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Empathy for the children of wars

Primary pupils have used notes of the written and musical kind to highlight the main theme of Orkney's arts festival, opening tonight, reports Miranda Fettes

Mercifully for the children of Orkney, their isles have enjoyed an extended era of peace. But that does not mean they don't know about the suffering of conflict.

More than 100 P5-P7 pupils from across Orkney will perform at the opening of this year's St Magnus Festival tonight, in tribute to children caught up in war and their remarkable spirit of survival and optimism.

The 9-to 12-year-olds from six schools - Stromness, Dounby, Burray, Glaitness and Hope primaries and North Walls Community School - will perform 26 songs they wrote themselves, inspired by diaries from children in Bosnia, Iraq, Rwanda and Northern Ireland, with the help of local composer Gemma McGregor.

Dance and dramatic movement have been woven through Notes in Time of War with the help of Edinburgh-based choreographer Caroline Reagh and Orkney's peripatetic drama teacher Chris Giles.

Conflict, reconciliation and the healing and renewing power of the arts, with a special focus on Bosnia, is one of this year's festival themes. (The other is sea journeys.) "The starting point was that music can be a unifying or healing force, even in a war-torn situation," says Ms McGregor.

"It's going to be very powerful," says Mr Giles, emphasising that while the piece explores suffering, it is ultimately upbeat and hopeful.

"Children in wartime seem to exhibit the most extraordinary optimism, as well as the most extraordinary pessimism, and one of the themes is how children manage to keep their spirits up and can find the energy to sing and dance."

The starting point for the performance was Zlata's Diary, the memoir of Zlata Filipovic, who was a 12-year-old girl when the siege of of Sarajevo began in April 1992. The diary has become an international bestseller and Ms Filipovic, now in her mid-20s, will be at the festival to give a talk.

Mr Giles found other moving accounts of children's war experiences on the internet and intertwined quotations from their diaries in the final script.

The show also includes music by the local folk band Shoot the Piper, the Kirkwall Town Band, Royal Scottish Academy Brass, a flute band, Bosnian tenor Teo Krilic and trombonist John Kenny playing the carnyx, an ancient Celtic war horn.

Each school (or pairing of schools) involved was allocated a country - Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq or Rwanda - and the 75-minute music-theatre performance is divided into four nation sections, against a video backdrop.

The audience will walk around the satellite areas, taking in an Irish ceilidh, a Bosnian cafe scene, an Iraqi folk band with a mandola, to mimic the sound of the Arabic ud, and African drumming, a gospel choir and rap to represent Rwanda.

"It's a promenade performance, so the audience moves around the groups in a metaphysical voyage," says Ms McGregor, who introduced the children to the different musical styles by playing them CDs of characteristic sounds, such as a Bosnian accordion and Irish pipes.

"The children thought about how to make music that sounded like music from that culture and then went away and wrote about 50 songs," she explains.

"I tried to give them a lot of freedom to interpret the style of the country and song they wanted to write. They found sounds and structures that they enjoyed."

She used half of the songs as the foundation for a musical score, combining some into song cycles.

"They gave them to me on scraps of paper with words and notes underneath and some of them wrote chords above," she says. "I made them into scores and printed them off.

"The most rewarding moment for me was when they were standing with the songs in their hands."

The composer Nigel Osborne, the professor of music at Edinburgh University, who is known for his humanitarian and music therapy work in Bosnia, led an early workshop for children and their class teachers on style and rhythm, demonstrating different musical modes from the Balkans and other world cultures.

The festival's director, Ian Ritchie, who has worked for several years with Osborne on therapeutic musical projects in Bosnia, says: "What's nice about this project is that the making of the piece has been given equal emphasis with the performing."

Mr Giles led drama workshops and discussions with the groups.

"In Rwanda, they recruited young children into the army. A lot of the drama work and movement work came out of those lessons," he says.

"With the Northern Ireland group, we did some lessons about prejudice and how people stereotype the other side.

"It's been a wholly organic process. This kind of project gets children thinking beyond the confines of the subject and they have responded very enthusiastically. I believe that if you get children to think about being in somebody's else's shoes, then that's a good thing educationally.

"It's been tremendously rewarding and it's also been a fantastic social experience for children from across the islands working together."

Jenni Banks, a P7 pupil at Hope Primary in South Ronaldsay, who will be singing a solo, says: "One of my songs is in it. They're quite sad at the start but then they're happy at the end.

"We've been doing songwriting, acting, dancing and reciting. It's been really good fun and I've met a lot of P7s all going on to Kirkwall Grammar school."

Her teacher, Marian Rendall, says: "It has been quite a boost for them to see their compositions in a typed manuscript. To feel that they are songwriters is quite a boost for self-esteem."

Mr Ritchie is looking forward to tonight. "The children have created the most empathetically deep, sensitive material," he says. "It's been a meaningful project, in the social and human development sense."

St Magnus Festival, Orkney, June 17-22 Notes in Time of War, the Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall, tonight 7pm and tomorrow


Children are sleeping The roar of thunder in the dark We huddle in fear.

A war has started Bullets flying everywhere What is it about?

Another bomb hits Scared to look out of the window.

Why do we need war?

by pupils at Stromness Primary


Blossom blowing in the wind.

We are walking to our school.

We thought we would be safe, We saw a crying boy.

We saw damage all around by pupils at North Walls Community School, Lyness

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