Ep. 129 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson. And this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. I was introduced to the work of today’s guests by listener Anita Holford and her podcast Music for Education and Well-Being. And I was reminded of today’s guest and her work by Nina Kraus in her book Of Sound Mind. So shout out to both of these women. I’ll link to both of them in the show notes. Today’s guest is Laura Hassler, founder and director of Musicians Without Borders. Laura is joining me from the Netherlands, Amsterdam, where I have a special affinity because my heritage is Dutch and I would love to visit someday. Laura has spent her entire life as a social activist and musician. She moved to the Netherlands in 1977, where she further developed a career linking music to social causes. In 1999, Laura mobilized a network of socially conscious musicians to launch Musicians Without Borders, which has become one of the world’s pioneers in the use of music to bridge divides, build community, and heal the wounds of war. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music.

Laura Hassler: [00:01:15] Laura Thank you so much for having me on, Mindy.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:18] Well, I’m so thrilled to have you, Laura. Let’s just start with a little bit more of an explanation of what Musicians Without Borders is. How do you describe or explain what the organization is to those who aren’t familiar with it?

Laura Hassler: [00:01:32] Well, it sometimes gets described by me and by others as a music organization, and it sometimes gets described as a peace organization, and it sometimes gets described as a community building organization. And in fact, we are all three we are an organization that uses the power of music, especially in regions which have been affected by war and armed conflict, or with people who have suffered because of war and armed conflict, for example, people in forced migration. So we’re we’re looking at the ways in which music can be used, both to heal some of the emotional wounds of war or of having to flee because of war. We’re looking at ways in which music can reinforce the building of what we call a culture of nonviolence in communities and in those kind of grassroots ways, but also sort of talking with people and talking to musicians who would like to devote their music to making the world a better place, using it as a tool for peace building in that very kind of grassroots way.

Mindy Peterson: [00:02:39] And the organization had its origins in the 1990s Balkan wars. Tell us a little bit about these war experiences and how they resulted in the genesis of Musicians Without Borders.

Laura Hassler: [00:02:52] Well, as you said, I moved to the Netherlands. I grew up outside of New York, and I had a background in work in international peace movement, and I was also a musician. And I moved here and sort of pursued the music side, but always sort of linking that linking that musicianship to connecting people, to bridging divides. But in the Netherlands and one of the forms of music that that I have always loved has been the singing of the folk music from Eastern Europe, from the Balkans. I guess the reason well, there are a lot of reasons, but the Balkans, of course, people think of the Balkans and think of war and conflict and difficulties. But that comes because the Balkans are a crossroads of different cultures. That’s one of the reasons, anyway. And where cultures cross, very interesting things often happen with their music. And so I always loved that form of music. And one of the vocal ensembles that I had established and that I led was a group that sang a lot of Balkan folk music. That was wonderful to do, and we enjoyed it a lot and we enjoyed learning about those traditions, and I love to arrange those songs and perform them. And then come the nineties and you get these horrible wars in the Balkans and it feels more and more strange and inappropriate to be singing these beautiful songs in the face of daily reports on the TV news, at least here, of bombed out villages and mass graves and concentration camps and streams of refugees.

Laura Hassler: [00:04:32] And that was really where it started. It started from this connection with the music and then the connection with what was going on in real time. You know, at one point I was asked to produce a concert in the in the city I live in for their annual war memorial occasion, which is a very solemn thing in the Netherlands. Netherlands suffered a lot in the Second World War. And so there are always these war memorials every year. And. Very often people produce, you do the Mozart Requiem or you do some some piece of music that remembers people who have died because of war. And I was asked to do this and I decided we’re going to do a program of folk songs from the Balkans. And so I put two of my choirs together, brought together a little orchestra to accompany also people from different backgrounds. And we had made a program that sort of translated like summaries of all of the songs and sort of the underlying message, which was very clear to everybody, was these are things that people all over the earth share.

Laura Hassler: [00:05:37] Everybody seems lullabies, everybody sings love songs. Everybody sings when they’re sad or when they’ve lost something or someone or when you’re mourning. So that came over very clearly, and it was a very emotional concert for all of us performing and also people in this audience sitting through this hour in silence. Many people were weeping because those people were also watching those nightly reports. Yeah. And afterwards we were sitting, you know, together at a cafe and having a glass of wine and thinking back on the evening. And one of the musicians said to me, Laura, this concert was so special, we should put this concert on a train and send it to Kosovo and stop the war. And even though that’s, of course, an impossible thing, it was what you might call a Zen moment, you know, where some piece of truth had been spoken. Yeah. And a few days later, I just started calling people and saying, Let’s do this, can we do this? And I went back to people that I knew from the peace movement. I knew a peace organization that had some projects in the Balkans. Could we contribute? I had this big network of musicians from different cultures, all living here, also with experience in working in a multicultural setting. And we just started, wow.

