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© David Wilson 2003

David Wilson

The Bible says, ‘In the beginning was the word’. Wrong. First there was the rhythm. From the time of the Big Bang, it is the beat that gives the cosmos its pulse. All else may be chaos, but it is there, in mathematical time, something primordial.(1) In one sense, however, the Bible was right. Man’s first attempt to communicate involved rhythm, movement and dance which represented the first language, the first word.

At the time of what Engels called ‘primitive communism’, when homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, humans signalled to each other by beating stick on stick, stone on stone. The first vocal syllables were whistles and calls based on rhythmic patterns which allowed human communication to take place. Rhythm was there, at the start of everything. It was there at the start of our species and at the start of our individual lives. Whether or not we evolved from the sea, we all emerged from the waters of our mothers and water is a perfect transmitter of sound. Try placing a waterproof watch at one end of a swimming pool. Get there early in the morning, when no one else is around, and ask a friend to swim to the far end of the pool under water and ask them what they can hear.

Both the heart of the foetus and that of the mother beat to a time cycle of three: dum, dum, break, dum, dum, break. This is called three time. Mother and baby are in syncopated rhythm with each other. They have individual rhythms which meet to form a third. Sounds exterior to the womb may also be heard and absorbed. Many pregnant women will tell you that they are aware their babies react to external sounds. So music and rhythm or, rhythm and music to be chronologically correct, are central to our lives. It is a physical and emotional link, both to something in us and beyond us, linking us to the ‘music of the spheres’.

Music can move us to extremes of joy or sadness, elation or depression. Perhaps it is a piece we associate with some event in our life: when we first kissed, when we went to our first teenage party, when we first made love. This musical association is strong in all of us. Perhaps it is with Albinoni’s “Adagio”, Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto”, Ali Farka Toure, blues, a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald or John Lee Hooker, an Indian raga, hip hop or drum and bass. In all of these types of music, we can be emotionally, and even physically, moved.

Sound profoundly influences not only our emotions, but our physical being. If you project sound waves at piles of sand, iron filings, water or mercury, you can create varied patterns, from spirals to grids. Given the sound conductivity of water and its high level in the human body, it is hardly surprising that our cells react to sound vibrations, even those at the far end of the spectrum which we are unable to hear. With this knowledge, holistic healers place vibrating forks close to the energy field of the human body. Maybe that’s the ‘fringe’, but hospitals use high-pitched sound to shatter kidney and gall stones. Conversely, the negative side of the use of sound are experiments undertaken by the US military and other governments, utilizing sound waves as a weapon of war. And Abu Ghraib has shown us that music itself can be a weapon! So sound can both massage and destroy the body’s molecules.

Music therapist, Olivea Dewhurst-Maddock, has argued that the vibrational energies of different notes affect different areas of the body. For instance, C major affects the bones, lower back, legs and feet, D major transmits energy waves to the kidneys and bladder, lymphatic and reproductive systems and skin and A major is related to pain and pain control.

A few years ago, a friend of mine had major heart surgery. This is what he told me about it.

“My post-operative experience was quite disturbing. I'd brought some of my favourite music to listen to in the hospital. I have always been passionate about classical music. My mother and stepfather were professional musicians and I was brought up, from the embryo onwards, listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Haydn and Schubert. Once I was a bit more than an embryo, I learnt to play the piano, cello and guitar. During the week following the operation, I lost touch with a lot of things - my sense of taste, smell, my enjoyment of books, but the worst was being cut off from the meaning of music. Something central to my life seemed to have died inside me. I would listen to a Mozart piano concerto; I could follow the harmony and counter-point, but found no beauty in it, nor could I appreciate its extraordinary passion and inventiveness. Listening to Mozart was like listening to Salieri. That loss and the frequent moments when I burst into tears, for no apparent reason, convinced me that lengthy and violent operations have a much deeper effect on our inner selves than medical science acknowledges. Only part of me was put to sleep. Many levels of my subconscious and my body were awake when the knife cut me open. They went into a state of shock. They switched off. They needed time to mourn. My enjoyment of music now, three years later, is even more intense than before. I don't know if that comes with age, or whether it is the result of the operation, but it is now a passion only second to my closest relationships.”

