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Laura Hassler, Founder and Director, Musicians without Borders – CMW Global Forum Keynote

On Friday, May 6, 2016, Laura Hassler, Founder and Director, Musicians without Borders, delivered a terrific keynote presentation at the Global Forum: International Networking Breakfast at Canadian Music Week, presented by Music Canada. Her topic was “War Divides, Music Connects: Using Rock for Reconciliation,” and she has graciously allowed us to share the text of her speech here.

Laura Hassler

Global Forum: International Networking Breakfast
Canadian Music Week
Keynote: War Divides, Music Connects: Using Rock for Reconciliation
Laura Hassler, Founder and Director, Musicians without Borders
May 6, 2016

This morning’s theme is: Music as a powerful tool for good.

Everyone here today knows that music is powerful. And that music connects.

Whether it’s about a kid singing his heart out for his first love, a composer reaching into her imagination to pull out the notes that will move and inspire, or a producer or manager, promoting a band, organizing a festival or running a theater: we all know that we are in a special space here, like no other. Whatever our professional connections to music, we are all working, one way or another, with the deepest levels of human experience and connection.

I grew up in a community of musicians, artists and social activists and have felt the power of music all my life. I saw how singing together gave courage to people struggling for their rights in the American south and in apartheid South Africa. We used singing to keep morale high when being arrested for civil disobedience during the Vietnam war. I’ve known people in Sarajevo who stayed sane during years of war and siege by playing in an orchestra in a blacked-out theater, or singing in seven different choirs, one rehearsal every night of the week. Where I live, in the Netherlands, I have seen music-making lead to friendships between immigrants and Dutch people, creating new ways for people to define and experience community.

So it was only a small leap of faith to imagine that music could comfort and connect where war had broken and destroyed. And it did not surprise me that so many musicians joined, immediately understanding that what they, themselves, did with passion and dedication in the music school, the classroom or on a stage had tremendous potential in a refugee camp, a divided city or a torture recovery program.

Today, Musicians without Borders is one of the world’s pioneers in applying the power of music to reconciliation and healing the wounds of war. In the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Africa, and Western Europe, our projects empower, bring hope and re-connect people where war has damaged and divided their communities. We work with local musicians and local organizations to create grass-roots projects with children, youth and adults. We work at local ownership for sustainability. We bring music back to places where life is fragile and threatened, and where, often, music itself has been silenced.

Much of what we do is to train local musicians and talented youth to bring music to their own communities. There are many stories to tell, but this morning, I would like to share just one of these with you: a story about Europe’s most divided city, and about how rock music is bridging those divides. This is Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, part of the former Yugoslavia and the scene of the last of the bloody Balkan wars.

Mitrovica was the final front of the Kosovo war in 1999. Since then, the city’s population has been divided by the river that runs through it, with Serbs on the north side and Albanians on the south. Before the war, neighborhoods were mixed, but the ethnic divisions that broke Yugoslavia apart also divided Kosovo, and nowhere more than in Mitrovica. After the war, international forces rebuilt the bridges connecting Serbian to Albanian neighborhoods, but today, the bridges are barricaded and few dare to climb over the rubble to cross to the other side.

Mitrovica was once a single-economy mining town. Since the war, it’s bankrupt, with a booming black market, a dysfunctional infrastructure and widespread corruption. Mitrovica is a crossroads for drugs, human trafficking and illegal trade of all sorts. Unemployment is estimated at between 60- 70%, education and health care are poor, alcohol and drug abuse are major, but unaddressed, problems. For Mitrovica’s youth, there are virtually no opportunities for talent development or for healthy use of free time: no cultural outlets, cinemas, activities or clubs. Unresolved war losses, regular flare-ups of violence and a lack of post-war economic improvement mean that suspicion and mistrust of the ‘other side’ not only remains with older generations, but gets passed on to younger ones, who have never known or even met their peers on the other side of the river.

But Mitrovica also has another history. Before the war, it was a rock music town: many of the great ex-Yugo rock musicians emerged from Mitrovica’s lively, interethnic music scene, with its garage bands, clubs and festivals.

During the Balkan wars, music, like everything else, was politicized. A new music genre, called ‘turbo-folk’, combined a fake folk culture with aggressive beats with hate-filled lyrics, spawning a nationalist, materialist, sexist music style that filled the trenches and dominated the airwaves. ‘Turbo-folk’ is credited with creating much of the hatred and aggression that fueled those wars.

Rock music, the free voice of youth, disappeared. Rock musicians were no longer hired for gigs or festivals, there were no more recording contracts or tours. Rock venues closed and became turbo-folk clubs. Jam sessions and other live music events were no longer organized. Instruments were sold or traded off for survival. When I first visited Mitrovica, a year after the war, there was only one club where rock music was  occasionally played — and nationalist bouncers came in regularly with lead pipes to beat up anyone with the audacity to come listen.

