On this Blog Action Day honoring human rights, I write as a musician who has worked in the United States, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka and Palestine. As someone dedicated to education through music, it can be hard sometimes to explain the importance of what I do in places where fundamental human rights are being ignored. Surely the need for a peaceful, non-warring homeland takes precedence over learning a major scale. Surely the access to water, food, medical care, a right to self-determination and educational institutions is more important than making a clean bow change. Given the injustices in the world, I find myself wondering what music can do for a refugee fighting for a home or an orphan cast out by society. In the face of such daunting problems, music can feel superfluous compared to the struggle for basic human rights.
None of the problems surrounding human rights will be fixed overnight. The solutions depend on complex diplomatic and economic issues that may take generations to overcome. For precisely that reason, music is a vital player. Music is a companion to the dispossessed in their struggle to achieve their rights. Music can console, heal and educate. It can unite people, lift them above their suffering, provide a refuge for the refugee and temper the forces of violence. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Joanne Lipman entitled “Is Music the Key to Success?” she wrote that music has “the power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.” I believe that this skill is critical to understanding the lack of human rights in areas of the world and laying out a plan to fix them.
I am currently working in Palestine, teaching drumming through the organization Musicians without Borders. I travel each week to work with children throughout the West Bank in community centers, schools and refugee camps. Group drumming in its nature is an act of community building — coming together to share a collective, positive experience. Musicians without Borders also conducts adult teacher training workshops to put the tools in the hands of Palestinians, making education through music a more sustainable endeavor here.
One group of students in particular has given me one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had. Twice a week I meet with a group of three deaf girls in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Before coming here, I had never taught deaf students and I was unsure how to confront the challenge. As I prepared my first lesson, it seemed that teaching music to the deaf was an impossible task. I couldn’t have been more surprised by the dedication and work ethic of the girls. My core objective was to help them coordinate their limbs, develop balance and foster awareness of one’s body, breath, movement and spatial relationships. Their progress has been remarkable in just a short period of time. One of the girls told me that she plans to buy a drum. She said she has difficulty falling asleep now because she lies awake in bed tapping away, trying to internalize the rhythms from our lessons. Another said she has become more confident as she goes about her day. While music does not fix all of their problems, it is a catalyst for joy and practical skills in a place without the resources for the deaf community to function as equals in society.
In Afghanistan I taught briefly at the Kabul Blind School, another incredibly rewarding challenge. One of the school’s dedicated teachers told me that the school was run in part by members of the Taliban. They would watch our music classes with scorn, afraid that music would corrupt the children, that music was anti-Islamic, haram. They threatened the children, saying that if they came to our classes, even if only to watch, they would be failed in their studies, essentially kicking them out of school. A blind child in Afghanistan faces tough odds, and a lack of education all but dooms them to a life of suffering. While some of the numbers in the class size dropped after the threats from the hard-line mullahs, there were still about ten students that continued to show up, about half of them girls. I was incredibly moved by their determination to come despite such serious threats. Attending school should not take courage, it should be encouraged. But for these children it was an act of bravery, and they took that risk because music was so important to them. They would eagerly await the arrival of me and my colleague, holding our hands and smiling, asking what we would do today in class. I was reminded of their courage by Malala Yousafzai, from neighboring Pakistan, who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She is a 16 year old girl speaking out for the right to education, especially women’s education, even after being shot in the head by the Taliban.
Connecting the qualities of leadership and musicianship, Lipman writes that music benefits “collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.” I have to believe that these skills are among the most valuable things you can give someone struggling to change the injustices around them.
Musicians without Borders has projects throughout the world in places like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, trying to restore the empowerment of music to those who lack basic human rights. Music will not restore their rights immediately, but it will hold their hand along the way, reflecting what they feel to those on the outside. It can be the constant in a life of endlessly shifting variables. I am grateful for the work of Musicians without Borders and many other music education organizations around the world, and I am proud to work with them in their efforts. Malala Yousafzai, one of my personal heroes, said in her speech at the United Nations General Assembly in July, “Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced.”
Music can be that light and give that voice.
Written by Derek Beckvold