Perhaps it is for this reason that in ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph for music was also that for well-being and joy.

We associate music with joy but what about music in negative, non-joyful situations, in war? When the lights go out, leaving hunger and the threat of death you will still find music.

In 1994, I was in cellars in Sarajevo and Mostar. (3) Shells were exploding, the snipers were at work, but people, particularly young people, gathered together and, if they could not listen to music as there was often no power, they played it. The louder the shelling, the louder their music. It was an expression of defiance, a testament to the survival of the one thing that kept them human in an inhuman situation - the primordial language of rhythm and music which connected them to their essence.

A young soldier in Mostar visited me after his time on the front line, a Kalashnikov on one shoulder and a guitar on the other. He tapped the guitar and told me, ‘A much better weapon’.

Together with other musicians/soldiers this young man faced his former classmates across a narrow street, playing music to them when it was too dark to fight. Cigarettes were thrown into the building where the musicians were crouching as they performed for their enemies.

Just before the war ended in 1995, I helped smuggle into East Mostar a photo exhibition on Bob Marley sponsored by Island Records. To this day, I cannot say who else was involved because we received a lot of opposition from some mainstream NGO’s who claimed that we were endangering aid programmes in the area, although some of these same NGO’s were handing up to 30% of their aid to the forces bombarding Sarajevo and Mostar. For this exhibition, we took in Marley tapes and CD’s which the local radio station broadcast non-stop for two days from their cellar. The exhibition opened underground, on the front line. I will never forget how the town pulsed to Marley’s rhythms in the midst of the thud of incoming shells.

These are examples of overt and easily-recognizable influences of music in such extreme interface situations: music as defiance with an external enemy in mind. But what of the influence of music in relationship to the enemy within? Its effect on the disturbed and traumatized minds of those who have been too close to the barbarisms of war, who have shot and killed, have been shot at and wounded, both physically and emotionally, who have seen friends die, lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters?

We were going to find the answer to this question thanks to Luciano Pavarotti, Brian Eno and a series of concerts. They would open a road which would result in the construction of a music centre in a bombed out school in Mostar.

On Friday 7 July 1995, Brian was working in the studio with U2 when the phone rang. It was the famous tenor inviting Bono to perform with him at his Modena “Pavarotti and Friends Concert” in September. Brian suggested that the concert be staged to benefit the charity he and his wife, Anthea were already supporting, War Child. The opera singer bravely agreed since he knew little or nothing of this British NGO, but he wanted to help the children of Bosnia and this was what War Child was doing with its bakeries, medical aid and music workshops. Pavarotti also agreed to join the patrons, who now included Brian, David Bowie, Tom Stoppard, MTV’s Brent Hansen and actress Juliet Stevenson.

The first concert for War Child took place at Modena’s Parco Novi Sad on 12 September 1995. Pavarotti, Bono and the Edge with Brian Eno performed “Miss Sarajevo”.Brian wrote the words with Bono and it became a hit single. The song was about the young women of Sarajevo who staged a beauty contest at the height of the war. Lined up in swimsuits with the crowned Miss Sarajevo in the middle, they carried a banner, DON’T LET THEM KILL US. When I heard Pavarotti come in over Bono’s voice singing, “Is there a time for high street shopping, to find the right dress to wear, here she comes with her crown,” there was more than a lump in my throat.

I had seen the people unbowed by the devastation that had been unleashed on them. Young girls who had no heating or water or electricity in full make-up running to the stop cocks in the street in high heels, looking like models, risking their lives to get water, willing to be killed, but not willing to be killed defeated.

The following June, Pavarotti held the second concert in aid of what had by now become, thanks to him, a definite project - the Mostar music centre. The line-up included Eric Clapton, Joan Osborne, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, Sheryl Crow and Zucchero. It was a moving concert with Clapton singing “Mother Mary” composed after the death of his own son and Liza Minelli joining Pavarotti in a rendition of “New York, New York”. These were two artists sublimating their personal sorrow to help children of war whom they had never met.

