Music To Unlearn: Social Transformation In Colombia

Music To Unlearn: Social Transformation In Colombia

It was a remarkable time to be in Colombia. Back in October - before the new peace deal between the government and the Farc rebel group had given renewed hope to Colombians - I landed at Bogota airport to the news that the plebiscite had returned a no vote to the deal then on the table. There was a strange sense of reliving the emotions following the UK's recent EU referendum, except that the shock result was far greater in Colombia as the prediction had been for the 'yes' side to win by a wide margin. As it transpired, the 'no' result came in with less than a one per cent margin; a no to the chance of ending a 50 year civil war. By the end of the week we had witnessed a peace march in Bogota which culminated in Simon Bolivar Square - thousands of people in solidarity and, for a long time, in complete and powerful silence, and Santos had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to his country.

This was quite a backdrop to the Music and Social Transformation conference, which is a major international gathering hosted by Batuta and British Council Colombia, and the reason for my visit to the country. Batuta was founded in 1991: originally inspired by Venezuela's El Sistema, though now developing its own distinctive model and presence in Colombia. The organisation works throughout Colombia to provide music education to the country's children, with a primary focus on those most disadvantaged and vulnerable. It's an impressive organisation.

A substantial part of the conference was dedicated to Music and Peacebuilding and it was officially opened with a personal message from President Santos, Colombia's Minister of Culture, and the Director of British Council Colombia. The ambition and scale of the operation was enormous. In the mornings, keynote speeches were followed by panels showing examples of good practice from all around the world on themes including music in the community, music and civil society, and music to "unlearn" (desaprender) war. In the afternoon, academics, cultural policy workers, arts professionals and practitioners met for focussed discussions around leadership in the arts, music and peace-building, with the aim that these discussions will, eventually, feed into music education policy in Colombia. There were also sessions specifically aimed at brokering new partnerships and projects between the organisations represented. The determination was clear: this conference was going to leave a legacy.

It's hard to give an adequate impression of the richness of experience and expertise represented at the gatherings day after day in the Luis Angel Arango Library in the beautiful La Calendaria district of Bogota. People came to share their experiences and learn from others: from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay to Rwanda to Cambodia and all stops between.

The UK sent a group of uniquely inspirational leaders from Streetwise Opera, the organisation that works through music to improve the lives of homeless people; Drake Music, an organisation working with technology to realise its vision of a world where disabled and non-disabled musicians work together as equals; the Irene Taylor Trust "Music in Prisons" which ensures prisoners have access to inspiring and engaging creative music experiences as a path away from crime; the Paraorchestra - the world's first professional ensemble of disabled musicians; and Beyond Skin , a Belfast-based organisation that works through arts and music to address issues of racism and sectarianism.

In addition, the commitment and shining example of Colombia herself was clearly evident throughout, from the stories from organisations like Crew Peligrosos from Medellin, saving youth through rap, through to the fact that the Minister for Culture was present every day of the conference.

A few words on the panel that I chaired may give a better flavour of this remarkable week. The session was entitled "Música para desaprender la guerra" - Music to unlearn war - and I aimed to create a space for my three panel members to tell their stories. Ahmad Sarmast founded the first music school in Kabul, educating both girls and boys and focussing on supporting the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan - orphans and street vendors. He survived a Taliban suicide bomber attack 18 months ago. Darren Ferguson, the Managing Director of Beyond Skin, opened his talk with a video juxtaposing the recent violence in Ardoyne with a project which brought together Orange marching bands with musicians from Belfast's ethnic minorities and put it on a concert stage as a way of defusing the politicisation of traditional music. Both had a lot to say around whether music can be the focus of violence. Alfonso Cardenas, who runs the Lucho Bermudez Music School in Carmen de Bolivar in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia, talked instead about how violence can lead to the creation of art. His home region is one of those most affected by the civil war, and his compositions mourn the slaughter it has witnessed. The horrific stories gently told by this mild-mannered man made me wonder again why I had not heard more over the years about Colombia's troubles.

The whole week was threaded through with performances and practical workshops, including the British Council's World Voice project, which promotes singing in the classroom as a powerful way of improving educational outcomes and children's lives. The very last event saw us all following Chirimia Rancho Aparte as they made the streets of La Calendaria ring with their joyful music, their own contemporary take on traditional street chirimia.

I'm sure I wasn't the only one harbouring a deep wish to return as soon as the plane lifted off from Bogota's Eldorado Airport, or the only one harbouring a deep wish that peace will indeed return to this beautiful and inspirational country.

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