Industry Profile: Laura Hassler of Musicians Without Borders [INTERVIEW]
MUST READ: In a recent interview, Larry LeBlanc spoke with Laura Hassler, the founder and director of Musicians Without Borders, about her work combining music and peaceful activism, and the role the organization plays in dealing with both historical and contemporary global struggles.
Guest Post by Larry LeBlanc on CelebrityAccess
As refugees from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Eritrea have arrived recently on European beaches, the human face of war has suddenly once again become visible.
Musicians without Borders, a global network organization, is one of the pioneers in the use of music to help heal the wounds of war.
Headed by American Laura Hassler, and headquartered in the Netherlands, Musicians without Borders does not promote a political agenda, but attempts only to support vulnerable communities, and offer training in nonviolent forms of cultural expression.
Musicians without Borders also utilizes music to cross ethnic divides. The organization provides neutral spaces for factions to meet through shared talents and passions. Its staff is trained in running community music-making projects in regions struggling with trauma, fear and isolation as a result of war or ongoing conflict.
Musicians without Borders works with local musicians and organizations to build sustainable projects in response to local needs. It provides participants with the environment to develop skills and talents, process grief and loss, and build bridges of reconciliation within communities divided by conflict.
Hassler grew up in a multicultural, artistic community near New York City, a child of parents working in the international peace and nonviolence movement.
Her father Alfred Hassler, was executive secretary of the United States Fellowship, an organization of religious pacifists from 1960 until his retirement in 1974. He was also general secretary of the International Fellowship, and president of the International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace.
In 1970, influenced by Vietnamese Buddhist thought, Alfred co-founded the Dai Dong, linking war, environmental problems and poverty.
Active in her teens in the American civil rights and peace movements, Laura studied cultural anthropology and music at Swarthmore College, combining academics with activism and music.
During the 1970s, she worked for the Friends (Quaker) Peace Committee and the Committee of Responsibility on Vietnam in Philadelphia; for Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris; and the U.S. Fellowship of Reconciliation in New York.
Laura moved to the Netherlands in 1977, where she developed a career as a musician, linking music to social causes. She specialized in cultural diversity in the arts, founded a World Music School, and worked as a diversity consultant to arts institutions while teaching singing and leading vocal groups.
Part of a network of socially conscious musicians, Laura mobilized this network to collectively launch Musicians without Borders in 1999.
Those interested in Musicians without Borders can reach Laura Hassler at: email@example.com.
Is the influx of refugees that have come into Europe from war-torn regions having an impact on your organization, either in planning future or with present programs?
Yes, of course. There are now an estimated 60 million (war) refugees in the world. We have been working with refugees in Palestine since 2008. Our Rwanda program has expanded to the Mahama refugee camp, with 50,000 refugees fleeing the war in Burundi, more than half of them children. Not only are our projects in these regions, we also have staff there, both international and local.
So we are aware of the global impact of this aspect of war.
At the same time, our central office, and many of our trainers and other musicians, are in Europe, and as hundreds of thousands of desperate people try to reach safety in Europe, reaching out to them is a natural extension of our work. We’re already active in the Netherlands, visiting some of the so-called emergency shelters (sporting centers, with 200 people sleeping on cots in gyms) to make music with children, youth and (when it works) adults.
Meanwhile, we’re working on adapting the projects we’ve developed in present and recent conflict regions for the refugee situation in Western Europe, and looking for funding to make this a major new program priority. In addition to community music work with refugees themselves, we are also very concerned about the growing xenophobia and hostility directed to refugees. So we are also working on plans to facilitate meetings among European-based musicians and refugee musicians, forming ad hoc ensembles, and looking to connect with other citizens’ initiatives that are bringing people together as new neighbors, to reduce the fear and anxiety that has been generated by self-serving political agendas. When people share food and hear each others’ music, barriers fall and connections are made. And many, many musicians want to be part of this.
Will ongoing opposition or a backlash to the refugees entering Europe have an impact on your fund-raising? Perhaps negative due to concern or fears of refugees or, perhaps, positive in that there may be greater concern overall for the plight of those in territories under duress?
