Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Song of Birds and Goodbyes

That's it. I'm back in Jerusalem after three and a half weeks.
On the morning of my flight I had the magical opportunity to give a workshop to twenty women at one of WE-ACTx women support groups. Not only was it the first time I gave a music workshop to a group of adults, but they were all women, some traumatized, some suffer from domestic violence, and some shunned from their communities. So a few days before the workshop I called Fabienne for advice: "HELP!!!" I shouted in the phone, and Fabienne replied that it will be alright if I just do what I usually do. Easy said. I felt insecure; apprehension filled my thoughts, what if they reject my presence? what if they do not respond to the musical activities? I kept in mind what a friend psychologist told me before I left, that sometimes, in such situations of women support groups it is actually an extremely positive experience to have a man that is not threatening. I could do that.

So I did what I do usually, just with even extra attention. We sang songs, and danced, and drummed, and together managed to create a secure atmosphere that was based on music, laughter and trust.

It was one of the best workshops I have ever had, watching the women smiling and laughing, singing and doing silly movements with me. In the end the trauma counselor that also participated asked the women how they felt about the workshop. One said that her heart was relieved. Before I left they sang for me a goodbye song, which I recorded, and you can listen to here:

Goodbye song in Kinyarwanda sung by the women at the workshop - Listen / Download

I would like to thank WE-ACTx for hosting me during my stay in Kigali. They had provided me with a bed, a full daily vegan meal, and moments of contemplation on the beautiful backyard balcony, where I sat to play, talk, read, and listen to the captivating song of the birds which visited the garden daily. Here's a compilation of the birds' songs that I managed to record:

The Song of Birds at WE-ACTx House - Listen / Download

Thank you everyone again, the staff members, the Latin volunteers, the peer parents, youth leaders, and the children for an unforgettable summer. I will see you soon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Weeks of Wonder, Beauty, and Learning

Three weeks ago I met forty-five Rwandan children. Almost all were shy, silent, still nameless, abashed by the tremendous amount of attention they suddenly received from so many adults. There were sixteen Rwandan youth leaders, a dozen American high-school volunteers from Chicago (who had to leave within a week), the hardworking staff members, and one silly, bald, white-skinned guitar player, who was me.
"Good morning!" I sang, strumming the A chord on the guitar, and the children repeated warily, "good morning...?"
"Mwaramutseho!" I continued in Kinyarwanda, and more joined in the singing.
(photo: Emily Siedlik)
Today, the same kids, all now with beautiful names and unique personalities, performed on stage in front of their families, playing dreams they had come up with during theater workshops, incorporating songs and dances from the music workshops. I sat at the side, playing the guitar when needed, set to help the children to remember movements and words, but they did not need me anymore. I stood there smiling, watching, listening to the kids singing the songs in perfect pitch, passionately, squeezing their lungs to the max, and my skin crawled with goosebumps.
(photo: Emily Siedlik)
During the last three weeks I gave five hours of training sessions to the youth leaders, and together we gave twenty-five music workshops to the children at the camp. The youth leaders, or peer parents, are the heart and soul of this program. They are the ones that will continue to look after these kids during the year, meet with them regularly, give them support, be their role models. Five hours of training were definitely not enough for the youth leaders; those five hours felt like the beginning of something that currently has no clear future, but they were probably some of the best hours of my life. Watching the youth leaders working with the kids during the music workshops at camp made me realize just a little bit more what truly is Musicians without Borders all about. Every day just a little bit more.
(photo: Emily Siedlik)
Every day was a journey of discovery, laughter, and rhythm. Every workshop was a thrill. Every child a wonder. I finished the days drained of energy, but inspired and motivated. The children amazed me with their musicality, their engagement, their passion to learn, their passion to have fun as all children should.
Some of these children's personal stories are now etched in my head forever, but are not important for this blog, nor are possible to share. And why should it matter? What makes the story of a Rwandan boy more tragic than the story of a girl in Brazil or Afghanistan? All deserve the childhood we wish our own children to have: full with love, laughter, learning, hope, and a little music.
(photo: Emily Siedlik)
One thing I learned from doing music with so many children in the last five years is that compassion cannot stem from grief. It is a universal, unending gift that all of us have in abundance and all of us must share without any prejudice. And that's exactly what I realized about Musicians without Borders these days: it is all about compassion without borders, without discrimination, without inhibitions. And every time I learn again how powerful it is. I learn from the people and children I meet. I learn, I'm learning, and I can't wait for the next music workshop, with children that I still don't know, but with whom I will share, and give, and receive, and remember forever.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Self-expression and Giraffes

