Musicians Without Borders began with music. On May 4, 1999, Laura Hassler conducted a memorial concert in her hometown in the Netherlands. At the height of the Kosovo war, Laura had decided to extend the traditional Dutch remembrance of the second world war to those suffering and dying in the wars raging in Europe at that very moment. The performers dedicated their program of traditional Balkan songs– lullabies, love songs, songs of hope and mourning– to ordinary people everywhere, longing for the same things yet always caught between the firing lines.
Moved by the concert’s message, the musicians began talking about using the connecting power of music not only to express the tragedy of war, but also to do something about it. That summer, they visited Kosovo refugees in the Netherlands, singing and playing songs people knew and loved, making music with the children, providing musicians who had lost their instruments with replacements. A few months later, the group was in Sarajevo, Bosnia, performing and running music workshops with children in a refugee camp. In January 2000, they registered as a charitable foundation, under the name Musicians Without Borders. Laura coordinated a small office, gradually reaching out to peace and human rights organizations and building a network of musicians, while raising funds and support for a new, innovative approach to peace building through music.
For several years, MWB collaborated with musicians and human rights organizations in the Balkans, sending groups of singers and players to perform in festivals, and offering music and dance workshops in schools, cultural centers and refugee camps in Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia. As the network grew, MWB organized conferences in Sarajevo and in Utrecht, bringing musicians from eastern and western Europe, the Middle East and Cyprus together to explore their common desire to use their music for peace and social change.
Out of those early contacts grew MWB’s first long-term project: the Music Bus, a music project for children in the war-destroyed Srebrenica region in eastern Bosnia. From 2002 to 2011, the Music Bus brought music, dance and theater to children in Srebrenica and the towns and refugee camps in the wide region, while MwB trained local singers and dancers in its growing methodology of inclusive music making.
Gradually, MWB moved from tours and festivals toward long-term, locally based programs. An MwB team, invited to organize a festival in Mitrovica, Kosovo, responded to appeals from local rock musicians, and the Mitrovica Rock School opened its doors in 2008. An invitation to a conference on nonviolence in Bethlehem, Palestine brought MwB to the Middle East to introduce its approach. This led to the development of Palestine Community Music, training young Palestinians as community music leaders for children. 2010 saw an expansion to Central Eastern Africa, with the start of Rwanda Youth Music, and in 2013, a collaboration in Northern Ireland led to, Music Bridge. In 2015, MwB launched Welcome Notes, supporting musicians in Europe wanting to respond to the arrival in Europe of people fleeing war. In 2017, a new collaboration brought MwB to El Salvador to work with musicians and educators to help protect children from violence.
Today, these programs still thrive and grow, firmly embedded in local communities, cooperative ventures between MwB and local organizations and musicians working to bring social change and peaceful, liveable conditions to their own communities. From the projects and programs, MWB has developed its training program, sharing skills and knowledge with musicians around the world, in support of their own work in their own communities.
Today, MWB engages with universities, social activists and artists worldwide: sharing expertise as we work to inspire and enable musicians around the globe to be advocates, activists, teachers, trainers, researchers and performers, together carrying the message: war divides, music connects.
Musicians Without Borders is one of the world’s pioneers in using the power of music to bridge divides, strengthen communities and heal the wounds of war.