In the finale, “Live Like Horses”, with all the artists on stage belting out the words, the audience of many thousands joining in, banners waving declaring PEACE, NOT BOMBS, the TV boom camera whizzing over our heads, I had the feeling that music can make a difference to the world.

The Modena concerts were relatively easy to get to from Mostar and two years later in 1998 and one year after the opening of what was now the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mosar, I filled a camper van with young Bosnians from the Centre and drove to the Split-Ancona ferry. It was wonderful to be there with them since none of them had been out of Mostar, let alone Bosnia, since before the war and they were here as welcome guests at a Pavarotti concert and were from his music centre.

Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras have often been criticized for betraying opera by popularizing their music and singing with pop stars. Soon after one of the Modena concerts, the Evening Standard published an article “One million pounds a night and they’re killing real music”. The writer attacked the Three Tenors for singing in football stadiums and car parks and for having dubious motives for their charity work. I responded with a letter to the paper printed on 9 July 1996 and signed by all the War Child national offices:

“We would like to respond to the article which criticized the Three Tenors for popularizing opera and classical music and suggested their motives are suspect. One of the tenors, José Carreras, suffered from leukaemia. With such a personal history, how could he not seek to raise money for his chosen cause, even if that did mean abandoning the sanctified stages of the Met and the Royal Opera Houses? As for Luciano Pavarotti, he has for many years concerned himself with the problems of disadvantaged children in the world, unaccompanied by the world’s press and with no attempt to court publicity. For the past two years, he has been helping War Child in its work, and by popularizing his talents has raised sufficient money to enable War Child to build a music centre in Bosnia, provide diabetic aid to those who would die without insulin and help to assure the survival of our orphanage in Tuzla . . . If all this can be done only by absenting oneself from the great opera houses of the world and performing instead in car parks and football stadiums, that is no mean achievement.”

Two years after the first Modena concert the Music Centre was opened by Pavarotti in December 1997. It had been constructed in East Mostar a part of the city devastated by two wars: first in the war of the whole town against Serb forces and then in the much worse war between the Croats on the west bank of the Neretva River and the Bosniaks on the East. Thousands of families were driven into this ghetto on the east side by “ethnic cleansing”, an inaccurate phrase for attempted genocide.(4) A truer phrase would be “ethnic purging”. They lived in cellars for ten months, eating grass soup and emerging into the streets only to collect water, and in the case of the young men, to fight. When the Anne Frank exhibition arrived at the centre in 1998, I was asked to say something at its opening. There was not much to say, only that the Mostar ghetto had contained thousands of Anne Franks.(5)

This centre allowed the healing power of music to enter this community. The young were particularly affected by the war and from the day it opened its doors, they flooded in. Some of those who attended the centre used music to escape their darkest memories. They would tell me that only when they played or listened to music could they escape their nightmares. The best of our African drummers had been the youngest soldier on the front line, but if you met him, a gentle giant of a man, you would not believe the things that happened to him or the things that he did which, when remembered, brought him close to tears.

Children and young people were brought together to make and listen to music: to sing, to beat drums, to strum guitars, to act and react together through music. These workshops took on a structured form with Professor Nigel Osborne who had organized a children’s opera in Sarajevo at the height of the war. Osborne brought graduate students to Mostar from the Faculties of Music at Edinburgh and Hanover Universities where he was a professor. This was to quickly develop into our successful schools’ outreach programme.

I remember attending one of these workshops. One woman sat with her six-year-old daughter who was blind and impassive. I watched while one of the students attempted to get the girl to play a triangle. The girl refused to even hold it. This went on for some time until, finally, she grabbed the triangle with one hand, the metal stick with the other, struck it over and over again, her face lighting up. Her mother told us later that it was the first time she had seen her daughter smile in over two years.