We are troubled by this backlash, of course, and we don’t yet know how it will impact our fund-raising, or even our ability to organize activities for refugees in the future. On the other hand, there are many, many people all over Europe who are starting, or joining, citizens’ initiatives to support the refugees looking for safety here: From saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean to transporting people in their cars to safety; caring for the children; bringing food and blankets, taking people into their homes; volunteering at emergency shelters; and organizing welcome dinners in village churches.
In Amsterdam Central station, a new community of mostly young people has been meeting every international train every evening for the last 3 months, wearing T shirts and carrying signs saying ‘Welcome Refugees, we are here to help’ in English, Arabic and Farsi. Most of these efforts fly under the radar–but so does Musicians without Borders. So we find ourselves in honorable company.
In 1999, you founded Musicians without Borders. How did it come about? It is such a great idea.
It was a bit spontaneous.
You were teaching and working with various music groups.
I was teaching music and, at that point, I had three choirs. I had set up a world music school in Alkmaar (in the province of North Holland), the city that I lived which is a city of about 100,000 people, trying to connect music to integration, and accepting and embracing cultural diversity which was kind of a new thing then in Holland. A lot of different cultures were living here, but most of the cultural organizations were white Dutch Western. I was already involved in using music to connect with people.
Europe’s population greatly changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Holland brought in a lot of people. Brought in….really recruited people from different countries in the ‘60s and the ‘70s to work in the factories and for all of the dirty work that the Dutch people didn’t want to do. To fill the labor gap. So there were thousands and thousands of people, especially from Turkey and Morocco. Then there were people from all of the former Dutch colonies like Surinam, the Dutch West Indies, and Indonesia. And there was a whole group from Yugoslavia, and groups of Spanish and Portuguese. But it (the population) was very divided. Dutch people wouldn’t know anybody who wasn’t ethnic Dutch. When I started doing this kind of work in 1990, trying to address that, at that point in the city of Amsterdam 60% of the children in the schools were non-Dutch origin. Sixty percent.
Did you have a mandate when you launched Musicians without Borders?
No. Not at all. But there’s a middle piece to the story. I had, by this time, sort of become the city’s musician. I was the one that the town (Alkmaar) called upon to do concerts when they had people visiting from twin cities in other countries; or for special events; or if there was a new mayor or something like that. I had also done a number of concerts because I had a chamber choir, and I had a choir that was made up of immigrant women, and I also had this acapella group of women singing Balkan music.
I had done a number of war memorial concerts. Every year in May there’s a day in which the victims of the Second World War are remembered, and there are often concerts connected to that. Every time I had done one of those concerts over the years I always linked that remembrance of the Second World War to thinking about people who were suffering from war every day. In 1999, I was asked to do the war memorial concert, and the Kosovo war was going on at that point. To me this was a horrible period of déjà vu because we had just had the Bosnian war which had gone on for ages, and the suffering was immense.
I’m originally from New York, but I’ve been in Holland for so long that I feel European. The Bosnian war was virtually right in our back yard that this was happening. It’s a two hour flight from where I live. It’s as close as Spain or Portugal. About 1/4 of the population fled to other countries, while another 1/4 became IDPs (internally displaced persons), fleeing to a “safer” part of Bosnia.
There were also many people displaced in Kosovo, but I don’t know the figures for that. It was horrible.
In the early ‘90s, I had met a family from Sarajevo who left with only a bag.
I also met people in Sarajevo–I’ve been there many times now–who said that “When people were saying that there was going to be a war, we laughed at them, and then two weeks later we were in the back of a truck with one suitcase.”
Before the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, it was such a beautiful city. The first Winter Olympics to be held in a Communist state were held there.
Yes in 1984. I have been to that place (Koševo Stadium). Sarajevo is one of the most beautiful towns in Europe. But what happened was that I was asked to do this World War II memorial concert, and the Kosovo war was going on. We were seeing once again burnt out villages, concentration camps, mass graves, women being raped, and thousands of people from Kosovo becoming refugees and crossing the border on foot into Macedonia or Albania. Then what do you get? You get the response of what the so-called international community knows, and it’s bombing. What have we learned? All of this horrible war in Bosnia, and then we get a re-run or a repeat (of history).
People have been warning about this (type of conflict) for years, and nobody has done anything. Suddenly, it’s there and the only thing that we know what to do is to bomb them. I, and many other people, were feeling incredibly frustrated, and sad about this. I decided that, I’m not going to do a Mozart Requiem or something like that at this war memorial concert. I’m going to do folk songs from Eastern Europe. I’m going to put songs from so-called enemies back-to-back, and we are going to dedicate that (to the victims of the war). We are going to sing love songs, lullabies, songs of loss, and songs of parting which you hear in every culture, and we are going to dedicate that concert to the ordinary people who are always the ones that are caught in the middle.
What was the response? That concept might have been considered controversial.
Well, it was funny because I mixed two of my choirs. One of them was a chamber choir, and the other was this acapella group that did a lot of Balkan singing. In the chamber choir we had had a guy who was a refugee from the former Yugoslavia. He was an ethnic Serb whose family had lived in Croatia for years and years, and he had to flee during the war. One of the guys said, “You can’t do this. We can’t sing a Serbian song now with what Serbia is doing.” I said to him, “Do you happen to know anybody who is Serb? Do you know any Serbs?” He said, “no.” Then I said, “What about Srdan? He sang in our choir. That‘s an ordinary person. He’s a Serb. Would you say the same thing about him?” And everybody said, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that.” I said that the first thing that goes in wars is the truth.
Whoever the victor gets to write the truth.
Yeah, of course. And there was propaganda. And there was international interest and whatever in this war. In any case, we did this concert, and it was I think the most moving concert that I’ve ever been to. It was May 4, 1999. It was at the cathedral of Alkmaar with, I guess, 750 people in the audience. We had to wait 20 minutes to start because the line was so long to get in. It took so long for everybody to get in. This (c
oncert) was striking a chord with people. As is common in these memorial concerts there was no applause. There was this whole string of an hour’s worth of songs, and we didn’t say a word. In the program we had little translations of each of the songs. We just put in there, “This is for everyone who are caught in the middle, and who are the real victims of every war.”
The concert led to Musicians without Borders?
That was that evening because afterwards we were all just so moved. The audience was so moved. People were crying. At the end (of the concert), it was absolutely silent, and then there was a standing ovation for 20 minutes. All of the musicians were so moved. We went afterwards to have a glass of wine somewhere and I was sitting with a Turkish Kurdish friend who played in the orchestra, and he said, “That was an amazing concert. I would like to put this concert on a train, and send it to Kosovo and stop the damn war.”
That was the moment.
What happened was that I woke up the next morning with a terrible migraine. I was sick for five days. But when I came out of it, I started calling people, saying, “I want to do this. Will you work with me?” Then i went back to the peace organization, IFOR (International Fellowship of Reconciliation) and said we have this idea. They said, “Come in, and let’s hear it.” And that’s how we started.
How is Musicians without Borders funded? I would imagine that you operate on a shoestring budget.
A shoestring, and anywhere we can find it (funding). We have no subsidy. We have no buffer. We have no savings. We have no nothing.
Is communication easier today than when you started with the internet and other tools being available? Musicians with Borders operates in regions where communication can be challenging.
Well, an awful lot of the work that we do is on Skype, and email. We also use Google Drive where we can all work on a document together. We couldn’t exist without Skype these days because every week we have so many meetings. Our financial person (Ilaria Modugno) here is working with all of the project managers. One is in Palestine, one is in Rwanda, and one is in Belgrade. They couldn’t work together if there was no Skype.
Musicians without Borders works with local musicians and organizations in regions to develop sustainable projects that meet local needs. If you come up with a project concept that works in one region will it work in another region? Is that how you evolved from Holland into Kosovo, Palestine, Rwanda, Bosnia and Tanzania? Did it evolve one by one like that?
Yes. We started really with organizing exchanges between groups of musicians based in the Netherlands. Not all Dutch, but based in the Netherlands that were fluent in the musics of the Balkan region. We found the means to send groups over there (to other regions) and found contacts there. So we were looking for ways to connect with musicians there, and with other organizations. After a couple of years of doing that we managed to get a project together that would send one person over who’d stay there longer. That was a project with children in the region of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia where this genocide had been at the end of the war to do music with both Serb children—this was a socially ethnically “cleansed” region—who were in the town then and do music with the Muslim Bosnian children who were in refugee camps and villages. Gradually we realized that we really had to train some local people. We were just looking at how can we do things with children.
What were the conditions there? In 1995, Srebrenica had been designated a United Nations’ “safe haven” for Bosnian Muslims fleeing the Serb army. About 25,000 refugees had sought safety there. The Serb army surrounded the city, women and children were bused out, and more than 8,000 men and boys were murdered, and thrown into mass graves.
Refugees who had sought shelter in the “safe haven” were later scattered in the area between Srebrenica and Tuzla. Many of them housed in hastily built “collective settlements,” refugee camps. The region around Srebrenica, extending to Tuzla and the camps around it, was where we set up the “Music Bus” project, for children throughout this region, which was by this time, for all intents and purposes, ethnically “cleansed.” The “Music Bus” was sort of a mobile music school, staffed by our one Dutch project manager and 4 young Bosnian musicians, whom she had trained. The “Music Bus” served both (mainly Serb) children in the town of Srebrenica and some villages, and (mainly Muslim) children in refugee camps and other villages, and brought children together for summer camps, productions and special projects.
Many of the programs deal with children? Why is this?
Partially because, of course, children are the future. They are the most vulnerable. What a lot of our programs do is that we work directly not with the children but we work with young people, with teachers, and with social workers who themselves work with children in their own regions.
Children also can be the biggest victims of these wars.
The biggest victims and, in war regions, they are also the path to the parents. If you are working with children, and you’ve earned some trust in a region, then gradually you can start to involve the parents. Then you can create a platform where the adults can meet each other as well. In our rock project in Kosovo, for example, we have been working with youth for a long time, and we take them out (of town) a couple times a year. Or, if they can’t meet in their own city—it’s a divided town—and we take them out to Skopje (now the capital of Macedonia), and we have them performing rock music for the whole week, and then we do a concert. We also send a bus or two buses from their town bringing their parents and families. It’s a way that people can meet because they are proud of what their kids are doing. So they meet that way.
Musicians without Borders operates in troubled regions like the Palestinian West Bank. What’s generally been the reaction of the local governments? They may not like outsiders coming in.
We really haven’t had very much to do with local governments. What we do is we identify a local partner, a non-governmental partner, and work with them.
You still have to attain visa papers and so forth for instructors.
Yeah, but people aren’t really suspicious of musicians very much. We fly under the radar. In some places, it can be a bit tricky to get in, but we sort of have to know what we have to say. We always have a local partner, and it is usually not a music partner. For example, in Palestine it’s a nonviolence organization. In Rwanda, it’s an organization that works with HIV positive women and youth and children. We really take time to find the right partners, and build good relationships with th
em so we get their help and their support with that kind of thing. We will ask, “How do we get in? What kind of things should we say when we are at the border? When do we need a visa?” We sort of know these things and, in the major places where we have project, we have our own local project manager living there so they know what to do by now.
Are the local project managers brought into the regions, or are they locals already there?
In the case of Palestine, it is a Dutch woman (Fabienne van Eck) who was already living there, who spoke the language, and who was teaching in several music schools. In the case of Rwanda, it’s a British guy (Chris Nicholson) who went there to do his internship for his music therapy masters, and who ended up staying.
I found it incredibly inspiring watching the Palestinian deaf rap videos. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfjdzT0bb_M) How did that program come about?
A bit how we work is organically. We had set up this program to train young people in Palestine to work with children with community workshops. The guys who had joined this course, all of them came from the three refugee camps in Bethlehem. These are huge camps that have been there some of them since 1948. They aren’t tents anymore. They are crowded with top-heavy buildings. It turned out that some of these guys in our course that we were training to work with children were rappers. But as rappers, they had very little opportunity to practice rap. They were just doing it in somebody’s bedroom with a very simple computer. They didn’t have any tools or equipment. Gradually, we were able to raise the money to build them a studio (in 2012). We brought in some people who could teach them about beat making. We were able to purchase some equipment for them so we could do that. We gave them some lessons in teaching, and taught them didactic and pedagogical skills (how to create a curriculum and how to teach it). So now what they are doing is teaching children how to make their own rap. In the same period, one of the trainees in our course was a young social worker who is deaf, and she turned out to be, surprisingly enough, one of the most dedicated, motivated music workshop leaders that we have ever had, especially working with children with special needs.
[Since 2008, Musicians without Borders and Holy Land Trust, supported by Kinderpostzegels and other international donors, have collaborated to create a program for youth and children in the Palestinian West Bank.
Palestine Community Music targets the most isolated and marginalized segments of the West Bank population, bringing music to help build the resilience of the region’s most deprived children.
The program began with a training in community music and nonviolence leadership for Palestinian youth in Bethlehem’s three refugee camps. Over a year-long period, the youth were trained to work with children in their own communities. It evolved to include training for kindergarten teachers and social workers, bringing music into schools, orphanages, isolated villages, and hospitals. By July 2014, more than 110 young Palestinians had completed the training, and are now leading music workshops for more than 5,000 children per year. When project staff realized that several trainees were rappers, rap was incorporated into the program.]
About 5% of the population in the Palestinian West Bank is either deaf or hard of hearing.
A large percentage of the population is. It’s a big problem, and it (the deaf population) is, of course, one of the most marginalized groups in Palestine. So Fabienne brought these rappers together with a couple of the deaf youth that we had met, and suggested that together that they compose a rap. One thing led to another and a clip was made by this young Palestinian woman who is a filmmaker. It got distributed throughout the region for Arab Deaf Awareness Week. But meanwhile, these tough young rappers had learned to speak sign language with their new deaf friends. It was amazingly empowering for everybody. That’s sort of the way that we work. You move from one thing to another.
There’s also recording studio in Rwanda.
That’s in the French Cultural Institute in Kigali, which sponsors us in kind by allowing us to use their studio.
A few months ago, the Musician without Borders’ community music leaders in Rwanda recorded “Ubumuntu,” a song that speaks of their commitment to music as a resource for change and community.
It’s like “ubuntu” (a Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to "human kindness” used in South Africa). It must be related because they (the Rwandans) define it as compassion, and in South Africa “ubunto” is, “I exist so you exist.” It’s interconnection. It must be related. But I don’t speak Kinyarwanda (the Bantu language spoken by 7 million people, mainly in Rwanda).
[To Rwandans the word “ubumuntu” signifies sharing, giving, and supporting the needs of your neighbors. “Ubumuntu” is a compassionate way of living together, in which the well-being of every person is connected. It asks all people to have empathy and to feel the human needs of others. ]
How many languages do you speak?
Three. English, Dutch and French. It’s not really impressive here (in the Netherlands). My children had 7 languages in school.
It’s interesting that when children are given the opportunity to write music that they write about what’s around them, and what their life is about. Giving them a gift of music gives them a voice.
Yes. We use songwriting very heavily in every one of our projects. If you look at that video you were just referring to from Rwanda, those kids had zero musical background when we started. None. Nobody played an instrument. I was there in 2012, and I was thinking, “Well, it’s very sweet but nobody here can really sing.” They could sing, of course, but I was thinking “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could really sing.” Now they can really sing. We made this link to this music school in Kigali (Oakdale Kigali Music School). We met the director, Aimable Nsabayeyu, who was also concerned about people with HIV and who were struggling. That’s the situation of all of our trainees there. We talked to him and arranged that our kids could take music lessons there every week. Now each one of them has an instrument choice, and they all using instruments that they can use when they are working with children and they are all writing their own songs. This was the most recent (song). And, yes, they are singing. They are now singing like anything. So that’s happened in these past few years.
A program in Ireland brings together two religious groups.
Where we are is in Northern Ireland which is still legally part of the UK but, of course, there’s this peace agreement since 1998 where there’s this power sharing. But the old troubles which of course go back hundreds of years are still latent and occasionally exploding. The society is very divided.
Where is the office there based?
In Derry (Londonderry). We were brought in by a Derry cultural organization Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin that’s on the Irish side. It’s an Irish language and cultural organization. They had wanted to work in cross-community project for a long time. They brought us in because of our experience in so many different cultures, and also the fact that we are an international organization…
And perhaps, more importantly that you are apolitical.
Of course. They are too. They aren’t a political organization. Basically, they invited us. It’s a very, very interesting place and also fascinating to be in a EU country (Northern Ireland) which is still ethnically divided, and where all of the things are all sorts of feelings and fears and, I would say, old pain and trauma that are still very close to the surface. We’ve got a lot of very good musicians in our program there. But our program is not really about turning people into great musicians with, perhaps, the exception of the rock school. The program is about the way that music can most effectively be used to bring people together, and to connect people, both back to themselves and to the other (part of the local population). So you use things that are just as much of a challenge for an excellent experienced musician to learn as for somebody who can sing along and tap their feet.
An exchange such as elsewhere may simply be not possible between Israelis and Palestinians.
It’s a tricky subject as you say but it is physically not possible to bring people together in that region unless you are talking about Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs living inside of Israel. There are a number of music projects there but what we are doing is that we are using music to help bridge divides, to heal the wounds, and help build a culture of nonviolence. In every project we have elements of that.
And in the Palestinian West Bank?
I would say that in the work in Palestine that it is mostly focused on building resilience, healing wounds, and building the culture of nonviolence because the Palestinians are also very divided internally, and there has been a culture of violence growing up in this occupied region with poverty, and with a culture of suspicion and fear. We were invited in by Palestinian organizations who had seen what we were doing, and they said “We need this kind of work in our place because what happens when the occupation ends if we have a cultural of violence here? We won’t have a good society. We will have people who are fighting among each other.”
Obviously, this is not a project to reconcile Palestinians with Israelis.
We don’t feel that is our mission there. In places where you are invited by local people–local musicians–to help with that kind of process as in Kosovo, yes because the conflict is over, or in Northern Ireland. But in the Palestinian Israeli situation, this is still a divided society. I think it is in some way similar to the apartheid situation in South Africa. In that period no organization with any kind of social conscience would have gone into South Africa where there was a legal situation in which one entity was occupying the other. I feel that it is not appropriate as an outsider to say, “We are going to reconcile you guys.” There’s issues of justice there that need to be dealt with first. Also people need to choose their own moments for reconciliation, and choose their process.
You must be extremely proud of your father Alfred Hassler, an innovator within the American peace movement.
(Laughing) Oh yes.
Are you justly proud as well that the Smithsonian Institution holds his 16-page comic book account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, in which Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and 50,000 others used the power of nonviolence to battle segregation on city buses, and won.
I actually didn’t know that. Thank you for telling me that. Yes, I’m very proud of that.
Only 20 copies of the comic are known to exist from the 240,000 copies printed.
I had one of them I gave it to my son recently who is a professor of popular culture and politics.
[Alfred Hassler created a comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott. First published in December 1957 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the comic was popular among civil rights groups, churches, and schools. Martin Luther King, Jr., who consulted directly with Alfred on the comic book project, wrote him saying, "Again, I would like to say what a fine piece of work this is. You have done a marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement. I am sure that this comic book will be welcomed by the American public. Please feel free to call on me at any time.”
Your father also co-founded the Dai Dong project in 1970, linking war, environmental problems and poverty.
Yes, together with (Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist) Thích Nhất Hạnh. That was their brainchild.
How could you not go into the family business?
It’s true. I couldn’t have, but I have a brother and a sister and neither of them did.
You grew up in a commune called Skyview Acres?
It wasn’t a commune. It was a cooperative community.
As your father once said a “by accident arising community,” a town of 45 houses, no shop, church and school
Right. You know everything.
Where is the town?
It is in Rockland County, outside of New York. It’s the first county north of the New Jersey line on the west side of the Hudson River. When I was a kid, my parents and their friends bought a piece of land together there and it was countryside. There was no highway, yet. This was moving into the country to start families. That was the idea. It was idealistic in that sense. It was all people from New York City who wanted to get out of New York City after the war and start a life.
You father was imprisoned in 1944 for being a conscientious objector. Before passing away in 2011, Suze Rotolo told me that as a “red diaper baby” (
a child of parents who were members of the American Communist Party) that she had faced the displeasure of school classmates, and their parents. Did you face a similar fate because of your father’s activities?
I know that a lot of people who grew up as the children of activists say that they felt excluded or criticized. I never felt anything, except pride. That had to do, of course, with the way that history was presented (to me), but also the fact the we grew up in kind of a microcosm of people who all shared a number of base things in the social community. So among those 45 families there was also the family of George Houser who recently died (Aug. 15, 2015) at the age of 100. He was the founder of the American Committee on Africa, and he worked for the same organization as my dad, FOR (the Fellowship of Reconciliation) first.
He was a Methodist minister,
Yes. He was one of the first freedom riders in 1947.
He co-founded CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality).
He co-founded CORE together with Jim Farmer (Bernice Fisher, and James Robinson) and later (in 1953) he founded the American Committee on Africa. There was also (music director and conductor) Ed Simons who is still alive at 98. He still plays violin and he’s still teaching. He’s 98.
George Houser also co-led the Journey to Reconciliation did he not?
Yeah. That was the name of the first freedom ride into the south. Imagine. Not everybody in the community was like that but there was also Conrad Lynn, a black civil rights lawyer lived in that community. Charles Lawrence, also an African American, a sociology professor. His wife Dr. Margaret Lawrence was the first black psychiatrist in the United States (working with children and adolescents). She worked herself up from being a maid. She came out from Mississippi. You had all of these incredibly inspiring people there. We would sing folk songs together. There were lot of musicians there. George Houser’s wife (Jean) was my first piano teacher.
It sounds like quite the creative community.
It was just an amazing place to grow up. Also besides that living community there was the FOR community. I met Martin Niemöller (the German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor) as a child. I met André Trocmé, who was the pastor in Southern France who had mobilized his entire village to hide Jewish children and smuggle then to safety during the Second World War. These were my uncles. So I grew up with his immense sense of pride. Also we had a community of people who in different ways shared a kind of idealism and activism. I didn’t do it (activism) I was just given it.
You went off to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to study cultural anthropology and music. Not the family business but close
Right. Cultural anthropology in my case was a euphemism for community organization.
In 2010 you received the Arabella Carter Award from Swarthmore College.
I was in a folk music trio while at Swarthmore, and we had a reunion for an alumnae thing. They gave me this award for volunteerism.
Were you folkie?
I grew up singing folk songs in that community. As a child I’d sing rounds and songs from all over the place and in different languages. We sang “Kumbaya,” some Czech folk songs, things in all different languages. Singing different parts. We also sang in harmony. We had a couple of wonderful adult singers who played guitar. We just sang all of the time. From the time that I was 8 or 10, I was the one who always led the singing on the school bus on the way to school. That was also rounds, harmonies, and all kinds of things. Then in high school I taught myself how to play guitar, and I started singing protest songs. I loved Joan Baez and I learned all of the songs on her albums. I loved Buffy Sainte-Marie, and i used to sing some of her songs. She’s amazing.
Of course, you became involved in the American civil rights movement.
My early youth was spent in the American civil rights and peace movement. I moved to Holland in 1977 with my husband (Jim Forest). I had built up a career as a musician. I was always connecting my music to social causes.
Why did you and your husband move to Holland?
We were both involved in an (the peace group) organization called The International Fellowship of Reconciliation. I had worked during the Vietnam War for Thích Nhất Hạnh, and the Vietnam Buddhist Delegation.
Which your father was involved in.
That right. He brought me into it, and I spent a year in Paris. I also went to Vietnam in 1971 when I was 22. My father couldn’t get into Vietnam anymore and I went. So I was very connected to the Vietnam Buddhists.
In 1971 Vietnam wasn’t yet under Communist rule. It’d be 5 years later in 1976 that North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
No no. The war was still going on. The reason I went was that my father and Thích Nhất Hạnh had an idea. They were organizing what they called the “Stop The Killing” campaign. It was a call for an immediate cease-fire in Vietnam, endorsed by members of parliaments from many countries. So they were trying to get signatures from members of Parliaments all over the world. Thích Nhất Hạnh believed that there would be some members of the South Vietnamese Parliament by that time that would agree to sign such a call. Of course, if you had some names coming from the Parliament in South Vietnam that would make that whole call that much stronger. But you couldn’t use the telephone and nobody trusted anything in terms of…..you had to go face-to-face.
I’m surprised you were able to enter Vietnam at that point.
Well, I was working then for an organization called the Committee of Responsibility, which was a U.S. medical organization that took care of war wounded Vietnamese children. I was only there for a few days. There’s a little spy story behind here because my father couldn’t get in. They didn’t have anyone else to send, and I had an alibi because my organization had an approved house in Saigon where the kids were allowed to be brought in transit to the U.S. for their operations and whatever. So I was asked. Thinking of it now as a parent looking back that my father would ask his 22-year-old daughter to do I feel like would I have dared that with my kids when they were that old? But he did, and I did go. After that I went back to the U.S., and went back to my work for that organization. Shortly after that the Buddhists, who were in exile in Paris asked, if I could come and work for them in their office. You can’t say no to that, right?
Then you went to Holland
with your husband and kids.
I had two kids at that point.
That had to do with Vietnamese Buddhists too. My husband got a job to be the coordinator of the IFOR (the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, the inter-religious pacifist/nonviolence organization) which was based in Brussels. They needed to leave and find a new office. After my year in Paris I had gone back to the U.S. and done work for the Vietnamese Buddhists. We had a whole slew of connections who were supporting them in different countries. One of them was a Danish woman living in Holland. She and her husband said, “Listen, if you move your office to Holland, we will find you a place (for an office). We will find you a place to live. We will help you get set up.” Basically, we just needed a place in Western Europe that was close enough to an international airport, and where we could kind of get facilities to be a home for all of the different chapters around the world. So that’s why we moved here.
You and your husband soon divorced.
Yeah. Three years afterwards. It didn’t take too long. I knew him through the peace movement. We met when I was living in Paris and out of the marriage came Wendy, Dan and Tom, my three kids.
Were you by then aware of musics from all of the different cultures? There were Smithsonian and Nonesuch recording but this was before the emergence of labels like Putumayo or the growth of the internet
I was playing that (world music) stuff before it had the name. One of my great loves as a musician was the vocal music from the Balkans. I loved that. Why do you love some kind of music? But looking at it subjectively, mainly I loved it because I loved to sing. Also the Balkans is a meeting place of cultures. That’s why the wars happened there. Why it is strategically important for international powers, which is also why the wars happen there. It is also why a number of amazing forms of music have grown up there because that’s where the east meets the west. You get these amazing kinds of combinations of oriental rhythms with western harmonies for examples and oriental vocal ornamentation. Also because that is also a country tradition there and you get this incredibly strong and powerful use of the voice. I just fell in love with that type of music. I always had, at least one of my choirs, my singing groups, singing music from the Balkans. Then you get the wars in the Balkans and there we are singing all these beautiful Bosnian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Croatian, and Dalmatian songs while people are under the bombs.
Did you ever hear the Nonesuch album “The Music of Bulgaria” a live recording of conductor Philip Koutev and the Ensemble of the Bulgarian Republic made in Paris in 1955 that influenced Paul Simon, Frank Zappa and Graham Nash?
I don’t know that album but I do remember the Penny Whistlers, of course, (led by folklorist and singer) Ethel Raim. I do know Ethel, who started the group. I’ve met her a number of time. In fact, it was the Penny Whistlers who got me interested in Balkan music in the first place. It wasn’t listening to original recordings. They were the first ones. That was when I was 17 in the U.S.
You are in a band with one of the coolest names I’ve ever heard, Fearless Rose.
Yes I am. There are 6 choir directors singing together. We sing some world music and Sweet Honey in the Rock kinds of things. We do some improvisation. A couple of the women specialize in jazz singing and improvisation. One is a gospel blues singer. One comes from Georgia and has brought in some Georgian folk songs. We put music on a poem by a Palestinian American woman poet, author and politcal activist, Suheir Hammad, called “What I Will” which is this beautiful anti-war poem.
Fearless Rose only performs for Musicians without Borders.
The group was set up in order that we have some musicians that we can send if there’s a conference and we are asked to send some musicians to tell the story. We’ve been to Northern Ireland a couple of times. We recently (on Sept. 21st, 2015) did a performance in The Hague as part of the International Day of Peace. Right now, we are kind of waiting. Everybody has their own groups, and their own gigs. Nobody is interested in just another group to perform. Everybody in the group is a preacher or workshop leader. What people are interested in—which is one of the ambitions we have with Musicians without Borders–is to further develop a methodology of working with women who are traumatized. Like our project in Bosnia, but even more.
May I put your email in the profile so musicians can connect with you?
Yeah, absolutely do it. All that we are doing all of the time is reaching out to people and looking for people to support us, especially among musicians because musicians are the people who immediately understand know that this is not frivolous; and know that this is extra. Music can really be at the base of changing things. We are reaching out to as many musicians as we can. So yes, please do.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.