Mindy Peterson: [00:06:57] Well, I have to have you tell a story that you told when you were on Anita Wholefoods podcast. It just stopped me in my tracks and I thought, if I ever have a chance to talk to this woman and have her on my show, she needs to tell the story. But you you told this incredible firsthand story of music’s power to bridge divides and connect. And it happened shortly after this. It was summer of 2000 musicians without borders. Musicians were on a bus trying to cross the border from Montenegro into Croatia. And tell us the story of what happened when you were stopped by border guards.

Laura Hassler: [00:07:37] Yeah. So this was this was really our first big project. We were 17 people, and we’d rented a bus. We’d been invited to come to Macedonia, which hadn’t had a war but close to it, and many of the same types of ethnic tensions going around. And we’d spent a week in Macedonia and then our next space where we were had rotations to visit centers and participate in festivals. That was in Bosnia, which had suffered a great deal from the war. But to get there, if you look at a map and we couldn’t go through Serbia at that time because a war just ended there, so we had to take the long way around. And that meant going through a bit of Kosovo, going through Montenegro, going through all the way through Croatia and up into Bosnia. And we had money, we had cash with us because there were no ATMs. And anyway, we didn’t know how to do that. We had we had German marks with us in in cash is spread amongst us. And it was a very first kind of amateurish thing. And we had a bus and in the bottom of the bus we had many musical instruments which we had brought along to donate to a number of projects in Bosnia, which were doing music projects with children. So we we were on this bus and we get to the border crossing between Montenegro and Croatia. And we were and this border was up on the top of a mountain, middle of the summer, very warm. There was a small customs shack or immigration shack next to the road, and our bus pulled up and stopped and our translator was with us, got out and to go and get the passport stamped or whatever we needed. And he came back in the bus and he came up to me.

Laura Hassler: [00:09:22] He said, Laura, they want money. They want money. They’re talking about insurance or taxes or something, but they just basically want money. And I said, Well, tell them, you know, we’re we’re humanitarians. We’re on a goodwill trip. We don’t have very much money. We’re just musicians. He goes back and he comes back in the bus. 10 minutes later, he says, it’s not going to work. They just want money. You know, I even told them some jokes and it didn’t work. They just want money. And he says, I think we’re going to have to give them like 1000 marks or something like that. I said, wait a minute, they’re Croatians, right? Yes. So we knew we had won Croatian folk song, beautiful three part folk song in our repertoire. Not everybody in the group knew it. So I passed out the song really quickly and we took it through. Once I said, Okay, everybody get out. Don’t anybody say anything. We’re just going to go and we’re going to go and sing this song. So we get out of the bus and the border guards don’t know what’s happening and others come out of the customs shack and stand around. There were six or eight of them and sort of looking suspiciously. So we just go and we stand in front of the of the shack and we start to sing this beautiful song, which is called Libero. And what do you see? The faces which are so hard and kind of antagonistic, they start to soften. A couple of the guys start to wipe tears off their cheeks. They all stand there and at the end, one guy steps up and he goes. Welcome to Croatia. You may pass.

Mindy Peterson: [00:10:54] Oh, I just love that story. And you I think you said that you have a picture of that.

Laura Hassler: [00:11:02] I do. I do. Yes, I can. I can send you a picture of the picture.

Mindy Peterson: [00:11:09] Oh, yes, I love that. And then I could put it in the show notes for sure. See that?

Laura Hassler: [00:11:14] It’s very it looks kind of vague, you know, but it’s I mean, the way ancient pictures should.

Mindy Peterson: [00:11:20] Sir. Sure. Well, just knowing the story behind it and just, you know, I’m picturing these guys, like you said, going from these hardened border guards to welling up with tears and wiping tears away from their face.