The first schools’ project was called “The Oceans”. First, our teachers started with the Neretva which flows through the centre of Mostar. They went to the schools and took with them music from the banks of that river - Croat, Serb and Bosniak songs. On the next visit, the theme became the Mediterranean because the Neretva flows into that sea: Tunisian love songs, Flamenco, French, Italian and Greek music. Next, the Atlantic because that is the ocean into which the Mediterranean flows: everything from Brazilian, to Blues, to Celtic and West African music, then the Indian Ocean and finally the Pacific. The children became aware that they did not just live in Mostar, or specifically in the case of East Mostar, in a small ghetto, but that their town and river had links to the far distant islands of the Pacific. When Pavarotti came to open the building, some of these same children performed a Hawaiian boat dance for him.

The Centre employed more than thirty young musicians who travelled out to schools and kindergartens in Mostar and the surrounding villages to bring music education into the lives of the children. Centre staff also worked in special schools, the Sarajevo Blind School and in the Srpska Republika.

The Music Therapy department, staffed by the first resident music therapists in Bosnia Hercegovina, worked with the most disturbed and distressed children. I am not a music therapist and cannot speak for them, but as the director who introduced music therapy to the centre, I watched the progress of their work very carefully. The results were amazing and a credit to a small, dedicated department who achieved so much in an extremely distressed town with its equally-distressed populace. This small team were responsible for ground-breaking work. Traumatised children were treated and, on occasion, responded so well that some of them ended up by joining more mainstream activities that were offered at the Centre.

The PMC had a team of young musicians working in the mental hospital in Pazaric. They cooperated with the music therapy department and accepted their help and advice, but they were not therapists, yet the results of their work there were extraordinary. The hospital was caught between two front lines in the war; the patients had been left unstaffed and starving and were forced to bury their own dead. When I first visited the place immediately after the war, it was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. If you went there later with Oha and his team, the patients could be found lining the driveway in expectation of the visit and a good time. Every six weeks, a few of them were invited to the PMC to spend the weekend and join in the Centre’s activities.

The PMC adopted a holistic approach to music. Our Western-oriented clinical music therapy department worked successfully alongside those working to a different rhythm: music as healer, alongside music as treatment. This link was an important part of my thinking since the inception of the Centre, in part as a result of living with a part-Cherokee acupuncturist who, although a practising Buddhist, ends her meditations by beating her Indian drum. She practised acupuncture at the Centre for many months and had extraordinary success with patients who varied from the physically wounded to the mentally scarred.

It is an interesting subject this: the distinction between treatment and healing. I have become convinced that there is a place for both, with the time long past for an integrated approach to be developed by those engaged in music therapies. “Healing” is about being made whole again, a striving for balance, repairing out-of-tuneness with oneself and with the environment. It starts from the premise that none of us can, or should be, separated from the web in which we live. This is in stark contrast to the Western notion of regarding the environment as something separate and alien from ourselves. Working from this principle, music healing is preventative, not reactive, a practice to be used to help maintain harmony and balance. For this reason, it does not fit neatly into the deductive, empirical principles of treatment which are: there is something wrong, we will see if we can right that wrong and will observe the result.

I saw in the PMC music therapy department that this approach works. A child assessed as needing therapy is treated and either does, or does not, get better. The results are observable. A child who does not talk or smile starts to talk and smile. A child who is physically destructive of him/herself and others changes their behaviour for the better. But where the musician stands in relationship to the child more as a healer, you cannot necessarily observe a result, good or bad. You can, for example, run percussion workshops with children who are not walking round Mostar with any overt problem and it is impossible to say that because they beat a drum twice a week they have been made better.

My experience is that these approaches are not mutually exclusive and it is good for those brought up in one or other of these cultures to cross-fertilise and engage in self-questioning. The Judaeo-Christian belief in the expulsion from the Garden of Eden divorces Man from his environment and leaves him attempting to reshape it, often with disastrous consequences. By contrast, the peoples and cultures who believe they are still in their Garden of Eden and have never been separated from their wider environment, have their problems, too. They are left disarmed in the face of the re-shapers.

