Instruments of peace

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Edward Huws Jones describes how he set up a violin project in war-ravaged Bosnia. I've visited Bosnia six times in the past 12 months and will be back again this half term, running the Mostar Children's Violin Project.

The idea came from my sister Gwen, who works with humanitarian organisations in the former Yugoslavia. By the autumn of 1995, the fighting was coming to an end and the basic necessities of life, such as food, medicine and shelter, were starting to get through. But people were desperate for other kinds of sustenance - like music - especially for their children.

We decided to set up the project in Mostar; every building in the old town and the ancient Ottoman bridge, the symbol of the city's unity and heritage, had been destroyed. Mostar had been a cultural centre with a symphony orchestra and a thriving music school - one music teacher, Mubera, told me how she had burnt her precious piano as firewood, key by key, during the two-year siege.

Our aim was to reach as many children as possible; to offer them a real musical experience without trying to produce concert violinists - just like my peripatetic string teaching in Britain, in fact. I also wanted to develop skills like working together in groups and raising self-esteem, particularly for children who were traumatised and disturbed.

A frantic couple of months followed. We were to work with a humanitarian organisation called Stope Nade ("Steps of Hope"), who would identify the children, help with accommodation and transport and provide translators. Sponsorship for the running expenses - things like my flights from Britain - was offered by Cradie, a Dublin-based children's charity. Businesses and individuals donated 20 new half-sized violins which were put on a convoy from Scotland, hidden under bundles of second-hand clothing. A junior school in Doncaster gave an electronic keyboard, which I was to carry back and forth across the war zone.

The idea of group instrumental teaching and the recreational ethos is unfamiliar in Bosnia, where musicians have been reared on traditional Austro-Hungarian pedagogy. I arrived at a primary school for the first teaching session to find a queue of glum children lined up outside a tiny teaching cubicle.

It was obvious that the first thing we had to do was find a empty classroom, push back the furniture and get all the violins into a big star shape.. .

The teaching itself is much like my teaching in primary schools in Doncaster or York: groups of six or so children, working in a circle, playing by rote and with lots of fun and games. We translated some of the songs from my beginner's book Red Parrot, Green Parrot into Bosnian and "Giant Footsteps" (now "Cuj Divovske Stope") has become the theme-tune of the project.

Each group lasts about an hour and I see two groups in the morning, two in the evening. The pattern repeats every day for five days, culminating in an informal end-of-course concert.

There were no violin teachers in the city, so a priority was to find teacher-counterparts who, with a bit of training, would be able to lead a weekly practice-session between my visits. Zdenka, our teacher-counterpart in the city's western sector, appeared miraculously at Christmas when she breezed into the women's centre where I was teaching and asked if I knew "Silent Night". I scribbled an open-string accompaniment on the blackboard for the children, Zdenka sang, and we had an instant performance.

The two interpreters, Enise and Mia, come from each side of this divided city. They translate - and help me to do my shopping, talk us through army checkpoints, stop me wandering off into prohibited areasIMy violin-teaching language is now fairly advanced: I can say "relax your thumb", "tip of the little finger", "drop your elbow" - all those things which violin teachers end up reciting in their sleep.

The extraordinary Sevdah, the traditional music of the towns and cities of Bosnia, has become a sort of subplot to my visits, feeding into the violin project and adding its own unique flavour to my time in Bosnia.

I first encountered Sevdah on that first visit in the New Year of 1996. Hurrying down a dark street of burnt-out shops and houses I heard live music coming from a cafe. Inside I was met by what sounded like a blend of Turkish music, gypsy, rock and much else. I began talking to the leader of the band, a young accordion player called Mehmed Velagic, who invited me to his home. There I recorded him playing and he taught me my first Sevdah tunes. Since then I have spent many hours with Mehmed, in his house and in the bars and cafes where he plays. The fruit of this collaboration, arranged for violin and piano Sevdah; traditional music from Bosnia will be published by Boosey Hawkes this month. The book includes photographs by my sister and translations of the lyrics - which, in the context of the war have a new and immeasurable significance.

The project's original aims were (to use the jargon) psycho-social. The therapeutic aspects were more important than purely musical considerations. But after 12 months, some of the children are now determined to study the violin further. In an environment where any educational opportunities are limited, the project's musical training is highly valued. There is now a commitment to make sure these children carry on.

Over the summer, Rada Baljak, a young violinist who trained in Saravejo before the war, returned to Mostar - she had been a refugee in Vienna. Rada is now working with the project, and shows the way forward for more and more local teachers to become involved.

Edward Huws Jones is a peripatetic violin teacher in Doncaster and North Yorkshire. He has published numerous collections of compositions and arrangements, published by Boosey Hawkes and Faber Music.

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