Laura Hassler: [00:11:35] We did it again a few years later, trying to get into Bosnia when one of our singers had forgotten to bring a passport along. Really, they didn’t want to let her into the country. And most of us were already across the line. And poor Stephanie was, who was also our soloist, was was crying because she’s the youngest and she didn’t really know what to do when she hadn’t thought to bring your passport. And we were all on the other side. And I just say to our accordionist, Fred, get your accordion out. Would you start playing really softly, you know, just and then we start singing with the accordion and singing these Bosnian songs that we’d prepared. And at a certain point I said, Okay, everybody, we’re going to dance over to the left. So we start a KOLO, which is a local dance in that whole region and very simple. And we just sort of walk danced our way back across this border line so that Stephanie wouldn’t be alone. And gradually, you know, the yeah, the faces softened and people started to help. And within 4 hours, we had a temporary passport.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:37] Oh, wow.

Laura Hassler: [00:12:41] I’ve had so many of these experiences. I mean, those were the two where we literally crossed borders, sir. But it also, you know, it’s it’s kind of I learned these things by being surrounded by people who were kind of imbued in the practice of non-violence. You know, the movement of Martin Luther King in the OR that he led was one of the leaders of in the southern United States civil rights movement, some of the parts of the anti-Vietnam War movement. You know, sometimes you need to flip the story, especially when you’re confronted by by power, by military power, by political power, and flip the story in an unexpected way so that person across from you sees things in a different way because basically you’re powerless. Right? But if you can flip the story and, you know, tell a different story than the one of, oh, I’m so sorry. Oh, I want it so badly. Oh, you please, you know, know, you know, do something assertive but gentle and it’s not always true. But sometimes, you know, you have to sort of rely on your instinct. But I think this is one of the things that I hope will always be part of Musicians Without Borders, is that ability to be creative under stress.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:00] I love that. Well, you mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. We could have an entire episode on your upbringing and how your father worked with Martin Luther King Jr in social activism, causes musicians without borders, develops localized approaches. The work is always built on three pillars nonviolence, which you’ve mentioned the effect of music on our bodies, which is another topic we could have an entire episode on. And then the third pillar being five Working Principles of safety, inclusion, equality, creativity and quality. And within this framework of these overarching guidelines, the impression I get is that the work of the organization can take many different shapes and forms depending on the situation. It could be collecting and distributing instruments to war refugees, including musicians who have lost their instruments because of war. It could involve workshops and training, music, therapy, research, performing for refugees. Are there any other ways that you want to mention that are kind of common ways that Musicians Without Borders uses musical skills to create this environment across borders of safety and inclusion and so forth?

Laura Hassler: [00:15:19] Yeah, well, I think all those things that you mentioned are all true, but the largest body of our work, I would say, is really in co-creating projects and programs with local partners and local musicians according to the needs. In the area and the way that we do that and it can be very different. It can be, you know, our longest current project is going since 2008. It’s a rock music project in Kosovo and in now in North Macedonia. And another long project since 2010 is in Rwanda. On the one hand, we’re working in ethnically divided spaces, post-war spaces that had a rock and roll history that was inter-ethnic. So creating a rock and roll education form and creating spaces where young people can come together and their ambitions to become great rock singers can be respected and helped along. But then within an inter-ethnic framework that is a major project and we’ve worked very hard to turn that into a sustainable local program school. It’s really a school now that’s registered the same thing in Rwanda, only a totally different situation, not a situation of inter-ethnic dialogue at all, because that doesn’t exist these days. But there we’re working with young people who then work with children, and these are all people whose lives have been affected by HIV AIDS, which was largely a result of the use of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide. And now you have sometimes second and third generations of young people who are affected by this and a huge stigma in their lives.

Laura Hassler: [00:17:04] And so here it’s more like bringing in the power of music as a way of giving these young people who are very marginalised in their own societies the tools to become young cultural leaders. And there we see that as a way of helping to sow some of the seeds of peace in this area that’s suffered so much from violence and genocide war. It’s a very different project. But then at a certain point, you know, some of these young people in the project in Rwanda, they really wanted to play rock music. And what did we do? We didn’t send rock musicians from the Netherlands or the US. We sent rock musicians a rock musician, band coach from Kosovo who had come up in our program and turned out to be a fantastic band coach. And he went to Rwanda to run a band camp with young people in that program. So that shows a little bit I mean, they’re vastly different programs. They’re both long term. They were both co-created with local musicians and local organizations and in very, very different ways. They’re using the power of music to empower, to help give agency, to help give young people a voice to form their own futures. There are other projects that are very different from these even. But out of these projects have grown the advocacy, the performances, sometimes the projects to bring musical instruments to people who’ve lost their instruments because of war. That’s kind of the order of it.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:33] Well, talk to us a little bit about why music. When I look at your five working principles, they are safety, inclusion, equality, creativity and quality. Why music? How is music uniquely effective and capable when it comes to fostering peace and building bridges and healing and bringing about environments that can be characterized by these five working principles?

Laura Hassler: [00:18:59] Well, that’s a good question. Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? You know, for me, I knew about music’s potential for strengthening empathy and building community from my own experience, my own experience growing up, my own experience leading the singing and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, my own experience working with young kids in an underserved community. And near where I studied, and then in the Netherlands, my own experience, I knew about that. I could feel it. I started the first choir in the Netherlands that was composed of women from all different cultures. So out of these experiences, you kind of know as a musician, as I’m sure that many of your listeners just know from their experience, what a strong effect making music together can have. And now these days there are also a neuroscientific research being done which actually shows this, which actually proves that this is true, that yes, music can help create empathy. Yes, music does lower the tendency to be aggressive. It does, you know, and people are still scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how and why. I didn’t come to it from scientific knowledge. I came to it out of my experience as a musician.

Mindy Peterson: [00:20:18] Yeah, well, I like how you point out that there’s different ways of answering that question that I asked you, because there is the scientific answer where you’re breaking down the research that shows that there are physiological changes that result from music. And when it comes to oxytocin and cortisol and. The bonding effect that those chemicals can have. Our heart rates can be reduced by listening to music as it combs. There’s also research that shows that music is hugely powerful when it comes to a sense of identity. And and yet there’s just the experience of it, too, which is somewhat subjective and just you can’t argue with somebody’s experience. And if there’s something that is experienced with music, there’s a lot of us who don’t really care what the science has to say about it. It’s like, I know what I experience and you can’t argue with that. So I like those different sides and different approaches to answering that question. I’ve heard that music. Oh, God. Did you want to say something about that?

Laura Hassler: [00:21:20] I was going to say. Yeah, because you said something about identity there. Yeah. And that’s another really important point is the question of identity. And that’s one of the things that we’ve learned about working in places where people have suffered from poor and armed conflict or migration or any of these traumatic types of experiences is that people so often get, you could say reduce to one piece of their identity. So if you if you live in this divided city in Kosovo, you know, you’re either a Serb or you’re an Albanian. That’s who you are. Sure. If you are maybe also a great guitar player that never nobody ever hears about that because the environment has defined the people in it by the catastrophes that have happened there or people who are refugees. For example, most people in the world hear the word refugee and there’s something that comes to mind. And people who have come into a situation in their lives where they’ve had to flee, they become a refugee. And then you’re only a refugee now. And I met a man, a Syrian violinist in Berlin, I think, at one point, and somebody was talking about refugees. And he said, I am not a refugee. I am a violinist who has had a refugee experience, you know, and but the whole idea that when you get into this field of music making and being in music and being a musician at whatever level that can help you get access to your own complex identity. Sure. Or at least two pieces of it that you haven’t you hadn’t been able to access before. And I think that’s it’s true for anyone in any situation. But when you’re thinking about people who have experienced the kind of isolation that war in armed conflict brings and the kind of sort of degradation to that one bit of your identity, it’s really a radical change for people to be able to feel like they are musicians.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:25] Sure. Well, it’s not unlike someone not wanting to be identified primarily as a cancer patient or someone with autism or whatever the issue may be. Yeah, exactly. Well, I’ve heard that I’ve heard that music has been played at negotiation sessions to help smooth the conversations, and it’s led to breakthroughs and compromises. Have you heard of this as Musicians Without Borders been involved at all in using music in this way?

Laura Hassler: [00:23:53] No, we haven’t. But if anybody invites us, we’ll figure something out for sure.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:59] Love it.

Laura Hassler: [00:24:01] We’re usually at the powerless end of of of. Sure. Those kinds of chains of command, you could say.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:10] Sir. Well, one thing that really caught my attention also about the work that you’re doing is it’s not just the people that you’re serving. It’s the people who are volunteering and participating that are really impacted by the organization, by the work. And you’ve professional musicians who have participated in your work saying this is why I became a musician, to see the impact that music makes on someone who’s lost everything. I see joy and passion and a light that’s coming back into their eyes when they hear our music or they’re able to make music again because we’ve provided them instruments when they’ve lost theirs. What else can you tell us about the response that you see in volunteers?

