an extract from the inspirational story of how music is helping traumatised Palestinian children: - The Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and one of Britain's foremost contemporary composers, is somehow managing simultaneously to play the guitar, dance, and conduct a class of 30 children in their lusty performance - in Mandinga - of a West African folk song. This is Balata, a stronghold of armed militancy and the target of at times almost daily Israeli incursions, where 150 Palestinians have been killed since the intifada began six years ago. It is also one of the most densely populated places on earth, home to 30,000 civilians who live in less than two square kilometres of cement-block housing packed so closely together that fat people cannot squeeze into some of the alleys between them.

Professor Osborne, whose works have been performed by orchestras across the world from the Berlin Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who has seen his operas play at Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, has come to Nablus to practise what he has preached for more than a decade: the huge potential of music to rehabilitate war-traumatised children. Professor Osborne's belief in the therapeutic and transformational power of music in the most unpromising circumstances is no passing fad. He graduated in music from Oxford in the late 1960s (where as the composer of a Cinderella produced by Gyles Brandreth, he coached Eliza Manningham-Buller, future head of the British Security Service, to sing for her part as the fairy godmother).

He was a music therapist for a spell as a young man but it was as a human rights activist, enraged by the failure of the international community to protect Bosnia from Serb aggression, that he went to Sarajevo in 1993. Horrified by the impact of the siege on children, he devised, with two Bosnian artists, the idea of running creative workshops for children caught up in the conflict. "The idea was just so the children could have a bit of fun," he recalls. "I was surprised how the therapeutic idea emerged out of it." For a visionary who has worked in several conflict zones, including Chechnya and Georgia, Professor Osborne has an unexpected streak of humility. He is careful to distinguish between clinical music therapy and the kind of session he is doing in Nablus, or those he ran in Sarajevo, and west Bosnia, where he was inevitably called - at least by journalists - "the Pied Piper of Mostar". But ever since noticing what he has described as the "palpable wave of energy" emanating from the Sarajevo children, he has believed passionately that "music assists these [traumatised] children, helping communication between individuals and within groups, creating trust joy, safety, cognitive repair and the incomparable self-esteem brought by creativity." Professor Osborne has no illusions that music will somehow stop all young people picking up real guns in the future. But he says: "I hope we can offer an alternative path, a path where human energy can be put to creative, not destructive purposes."

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