Archive for the ‘Pavarotti Music Centre’ Tag

Lots of writing, not much blogging

It’s that time of year again.

For many people it is a crazy time, filled with competing work and family demands. For me, there is some of that craziness, but mostly I am feeling the satisfaction of having got through a long period of competing deadlines relatively unscathed.

Over the last three months I’ve completed three book chapters, several conference abstracts, an article for The Conversation, and got to grips with two new software packages that (hopefully, in time) will yield tremendous productivity gains in this PhD adventure! Needless to say, it’s been a lot of screen time. Hence the silence on the blogging front.

I’ve been working on my Bosnia case study. Here’s a bit of a run-down:

For one of the book chapters, I explored an idea that I called “life-space” – the real and imagined boundaries of a quotidian lived experience, and the expansion/contraction of these. The war in Mostar contracted the life-space of many of its young citizens very dramatically. The way they described their experiences of playing and learning music at the Pavarotti Music Centre suggested that it had resulted in expansions of their life-space in a number of dimensions – physical/geographical, personal/emotional, and social. It was an interesting way to analyse the participants’ descriptions of their experiences.

I’ve also developed a framework for understanding the goals and intentions of many music interventions in conflict-affected settings. These kinds of projects are initiated in response to particular needs, such as the need to create dialogue towards conflict resolution or peacebuilding, the need for psychosocial healing, the need for positive and productive activities for young people to supplement limited education and employment opportunities, the need to ensure music education opportunities (either within formal schooling or in addition to it), or the need to address the destruction of cultural knowledge, taking strategic steps to nurture and regenerate it.

The other two chapters laid out this framework, explaining the contexts that lead to these areas becoming priorities, and the ways that music interventions can offer meaningful and purposeful responses. One of the chapters used the Pavarotti Music Centre as a case study, to see how these different goals and intentions are realised through community-based cultural action.

Relevant to my research, although somewhat peripheral, are discussions surrounding the next set of development goals, and so I’ve been following these fairy closely. The Millennium Development Goals have set the global development agenda since 2000, but they expire at the end of 2014, and a new set of what are called Sustainable Development Goals will be adopted by the United Nations Member States in September 2015. There is a lot of discussion and debate about what the SDGs should be (they will basically set the agenda for the next 15 years, and I added my voice to the argument for the inclusion of culture in an article for the online daily, The Conversation. You can read it here.

I was then invited to update the article for publication in the Media Asia Journal, and that print publication will come out in January, I believe.

This week, with the last of the book chapters at the final stages of editing (trying to get the word count down), I’m happily able to return my attention to my raw data. It feels like ages since I’ve been able ‘hang out’ in the transcripts, thinking and exploring, and following lines of thought that arise as I read and make links with the literature that I’m constantly exploring. What a luxury! I am a pig in s**t these days, as the saying goes.

So, lots of writing going on. Not as much playing and singing and just thinking in music as I’d like, so that is a balance I’d like redress next year. But coming up is my annual Christmas carol-singing party, so in the spirit of that, please enjoy this Christmas classic! Not quite a carol, but a number we’ll definitely be including this year.

Not as much blogging going on either. Thanks for hanging in there, subscribers! Back in the saddle now.

Remembering and revisiting Herzegovina

When I lived in Mostar in 1998, I visited a town called Ljubinje every week. Ljubinje is about 2 hours drive from Mostar, and was in the Serb-governed territory, Republika Srpska. Ljubinje was isolated, a small town on the edge of Republika Srpska, right on the edge of the so-called Inter-Entity Border which divided the Republika Srpska from the Muslim-Croat Federation. This complex organisation of the nation-state of Bosnia & Herzegovina is thanks to the Dayton Accord peace plan that brought an end to the 1992-95 wars but enshrined division along ethnic lines across the land, and wrote these divisions into the Constitution.

To get to Ljubinje, I would drive out of Mostar (Bosniak territory) and almost immediately enter ‘Croatian’ territory. There were no visible borders or demarcation lines between the Bosnian and Croatian territories, but at that time, people of one group didn’t tend to enter the territory of another group – they would feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Car number plates clearly showed which part of the country you came from, including a symbol or shield insignia that left no doubt which ‘ethnic entity’ the car belonged to. Mostar at that time felt like a ghetto to many of the local people, with only one road out of town that did not pass through other entity territory.

View of Neretva from Pocitelj (G. Howell)

Ljubinje and the other towns between it and Mostar are in Eastern Herzegovina, a land of very dramatic landscapes – all looming rocky cliffs, mountains in the distance, and the intense blue waters of the Neretva River carving a rough and jagged path through the landscape.  The roads were okay; I can remember one particular point on the journey where three land mines had been placed, equidistant from each other across the middle of the road, and once detonated, had left three neat holes in the road. Driving cleanly between these holes became a weekly goal that took me some time to achieve.

We drove through the town of Stolac. Stolac remains forever etched in my memory from that time for two reasons – the Bogomil tombs and the dynamited houses that we drove past each week.

The Bogomil tombs are tombs from ancient people that dwelled in this region centuries ago. They are striking in the landscape – like standing stones in the UK and Ireland. However, these are tombs, and each stone is etched in stylised designs and symbols. We drove past them every week but never stopped (we were always running late for the Ljubinje workshops). It was only in my last week in Mostar that I made the effort to stop, get out of the car and explore the site in detail.

Bogomil stones, Stolac, 1998 (G. Howell)

The dynamited houses were a result of the returns process that was underway at that time. People will remember that a characteristic of the Bosnian wars was the violent expulsion of groups of people from their homes. These people would be forced to leave (often very violently, terrorised and brutalised by the militia groups that expelled them) find shelter in another part of the country, a part that was held by their own ethnic group. By 1998, expelled people were gradually being encouraged (by the international forces, and the terms of the Dayton Accord and peace plan) to return to the homes they had left. But in Stolac, these homes would be dynamited right before the people were due to return. Every week, I would see freshly dynamited houses on the road in and out of Stolac.

Stolac house, 1998

During my fieldwork over the last few weeks in Bosnia-Herzegovina I had the opportunity to return to Stolac, and to reconnect with the teacher I used to work with In Ljubinje. I met him with my translator in the evening in a café in Stolac. We arrived a little early so were able to take a walk through the town, alongside the river. The sun was setting, and the colours were golden. Like many other Herzegovinian towns, Stolac is a valley town, surrounded by steep hills. The river cuts its way through the centre of the town.

Stolac riverside walk, Nov 2013

I was surprised by the hilltop fortress in Stolac.

“I don’t remember it,” I said to my friends. “I’m surprised I never noticed it before.”

“It’s been restored,” they told me. “It was damaged in the war, so it probably wasn’t very noticeable last time you were here.

Hilltop fortress view, Stolac 2013 (G. Howell)

The walk through the town alongside the river has some nice scenery. As in most of this region, you find ruins sitting alongside reconstructed and brand new buildings, and some older buildings still pockmarked with scars from shelling.

Stolac building, 2013 (G. Howell)

We found a pleasant restaurant where I ate an excellent pljeskavica (local version of hamburger). I also proved delectable prey for a lone mosquito, who bit me up and down my right leg while I sat at the table. The bite marks are only just starting to fade.

It was wonderful to reconnect with Sergej, the teacher we worked with in Ljubinje back in 1998. Sergej had established a drama group for local high school students at that time, and supported them to write and perform their own shows. They created over ten different original shows for the Ljubinje community between 1998 and 2013 – a significant contribution in a town that is isolated in every way. In 1998 I remember we couldn’t even telephone to Ljubinje easily – the Republika Srpska used a different phone system to the Federation.

Sergej remembered me well. We talked about his recollections of the Pavarotti Music Centre musicians coming to Ljubinje and the different workshops that took place. I learned that at that time there were other cultural NGOs coming to Ljubinje too. In fact, other organisations offered a more sustained approach than the PMC program that I was involved in, and worked with students towards public performance outcomes. Nevertheless, the PMC program gave students skills for creating original music for their shows. We also donated some drums to the group, and Sergej described a time many years later, when the drums featured in a local ceremony (the opening of the swimming pool). One of his former students, by that time a member of the police force in town, sat down at one of the drums and “all the rhythms came back to him from years before!”

Sergej has had a lot of challenges in his life since that time. But despite these, he is still the same lively and engaged person, still thinking about the young people and their needs, and believing in their importance to the town. It must be difficult to be one of only a few open-minded, culturally-oriented people in a small town. He said the internet has made a big difference in people’s lives there, it has opened people up to the wider world.

This region has seen a lot of suffering among the people that live there. I hope that the sense I have of it being a little more open, a little more relaxed, than when I was last here in 1998, is a sign of a shared and welcome progress.

Multiple and conflicting witnesses

I’ve just returned home from three weeks in Mostar, where I’ve been researching people’s experiences of the Pavarotti Music Centre.

PMCThis is a complicated and complex environment, and the Pavarotti Music Centre is a project that many people have experiences of, and have strong opinions about. My approach is to try and gather as many different perspectives as I can, from people with very different experiences (ranging from those who had a lot of involvement, to those who had little, and including community leaders as well as staff members, former participants, and casual onlookers, of all ages), and see what kind of picture emerges about the PMC’s impact on this city.

This is also quite a small city (you can get everywhere on foot, for example. Nothing is extremely far away from any one point). Local people sometimes describe it as “a big village” because of the way they tend to see people they know by chance in the street, every time they leave the house. Everyone knows everyone.

But like any place, large or small, stories have a way of evolving as they change hands and are retold. Speculation can be retold as fact, and can reach such heights that it can be difficult to know what is true, what is exaggeration, and what is pure invention or manipulation. When the stories are about something in which many people may feel invested, or a sense of ownership, and about which opinions are still strong, you can expect to find some contestation of facts. I’ve anticipated this, hence my intention to gather as many ‘witnesses’ as possible, despite the fact that some of my participants would consider other participants to be unreliable.

As an outsider, how likely is it that I can find my way through the different stories towards some kind of ‘truth’? Complexity sciences would warn against the desire to ‘aggregate’ findings; instead, the recommendation is to make a detailed examination of the context, and to ensure that each witness ‘report’ remains embedded within its context. In this way, you can at least position the words within their setting and attempt to understand them, their meaning and motivation within that. It is in isolating details from context, and then drawing them together in aggregates, where conclusions can be drawn that are not in fact an accurate representation of the site and the experiences.

In any case, each person’s experience is theirs and theirs alone. So often, research presents us with aggregated or averaged information – but is this general set of aggregated experiences more true than an individual’s experience and perception of that? When we look at impact, what kind of impact is the most relevant or important – that of the collective, or that of the individual? Changes can be far starker in an individual than in a collective. And if one life is changed for the better, this is important to know, as the impact of that change on a community over time could be significant.

These are some of the the thoughts I have on constant rotation in these weeks as I talk to many different people, seeking out their views and encouraging their opinions. “This is just my opinion,” many of my participants tell me, as a kind of apology, as if there are other more informed voices out there. But I assure them, “that’s fine, that’s exactly what I want. You are a citizen of this city, your opinion is as important as another. Keep talking!”

Reflecting on the Pavarotti Music Centre

This week I have been reading about arts initiatives in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, and about the work of the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] more specifically. I have a personal connection with the PMC, as I worked there as a volunteer music leader for most of 1998. Reading about Bosnia-Herzegovina in that post-war era is bringing back lots of memories for me and I find I am frequently going off into very vivid recollections of different events from the time that I was there. These recollections have also infiltrated my dreams. It is a surprisingly intense process at the moment.


It’s interesting that much that is written about the PMC focuses on the music therapy program. This was the strand of work that had funding for the longest time, and perhaps that is the reason it is (more) well-documented; however, my primary interest is in the strands of work that I was part of – the outreach work in local schools and refugee camps, and the workshops and classes that took place in the centre and were open to all local people.

(Another reason for this difference in documentation and analysis may be because music therapy is well-established as a research field, whereas the practitioners in the outreach and community programs came from a far more varied range of disciplines and academic experiences. Furthermore, scholarly writing about community music is a comparatively nascent field. These programs were in operation in the late 1990s, a time when practitioner-led writing about community music work was only just cranking into gear, and was still very localised to the UK. Let’s face it, the vast majority of community music practitioners were at that time, and still are, freelance artists, dependent on generating paid work to make a living. The time to sit down and write reflectively for scholarly publications was a luxury that most did not have).

There is criticism of the PMC that is emerging fairly quickly in my investigations. The Pavarotti Music Centre was a bold and ambitious operation, with a huge budget and a lot of very high-profile support. In 2001, news broke of a corruption and bribery scandal which forced one of the founders of War Child (the NGO behind the PMC development and programming) and another consultant to step down from their positions, and a new Board of Directors to be appointed.   This quote from Haskell’s (2011) dissertation, “Aiding harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo” reflects the very damaging state of affairs:

Millions of euros were donated, through the organization War Child, and then lost or stolen. The [Pavarotti Music] center’s inability to function after such large-scale investment remains a stain on Bosnia’s donor history and tarnishes future foreign investment into the cultural realm.”

Haskell’s writing on post-war Sarajevo is hugely illuminating, and I am devouring it as fast as I can. The corruption and misappropriation of funds at the Pavarotti Music Centre is definitely an important part of the story (as are the power issues at play that enabled it to happen, and are such a dominant part of cultural regeneration in post-conflict settings), but I believe there was also a huge amount of good work that the PMC did, that made a difference to the lives of those young people taking part. There is much to examine and this is why the Pavarotti Music Centre is a definite case study for me.

Reference mentioned in this post:
Haskell, E. N. (2011). Aiding Harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo. Unpublished PhD thesis. Brown University.