Music and Peace Building
“Forgive me if I don’t have the words, maybe if I sing it, you’ll understand.”
When we sing together we share a common voice, we are taking our breaths at roughly the same time, our words align, we create a collective sound together, and we sometimes harmonize. We can sing together even if we hold vastly different worldviews. Singing together does not mean that suddenly we agree on how to govern or live in this world. It means that for those moments, we are together and united in song.
I don't believe that is a small thing. I believe it is a place to pause, a place to express ourselves, and begin to hear each other.
Like many Americans, I am deeply troubled by the current events in our country and world. The extremes that define our polarization seem to get wider by the day. Yet, I have faith that the majority of citizens do not reside in these extremities. It is time to find a way, for those who are willing and able, to find a shared sense of humanity – no matter what political or ideological beliefs are held. I think music has the ability to help us along with this process.
Music is a connector and has the ability to change how we feel, both physically and emotionally. Not only has this been shown through research, I know it from more than 30 years of work as a musician, music therapist, and community musician.
For eleven years, I worked in a hospice program on Whidbey Island in Washington State, where the north part of the island is home to a Naval Air Station and conservative-leaning patients, while the South end of the island is home to a more progressive-leaning community. There is nothing like illness or the dying process to remind us that we are all just people who struggle with the same life and death issues. In homes in the North and South, music provided the same portal to the heart and healing to the soul.
I grew up in a racially divided community in Detroit, MI during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Tensions were often high; I knew what it felt like to be hated for the color of my skin. It was in the choir room at my High School that color lines disappeared and the combined sound we made together transcended our differences.
My family also provides a good example of music crossing divides. I have five siblings who are on all ends of the political spectrum, from libertarian to progressive to ultra conservative. When we get together we banter about politics, some are even able to actually listen to another’s point of view, and when it gets too heated - we stop. This same group, in the next few moments, can still come together for an enthusiastic singing of Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody (and yes, we sing ALL the parts).
This syndrome is the need to utter sarcastic comments following the suggestion that music may help bring people together and create meaningful change. Comments such as, "so we'll hold hands and sing Kumbaya, and all will be well" or “let’s have a Kumbaya moment.” It is that uncontrollable to urge to “dis” something that is deemed simplistic or unworthy of true consideration.
In one fell swoop, these comments
According to the New York Times, the word “Kumbaya” is a likely translation from a regional dialect of African Americans living on the Georgia coast. Come By Here (AKA Kumbaya) is a spiritual that called for comfort and solace during difficult times. It was also an important song used during the Civil Rights Movement. That the song is rooted in struggles of African Americans adds another layer of insult to the way it is used as a put down.
Give a listen to the amazing Sweet Honey in the Rock doing
a beautiful and meditative version of
Come By Here
Musicians leading the way?
I frequently attend a music camp in the Pacific Northwest. Attendees are a collection of professional and amateur musicians; certainly all are moved and drawn to music. I am always stunned at the push back I get when I suggest we all sing one song together when we gather for dinner. Up to 150 people come here to play the music they love with friends and most of the time they are off in small groups making that music. I don't understand how singing one song together as a large group is such an imposition. After all, we are gathered together at a music camp! Why not pause and sing with others who also believe in the power of music? We could even add percussion with found objects on the table. I see this as a missed opportunity to have a large group of people united with a common musical purpose.
I feel we need more moments where we are making music together to help us envision how this type of activity could create change and harmony in our world.
Here are but a few examples of how music has created change and promoted peace:
We have already started the music. Let me know if you would like to join the Choir!
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Dr. Barbara Dunn: