Nigel Osborne – Music and Trauma (Part 1 of 3)


Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
My brief is to talk about music and trauma. I am very conscious I am in a room of people
who know far much more about that than I do, from all sorts of points of view,
so forgive me if I give a personal view of how I think that works. First of all, a little bit autobiographically, and then I will try and do something
even more risky, I will try and talk a little science,
so lots of dangerous ground for me today. I first became involved
in working with music and trauma, particularly in relation to children,
totally by accident. In the early 90s, I became involved
in a human rights campaign to try and stop genocide
in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I could not watch my friends
dying on television and also I knew the country well enough
to know that the way it was being reported was inaccurate.
It was not a civil war, it was a Ribbentrop-Molotov arrangement
between Milosevic and Tudjman to invade a country.
There were no ancient ethnic hatreds, it was one ethnicity
and there was no Muslim enclave in the centre of Europe.
Bosnia’s Muslims make most European Christian societies
look illiberal and boring, so no, all of this was nonsense. I decided to offer my services
to try and help stop the war basically. That meant travelling to Sarajevo, and I won’t embarrass anyone in this room
by saying how I got myself there, but I did, by fair means and foul,
and I worked there a little bit directly with the Bosnian government. During that time
it became increasingly clear to me that we were failing at the political level. Maybe we could improve things at a later stage,
but we were failing to stop the violence. At the same time, as I walked around Sarajevo,
I saw the situation of children. This was a medieval siege of a modern city.
Shells landed at random deliberately, to the extent that
when people left their houses, they would say goodbye
as if for the last time. That’s not an exaggeration,
it was really a horrible situation and we never really
got the full measure of it, because most of the film
ended up on the cutting room floor in our media. Then the food supply, which was technically to be supervised
by the international community, was very poorly supervised;
water, people had to get from one or two Artesian wells,
which meant risking the snipers and the shells. The snipers –
you had to, at every crossroads – Sarajevo is in a valley, the Miljacka valley,
wherever you came to a crossroads, where you were in sight of the mountains,
we used to run at intervals. We would time it at random and run across.
The situation for children was brutalising in every sense,
I won’t go into the more horrible details, so I said to my old Bosnian artist friends,
I had known some of them for years and years, look, can we do something for the kids?
There is no school, there is nothing happening. Can we help them somehow?
They said, we have been thinking about this for a long time, but look at us,
we are walking skeletons. We would need to do this in collaboration. So we set about a modest collaboration
to get some projects going for children. By that time, I had found
my own legal way into the city the Bosnian army had opened
a drainage ditch underneath the airport, and I got permission to go through it,
so I used to go over Mount Igman, then run like a bat out of hell
from Butmir to the tunnel and then you would go through the tunnel
and arrive in the city, so I had a way in and out.
We worked with children in various activities, mostly creative: composing things,
writing things, performing. I used to bring instruments in,
I used to bring rucksacks full of percussion instruments. Walking over Igman, I would play tunes with myself,
as they danced up and down in my rucksack. So we did lots of things,
and it spread into quite a big operation. By the end, we even put on
the first opera of the war during a ceasefire, in Sarajevo Evropa,
with a load of children and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra,
or the War Philharmonic as it was then. We were very proud of that.
The president of Bosnia, Izetbegovic, said that was a turning point
in British-Bosnian relations, and I am sure it was a minor role we played
but I am proud of a small role in improving relations in that way. Anyway, drawing on our projects, we were visited by what was left
of the Ministry of Health and a Dr Chengiz came along
to one of our sessions, made a lot of notes, went away,
and came back and made a lot more notes. In the end, he came in with his report
and said: we like this as a therapeutic project. We had never used that word.
I had only thought I was amusing, distracting the children.
I had no specific therapeutic goals. But he said that we were therapeutic. So that kind of enabled us
to start thinking about ourselves in a slightly different way, and indeed, we had seen
massive inexplicable reactions in our children. There is a thing that happens,
if you make joyful music with a group of traumatised children,
there is a wave of energy that comes and hits you,
it is almost palpable, almost physical, I don’t know what it is,
but it comes and hits you. We had been noticing all kinds of things
and parents telling us how much better their children were sleeping,
and all this kind of stuff. So we had little anecdotal things happening.
I did develop the project further, and chose Mostar, the reason being
it’s an area I knew well, also the Washington Peace Agreement
had just taken place, which meant that it was largely –
not completely, but most hostilities had settled down and schools were being re-opened. In fact, one of the achievements
of the European Union, under Hans Koschnick, was getting those schools
up and running pretty quickly. I went to the Ministry of Education
for the Eastern Canton, where most of the victims were,
East Mostar, that part of Herzegovina, and said, I know you have got
no arts teachers in the schools, can I have your arts hours in school?
I will deliver your national curriculum but I will deliver something else as well.
So we began in a kind of general outreach. I would like to give you
a little bit of a flavour of that time, I will show you a bit of a film
made by Australian television, this is just after the end of the war.
By this time, I had gone into collaboration with a charity called War Child,
who had been at that point baking bread in Mostar, and were headed towards
trying to do something in music, so bread and music seemed to me
to be a very good combination, so we bread and musicked
our way through Mostar.