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Food of love - and understanding

Michael Church sings the praises of music as an instrument of social harmony

IWhat is music? Philosophers have long been worrying at this question, but there's never been any doubt as to what music can do. It can send us into a solitary trance, or marching into battle. Like alcohol, it removes our inhibitions; Shakespeare called it the food of love. Medical studies have shown that music can heal the sick, and mental sickness too.

Expressing intense sadness, it can lift us out of sadness: we sing the blues to get rid of the blues.

Music can make us emotionally whole. The Cellist of Sarajevo - playing every day in the ruins - came to symbolise music's healing power as former Yugoslavia's civil war dragged on through the 1990s. This is the philosophy on which the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar is based. As the British composer Nigel Osborne, the centre's musical adviser, points out:

"Creating music means creating something which is indestructible. People can destroy your house, but nobody can destroy the music that you make."

If music can restore an individual's wholeness, it can also restore the wholeness of a society, bringing warring factions together in a communal experience. Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which will make its Proms debut at the Albert Hall on August 22, demonstrates how music can induce tolerance. Bringing together young musicians from Israel, the Arab countries and Germany, Barenboim induced them to form an orchestra: not a substitute for the peace process, but a useful analogue to it, and in the event a much more successful one.

Barenboim notes how sharing the same music stand, playing the same notes and aiming for the same kind of expression visibly healed divides.

Afterwards, he says, the musicians looked at each other in an entirely new way. At the Prom they will perform a triple piano concerto, with Barenboim on one instrument and Arab and Israeli pianists on adjoining ones.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, where musical instruments were banned by the Taliban, music is now helping to bring together warring local factions: not a panacea, but a binding agent. Music, in other words, is a tool for tolerance. Music educators have long known this and acted on it: witness the Caribbean steel-pan orchestras which galvanised the early TES-sponsored Schools Proms.

From a steel-pan orchestra to an Indonesian gamelan is but a short step, because the musical principle is the same. Teachers have long known this too, with the result that gamelan groups are now dotted all over the country. A gamelan is an orchestra without a conductor, where everything depends on each player's alertness to what their neighbour is doing. You may only strike one note on one instrument, but you must carry the big picture in your head.

There is no limit to the ways teachers can employ music to open the doors of understanding. Alex and Deidre Pascall's Common Threads, launched at the National Union of Teachers' headquarters in April, serves as a model of how this idea might be developed. It is a charming musical, designed to let pupils experience the cultural correspondences between mining towns in South Wales and the plantations of Grenada.

For a theme that has infinite ramifications, you couldn't do better than follow the path of the gypsies. Everywhere they go, gypsies pick up the local music and make it their own: this is why listening to the Rough Guide to the Music of the Gypsies (1034CD) and to Network's magnificent double CD Road of the Gypsies (24.756) is like looking at a musical map.

"Egypt" lies behind the word "gypsy", but that was only one of many staging-posts in their migration from India. They were first invited to entertain the Persian Shah Bahram Gur, whence they travelled to Constantinople; from there some went south to north Africa before heading up to Spain; more settled in the Balkans. Meanwhile, others went north to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and yet others on to Russia.

Road of the Gypsies is full of beauty, strangeness and unexpected connections. The clarinet-toting Benny Goodmans of Greece and Turkey sit alongside the heirs to Django Reinhardt and fellow-guitarists of the Hot Club de France; songs from Cairo mingle with prayers from Herat; the Balkans rise up in a glorious symphony of interrelated sounds.

But if Russia is central to the gypsy tradition, Turkey is seminal.

Istanbul Oriental Ensemble (Network 36.990) shows gypsy music is still thriving in that capital. But why so many gypsy brass bands in the Balkans? Simple: because they grew up in imitation of the Turkish military bands which once dominated the scene. Listen to the Fanfare Ciocarlia (Piranha 364) from Romania, or the flamboyant Kocani Orkestar (CRAW 19) from Macedonia.

If there's one gypsy group you must not miss, it's Taraf de Haidouks. A taraf is a Romanian village band; haidouks are Robin Hood-style brigands, and the story of Taraf de Haidouks' emergence is fittingly romantic. It began when two young Belgian enthusiasts, Michel Winter and Stephane Karo, heard some amateur recordings and decided to track the best to its source.

They knew the name of the village it came from, but thanks to President Ceausescu's attempts to obliterate the peasantry they had to locate the place without a map. They eventually found 100 musicians willing to play: it took them three months to sift out the most representative handful for a tour to Belgium. They made a record, then another which went to the top of the world-music charts.

When the great flamenco singer El Camaron de la isla thought of India, he thought of home. The gypsies' reputation as trouble-makers - unfairly pinned on them by bourgeois societies who find them a threat - should be radically amended: through their music they bind the world together. And if this argument holds true for gypsies, so should it for asylum-seekers.

The CD and libretto of Common Threads is available from Good Vibes, Tel: 0870 240 4698;

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