When I give workshops to children I concentrate on the flow of the activities, on the children's engagement, and on the level of energy. It is practically impossible to follow one child's participation in the group, to study his or her interaction with the other children, or to appreciate his or her development over time.
Training session with the youth leaders
After two intense training sessions I gave to the amazing youth leaders, and after they had had the chance to observe me for two days working with the kids, I decided to let them run full fifty-minutes workshops by themselves, so they can gain experience and confidence, and I can rest and observe. That was Thursday.
During the music workshops given by the youth leaders
During the music workshops given by the youth leaders
When describing the goals of music workshops the term self-expression always appears. But what does it really mean in practice? I decided to focus on one child, a 12-year-old girl. In a musical improvisation game that lasts for about 5 minutes, where all children move to music in a circle, she gets one opportunity to express herself in front of all the children who in return follow her moves. Ten seconds out of 5 minutes are her own. Ten seconds in which she is the center of attention, she controls the energy and leads her friends and the youth leaders. This power which manifests itself in such a positive way during the music workshop is unique. It's empowering; it's constructive. It strengthens her self-confidence and identity. She is herself and no one else, and everyone acknowledges that. I watch the girl as her turn is approaching, a clear look of anticipation shows on her face, she is excited, maybe a bit nervous, is she thinking about her moves in advance or will she improvise on the spot? When her turn comes she wiggles her hips and waves her arms in circles, all children follow and we both smile heartily. It's over, another child in the circle will now experience the same. The music stops. All thirty children clap their hands enthusiastically, they cheer and laugh, and are ready for the next activity. I watch the girl again, she looks at her friends and that smile doesn't leave her. Only ten seconds, but what an experience!
One of the youth leaders leading an activity
The week is over. Friday we took the kids to Akagera, the Rwandan National Park, where we watched giraffes, zebras, bush-bucks and impalas graze and play in the immense savanna terrain, where cellphones fail to roam. We stopped the buses next to a family of giraffes, turned off the engines and stepped out. A tornado of high-pitched giggling and calls of wonder swept the valley, and the giraffes who are used to the song of birds and the occasional hyenas' laughter, but mostly silence, looked at our tiny human forms in perplexity; how much noise can such a small creature make?
“Shhh...” the youth leaders beckoned, “the giraffes will get frightened and run away.” The children fell silent and edged slowly toward the giraffes. These were moments of awe, where the only sound one could hear was of cameras switching hands, the woosh of wind, and the crunching of grass. The little girl was there as well among her friends, watching the giraffes leave in silence, their long legs brushing the grass. She doesn't know it yet, but next week she will be learning new songs, improvising sounds and rhythms and do songwriting with her friends. I think I will ask them to write a song about the animals they have seen, and about this particular one, the most graceful, the tallest of all, the one that almost never makes any sound, but observes the world from above, listens carefully, and just enjoys the music.

Monday, August 1, 2011

In Africa: First days thoughts

I'm truly blessed to have had the opportunity to return to Rwanda this summer...

I'm crossing my legs in the airplane, sitting in the middle seat between a talkative, well-dressed man from Holland and a beautiful Rwandan woman. He is seeing his Rwandan girlfriend and bringing a tennis racket stretching machine to his friend at the Dutch embassy. She is visiting her homeland for first time after 4 years since she moved to America. We all stare at the green hills down below but probably see different things. It takes less than 3 hours to cover a distance that would take 5 weeks just a hundred years ago.

What would I see and hear if I did this route back then? In 5 weeks of traveling I would hear hundreds of different dialects and languages and accents, I would listen to magnificent music, prayers and chants, I would hear so many different songs of birds, they could fill the history of music, and the rhythms of galloping animals, of ritual drums and of women battering flour with sticks and stones.

Underneath me is Kenya, and there is Sudan, and on my far right is Congo, and soon we will fly over Uganda and enter Rwanda. Each country name brings up the inevitable connotations of war, poverty, hunger, diseases, genocide, rape. But what about food, and dance and music? What do I know about the people in Africa that doesn't include the stereotypical image of an African child with a distended belly?

Last year I felt like a stranger, and when we left I felt we had made new friends. Last week when I met these people again a feeling of joy swept through me; such a strong feeling that I hadn't expected.  We hugged like a family reunited and laughed and sang songs from last year. The next three weeks I will be giving workshops to the youth leaders and work with the children at the summer camp. I'm so honored to be able to give them just a little bit back of what they have been giving me. Africa is a continent with unending amounts of wisdom, beauty, and love. I am trying to absorb everything but am only a child and have still much to learn. With teary eyes I looked into my friend's eyes, and he smiled and said, "Come on, Dan, let's make some music."