For some in Bosnia Hercegovina, much that happened at the centre was dangerously political because music was being used to counter cultural exclusiveness; what I call cultural incest. It is interesting that the most negative and threatening music comes from this tradition: national anthems and military marching songs, to look at it from the extreme. To the contrary, the best music, as with the best art, architecture and whatever else expresses human creativity, comes from cultural mixing.(6) Goebbels once said, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.” I would answer, When I hear the word gun, I reach for my culture.

This attempt to universalize music and culture at the Centre was deliberate and methodical. For the first year of our work, we appointed as Director of Music Development the South African drummer, Eugene Skeef, a cultural activist who was Steve Biko’s driver. He was responsible for setting up what became an African percussion tradition at the centre. On Sunday afternoons, you could find up to sixty children and young people taking part with djembes, maracas. handbells, marimbas and wood blocks.

Percussion workshops were developed, both at the centre and as part of the outreach work at Pazaric Hospital, for example. After the first half hour of drum tuition, I have seen very young children express rhythmic talent as though latent to their essence and being. On a recent visit to the USA, I came across an article by Feeny Lipscomb, drummer and writer, who says, “Recently, medical research has testified that drumming produces an altered state similar to meditation, thereby reducing stress. Drumming is also a right-brain activity which increases intuition, shuts down the “rational” mind, and centers us in our hearts . . . I have often heard drumming compared to the high produced by endorphins. In fact, many people have taken up drumming because they’ve heard it’s a way to get the same endorphin-produced high without running and/or doing aerobics.”(7)

For millennia shamans have argued that drumming is ‘the horse that takes you to the Gods’. The state induced is a type of meditation and the Centre offered meditation classes for its staff. When it was discovered that this teacher was also an acupuncturist, staff and others requested treatment, with some extraordinary results. The practitioner helped a traumatised musician sleep for the first time in years, cured migraines, helped stroke victims and the wounded.

For a short while we also had a ballet teacher whose classes proved so popular girls had to be turned away from class.

From the start, the ethos of the PMC had been to make a difference, not just in terms of the type of aid work that was carried out, but also the reasons why it was. It is time that we question those aid programmes which lead to dependency and ensure the continuation of the outstretched hand. This form of aid becomes an appendage to war and does not address the larger questions of physical, spiritual and psychological reconstruction which minimize the possibility of future wars.

Europeans travel to Africa to teach the people how to grow their crops. One of the places they go to sits in the Rift Valley, where agriculture was practised before Europe was populated. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying they should not be there doing what they do, but they should be aware of the history, economics, culture and politics of the people they have come to help and if to this is added a passion for justice and, dare I say it, an understanding of the need for political change, then their work can be more than a ‘flash in the pan’.(8) In the words of Eugene Skeef: “The destruction visited upon the planet in the name of advancement is more than sufficient proof that those of us whose basic education and development was fired in the Western mould, need to exercise a rare humility before proceeding to administer aid to others. We all know that the so-called first world (strange notion this, if we are to accept Africa as the birthplace of human civilization) has a great deal to learn from the so-called third world, if they can just step back, join the circle and let someone else lead the song with a different rhythmic melody.”

It had been my hope that the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar could be a resource centre for a worldwide project whose purpose was to add and sustain hope to the lives of the generation who may, one day, remember war and conflict as a distant memory. The hope remains.

David Wilson
1st Director, Pavarotti Music Centre
Co-Founder, War Child


1. The purest connection of music to nature is to be found in the Eastern pentatonic scale, eg the bamboo flute played in China. In discovering ‘natural harmonics’, Pythagoras laid the groundwork for equal temperament through his understanding of the ladder of notes. His ‘discoveries’ affected the development of Western music. Orchestral music would not have been possible without his visit to a blacksmith. Walking past one, he heard a hammer striking an anvil and asked if he could weigh the hammers. He found that one was two-thirds the size of the first. His experiments showed that by continually dividing by two-thirds, an infinite spiral of notes emerges. He had hit upon ‘natural harmonics’. He concluded that the cosmos was a harmonic ratio, that we lived in a musical universe and that music obeys the laws of physics.