On that same visit, we met some of the city’s rock musicians. There were kids on both sides, they told us, who wanted to play rock music. They, the remaining local musicians, remembered Mitrovica’s music past and wanted to teach the new generation, but lacked everything they needed to do so: spaces, instruments, equipment.

Here, in Europe’s most divided city, was the legacy of a center of free rock music, and local musicians yearning to pass on their skills to the youth on both sides. We heard their desire to use music as a tool for good.

It took us a while to figure out how to support them. We met with local organizations and musicians, got a feeling for the realities of the city, forged partnerships. We brought in a Dutch music conservatory specialized in rock music, to help the local teachers create the curriculum they would need. At first, we tried for a single facility, near the main bridge, in ‘neutral territory’. But when violence broke out, UN forces commandeered the building for their troops. And no one wanted their kids crossing that bridge, anyway. Tensions were too high, and people were too scared.

Finally, we decided to try another way: in the summer of 2008, we announced a one-week-long ‘Rock School in Exile’ in neighboring Macedonia. The rock musicians from north and south Mitrovica would teach alongside Dutch rock music teachers. They recruited about 25 aspiring teenaged musicians from the two sides of the city and we brought them by bus to Skopje.

Without ever once referring to their ethnicities, we created six mixed rock bands, who got over their fear as their images of ‘enemies’ were replaced by the reality of fellow guitar players, drummers and singers.

They worked day and night to prepare songs together, and a week later stood together on an open stage, performing in their new bands– finally, for a night, the rock stars they had dreamed of becoming. When they returned to Mitrovica, the kids demanded their own rock school– and we scrambled to raise a little money, rent some modest space, and enroll teachers and students. In October, we opened two very small facilities– called them the north and south branches– and the Mitrovica Rock School was born.

Since then, more than 800 young people have come through the school. Some have gone on to become successful musicians in some of Kosovo’s best bands. Some have trained within the school and become its new teachers. One has become a skilled recording engineer, and now runs the Rock School’s studio. The Rock School offers its students a fluid system, where they can move up to become teachers, organizers, technicians, or managers.

Until last year, we could only mix the Serb and Albanian kids by bringing them out of Kosovo– usually to neighboring Skopje, in what became the annual Summer School. Then we added a winter school, and extra projects to rehearse or record with promising new mixed bands.

We started an ‘A-team’ band, inviting the best young musicians from both sides to work together long-term, giving them extra coaching in song writing, arranging, recording and performing. We turned that into an ‘Ambassador band program’ for all senior students, and then expanded to give kids of all musical levels the chance to play with kids from the other side. As more and more rock school students made musical connections across town, it became normal to play together, even sought-after, because playing in mixed bands was coupled with intensive, high quality music-making.

Meanwhile, we had moved into larger quarters, with lesson rooms, stages and rock cafés and started youth center activities, run by students who brought bands from outside town to play and give master classes. We found ways to bring our own ethnically mixed bands out to perform in the region or to tour in Italy, Holland or Germany.

The situation in Mitrovica has not improved very much. There are still riots and attacks, the bridges are still barricaded, the city is still bankrupt and the old conflict still dominates almost every aspect of people’s lives. But, where kids used to be afraid of meeting anyone from the other side, some of them are now sneaking across the bridge to stay overnight at their new friends’ houses.  Some have openly declared their friendships on social media. Since this past November, all of our mixed bands have started rehearsing together, in secure locations in Mitrovica, itself. They all write and arrange their own songs, and most of the kids not only still want to be rock stars, but know they have a chance at becoming professional musicians, and are willing to work like crazy for that chance.

In a city whose identity is still based its ethnic divide, the Mitrovica Rock School has become an accepted, even admired part of the landscape. Everyone knows that we work inter-ethnically, so we break the city’s main taboo. But everyone also knows that the finest young people in the city are part of the school, that they thrive and grow there, and that the Rock School is bringing back Mitrovica’s older, prouder heritage as a center of music. So we walk a fine line, protecting our students from risk, but constantly testing the waters to push the process further, taking every cue from them that they are willing to take the next step.

I have chosen to tell you the story of the Mitrovica Rock School for a reason. In a world full of wars, the war in Kosovo seems like a long time ago. As international attention moves to hotter spots around the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to fund a project like this, no matter how desperately it is still needed by the young people it serves. Our traditional sources of support are drying up, so we are looking to successful musicians and the music industry around the world to help the school keep its doors open, and keep the music playing.

Please contact me, if you think you can help make this happen.

Just a closing remark: this evening I will fly to New York, where I will meet up with our first mixed band, the Artchitects. They flew in a few days ago, at the invitation of the New York music agency, Pop2Life. During that first ‘rock school in exile’, they were among the young teenagers dreaming their first dreams of being rock stars. All are now teachers, band coaches, and performers, inspiring the next generation. This week, they are ambassadors, representing their Mitrovica Rock School: a force for good, through music.


Laura Hassler:
Musicians without Borders:
Mitrovica Rock School:
Facebook Mitrovica Rock School: