It’s almost impossible to imagine two leaders on opposite sides of the Middle East conflict rising to give an ovation at the same event, clapping with unabashed joy, moved and united in the deepest appreciation. But it did happen. And quite possibly it could only have happened for one common denominator: music.
In Geneva, 1995, dozens of world leaders, including those representing Israel and Palestine attended the very first concert by The World Orchestra for Peace to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
The orchestra brought together the very best classical musicians on the planet to demonstrate “the unique power of music as an ambassador for peace”. That was the vision of its founder and inspiration, Sir Georg Solti, whose creation has gathered virtuoso musicians from more than 60 countries to work, literally, in harmony.
Music and happiness
Humanity has been expressing itself through music for more than 40,000 years. It’s no wonder we are hardwired to be moved by music. Babies respond to happy, or sad, songs from a very early age and the intensity of connection only grows stronger as we develop.
Music activates several different parts of the brain - there are complex messages to take in. Melody, pitch, rhythm, language, emotion, even memory and visualisation, all being received, or generated, in unison.
Music that makes you happy releases dopamine, a key feature of the brain’s reward system, giving you a hit like chocolate, or love.
But, as we all know, music doesn’t just speak to the mind. Sometimes you can’t keep your feet still. The right beat can stir you, increase your breathing, elate you and make staying off the dance floor impossible. When you dance at a club, you’re dancing with people to whom the rhythm has spoken. So no matter who you are or what tongue you speak, you’re hearing the same language.
The language of music speaks to all, no matter what class, creed or birthplace.
When Afrikan Boy takes to the stage at the London’s Southbank Centre for the Meltdown Festival this June, he might notice a grandad’s white beard among the sea of faces eager to hear his blend of hip-hop, dance, Grime and Afro-beat.
Afrikan Boy’s single LITW was picked up by BBC 6Music, exposing his work to a new audience, like 59-year-old Mark Shepherd, more used to dad rock and indie. Mark followed the thread from LITW to his first album, The ABCD, and found Afrikan Boy spoke to him.
“I heard this song, it was like a rap over classical guitar, telling this story of struggle and hope. I’d never heard anything like it. It kind of blew me away,” said Mark. “I looked him up. Read he was a Grime artist. I played [the album] anyway and it was nothing like LITW. More dancey, obviously, but also really strong.”
The ‘guitar’ turned out to be a kora, a 21-string West African instrument, more like a lute. How did Afrikan Boy feel about reaching a diverse audience?
“It means a lot to me, particularly from folk like [Mark] who are just fans of music.” he said. “My music must make sense to me and my audience. I won’t necessarily call myself a Grime act. I just love music and I let those who box music do their thing.”
Because, like many artists, Afrikan Boy isn’t confined by genre, any more than any of us are defined by job titles, star signs or shoe sizes. We’re more complicated than that. Music hits you without filter. It grabs before you’ve had a chance to think.
But not all music inspires happiness. Sad songs can be even more moving and inspire empathy.
Why do we need sad songs when happy ones make us feel so good? A good cathartic cry can make you feel better, it’s true. But it’s also reassuring to know someone understands and a sad song is someone understanding. You find you are not alone. And there is nothing more important in times of sadness than to know you are not alone, that someone shares your pain and in turn and wants to help you through it.
Music also inspires and can be inspired by memory. Maybe it recalls a first kiss, someone you miss, a different time in your life, a place, a smell, all wrapped up in a good tune and a sweet voice. While music speaks to many, it also speaks to you about your life.
You can’t help loving the music you love. It’s not a choice. And so it doesn’t matter if you’re eight or eighty. Music doesn’t care. It creates no barriers to race, faith, gender or age, it does away with them.
Last words to country singer, the late John Denver: “Music does bring people together. It allows us to experience the same emotions. People everywhere are the same in heart and spirit. No matter what language we speak, what colour we are, the form of our politics or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: we are the same.”