2. Look at the honey bee to see how this is true for beings other than mammals. In Following The Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Bee Keepers Beacon Press, Boston,1991. Douglas Whynott says that bees produce “sustained wing vibrations and measured sound pulses. Tempo corresponds to distance. [Bees] remain in the hive dancing through the day and into the night, altering the straight run to create a gravity symbol that refers to the sun’s position on the other side of the earth - a position the bee has never seen.”

3. I was in Bosnia as co-founder of the charity War Child, who initiated music and music therapy projects in former Yugoslavia but which also had medical and food programmes. I left the charity in 2000 as a result of exposing their malpractices. Further information here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2001/jan/10/davidhencke

4. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights acknowledged in their 1993 report that ‘what is taking place in Bosnia-Hercegovina is attempted genocide - the extermination of a people in whole or in part because of their race, religion or ethnicity’, with the international community (the parties to the Geneva Convention and the United Nations), ‘displaying nearly incomprehensible incapacity; having failed to put an end to a war between one of the best equipped armies in Europe and a civilian population, who were neither psychologically or physically and materially prepared for it.’

5. Opening remarks made at the Anne Frank Exhibition, PMC, 3 September 1998: “The PMC is honoured to host the opening of the exhibition. On a personal note and, as one born right at the end of the Second World War, my politics, in fact my presence here at the PMC, has been shaped by Anne Frank. My father was one of the first British doctors to enter Bergen Belsen and I still have his photographs of the emaciated survivors imprinted on my brain. He told me that he had been ashamed at how many died after Liberation because British soldiers fed the people too much too quickly. Anne Frank would recognise Bosnia and Hercegovina. We should not hide from the facts. Nothing was learnt from her experiences and we sit here today in the Mostar Ghetto, a place where thousands of Anne Franks ate grass soup for ten months at the worst time of the war. We also sit inside a European country where events took place which were the equal of those that happened during the time of the last European Holocaust. It is to our shame that the same speeches were made, the same eyes were averted, Münich went Transatlantic. And it goes on. This has been the century of Anne Franks, the century of holocausts. From the Armenians at the beginning of the century onto the fascist terror, the Stalin Gulags, Cambodia, Rwanda. It has been estimated that in the last decade we have had millions of Anne Franks; two million children killed in wars, four million orphaned and some ten million psychologically traumatised. One survivor of Auschwitz, Bruno Bettelheim, once said that there is no meaning at all to life but we must behave as though there is. Anne Frank lived that dictum almost to the end of her short life. If she was here now - perhaps she is here now in all of us present - she would understand and enjoy what we are doing here.”

6. ‘Music is the weapon’ declared the Nigerian musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti (from the 1982 film about Kuti of the same name by S Tchal-Gadjieff & J-J Flori for Anthenne 2). Aware of that fact, politicians around the world use music and musicians to achieve their goals or try to control music and musicians which they perceive as a threat to their power; the treatment of Kuti, for example, in Nigeria or Victor Jara in Pinochet’s Chile. Even instruments are sometimes seen as a threat and are banned.

7. Newsweek (“Your Child’s Brain”,19 February 1996) presented evidence for the brain’s need for rhythm. The article described the stress produced when the brain is deprived of this basic need.

8. For those interested in the aid debate as applied to former Yugoslavia, I would recommend Barbara E Harrell-Bond’s “Refugees and the Challenge of Reconstructing Communities Through Aid”, in War Exile, Everyday Life, published by Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagreb. For an overall political perspective, see Noam Chomsky, “World Orders and other writings on Cold and post-Cold War International politics.”

shorter version of this article was published in the European Journal of Intercultural Studies, Vol.10, No 3, 1999 and in The Journal of Dramatic Theory & Criticism, The University of Kansas, Fall 2000, Vol. XV, No 1


© David Wilson 2003