Laura Hassler: [00:24:52] Well, we don’t work with mainly we don’t work with volunteers. We we we work with professional musicians and we pay them for this work. And people go out to do it, for example. And because we also want to choose and there’s that word quality again, we also want.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:08] To.

Laura Hassler: [00:25:08] Choose whom we’re sending out. And, you know, I mean, musicians are most often the people who are always in a position to volunteer their time because it’s not the highest paid profession in the world. So we do we do employ people for to go for two weeks to El Salvador to do this work or to Bosnia or wherever. I think that I’ve seen the kind of reaction you’re alluding to in many people. Yes, indeed. Many of the musicians who are. Coming from a kind of a day job where they’re working in a Dutch music school or they’re working for a project in the UK or in Germany. And I think that it becomes very moving to you when you see that what you have to offer can make such a huge difference in someone’s life. And that’s not to say that music doesn’t make a huge difference to the lives of children or adults, young people who are relatively safe. But the difference is so extreme. Yeah. And if you’ve had I mean, I myself early on, my Balkan women singing group that I alluded to at the beginning in that beginning story, we went to Bosnia and we sang a program for women who had survived the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995.

Laura Hassler: [00:26:26] And we sang it in Srebrenica for survivors. And at the end of this programme, which, you know, we were sort of worried, is this okay? Are we doing this respectfully enough? Is this singing other people’s music for them and people who have had these horrible experiences? At the end, the woman stood up and said that, you know, she always at the at this time of year always felt like she didn’t want to live. And hearing this music made her feel like she wanted to live again. Well, now you’ve had if you’ve had even one experience, you know, there’s still jokes me up. And this was yeah, almost 20 years ago. And I think all of us have had this kind of experience also. We’ve we’ve been working for the last four years now in El Salvador at the invitation of UNICEF in El Salvador and their Ministry of Education. And we’ve been training a cohort of Salvadoran music teachers to use these principles in their work with children. Now they’ve become trainers and they’re rolling it out. But when I went there after the first year, a couple of the people in the program came up and said, This has changed my entire life.

Laura Hassler: [00:27:32] This isn’t just changing the way I approach children in school, you know, this changes the way I think about relationships all around me. And another one said, You know, the thing I learn most out of this is how to work in a team. Never learned that, you know, we are in an educational system where if something happens at the school, the director decides and tells everybody what to do and we do it. But here we’re working together. We’re taking care of each other. We’re watching out. If somebody needs a break, you know, all of those tools that can indeed be life changing. And this whole idea that you’re talking in a country where the environment can be so dominated by violence, now it’s mainly gang violence. But this is a legacy of 12 years of war. And when these teachers talk proudly about how with their children, they’re creating spaces of non-violence, where the children feel safe, even though they’re living in very unsafe environments, but you’re creating something within that. And the teachers see that this is giving them also tools all through their lives. So, you know, I see this at every level.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:39] Yeah, I love hearing about that. Well, I will for sure be including lots of links in the show notes to the Musicians Without Borders website where listeners can learn more, they can dig in and check out your options for trainings and donating to the cause.

Laura Hassler: [00:28:58] Great.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:59] Well, I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending, a coda. Tell us about the song that you’re going to be sharing with us today in closing.

Laura Hassler: [00:29:10] Well, this is a song which was created in the summer of 2020 through a collaboration of a number of organizations and musicians. Without Borders was one of them. A couple of the singers and one of the rappers, the rapper who’s rapping in Spanish, comes out of our project. So I Mujica in El Salvador. And two of the people who were central to this are are two of our trainers. So we have a real connection to it. But the main producer was a company in the UK called Together Productions and they worked also with a group called I Speak Music. It was made as a kind of a statement. It literally brought hundreds of different people into the process and are in the performance as well for people who want to look it up. It’s called I Speak Music and the name of the website and I think on YouTube you can find it under Imagine Imagine. So it started out as the idea was to make a new song like John Lennon’s Imagine, and this was released on International Day of Peace September 21st in 2020. And it includes refugee children. It includes a Syrian violinist who’s based in the UK now. It includes a Salvadoran rapper, a singer who’s Congolese. British, you know, many different. Voices. And that was the idea. And it basically says, Walk with me. I will walk with you. I see you. I hear you. This was a wonderful collaboration also because nobody was trying to own this or copyright it or make money from it. We were all just working together to create something within the first year of the pandemic that could go out and could help promote the ideas of peace and inclusion and humane policies towards people who have lost so much.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai