Music for Hope’s original aim was to give youths who were suffering from the trauma of recent civil-war an alternative creative focus. This initial goal soon became one of generating self-perpetuating, non-violent culture amongst young people in a context of ever-increasing social violence and criminality. The project participants have worked over the past two decades to counter the ever-worsening cycle of violence against young people in the region.
Small-scale violence-prevention projects such as Music for Hope are of vital importance to finding solutions to an endemic conflict that so far has killed more than 100,000 Salvadorans. Young people are targeted either by gangs or by the state (often erroneously, for perceived gang involvement). The spaces for those who wish to have no part in this on-going social conflict are rapidly decreasing. Music for Hope, set up in 1997 to help youth cope with the trauma of war and displacement, quickly became dedicated to generating an alternative, non-violent youth culture, with solidarity and friendship as core virtues, shored-up by the discipline required to learn and perform music.
Music for Hope empowers youth in non-violent, self and group-expression, thereby undermining the discourses of violence that atomise and silence people—especially youth—through fear and stigmatisation.
The project was set up in 1996 by a British musicologist who was part of a solidarity visit to the Bajo Lempa communities the previous year. She’d witnessed the latent talent in the children who made instruments out of bits of rubbish and performed for the solidarity group and began by teaching them in a more structured way using recorders and a guitar. She then raised the funds to provide more instruments and local teachers to build on this work.
There was a more profound goal to this than just ‘teaching music’ though. The idea and the method as it was told to me later by some of the participants of Music for Hope in those early years was to give them training based on the musical traditions of the local population, both to help conserve these traditions, essentially, as both commemoration and testimony, but also as a type of informal therapy to help them recover from the trauma of the civil war and of displacement.
The project was really popular amongst the youths of the communities and highly successful in meeting its goals and some of those first youths to be musically trained under the project went on to become the project’s teachers. Twenty-one years on, the project is still working in the communities of the Bajo Lempa although the underlying aims have changed considerably.
The reasons for these changes have to do with the social situation in El Salvador. The underlying problem of the extreme social marginalisation of a significant proportion of the population (especially in the Bajo Lempa region) which was one of the key factors that led to the civil war, still hasn’t properly been addressed (if at all). But that fundamental issue has been made exponentially worse by the gang violence that’s become so endemic throughout the Central American region.
This is the contemporary context in which Music for Hope now operates and so its primary purpose has shifted from that of helping young people overcome the trauma of violence and dislocation—which was its original aim, to that of providing a safe, neutral space in the communities for children and young people to spend time together, learn new skills (through music), and draw them away from the culture of violence that’s so prominent in the region. If they’re involved in the Music project, they won’t be involved in the gangs and this considerably lessens the danger that they’ll be targeted by gang members themselves or by death squads.
The discipline of learning music importantly transfers onto broader aspects of their lives, and that’s true on both individual and communal levels – as it teaches them perseverance (through practice), responsibility and respect for each other (attending classes on time, following instructions from the teacher and behaving in a way that’s conducive to learning), and leadership (passing on what they’ve learned to younger participants—effectively teaching—and being examples to follow in terms of the other skills that are intrinsic to the project).
At the communal level, these youngsters come together (in music groups and choirs) and learn to socialise in a healthy and safe environment. The discipline and leadership that they learn through music feeds into wider community activities as many of these kids become active in youth groups and later, community leadership. The music teachers and the project foster what’s effectively a non-violent counterculture to the endemic culture of violence that’s so prevalent in the region.
As they progress, they’re encouraged to participate in groups and form bands who, as they practice, form close friendships with each other and learn to support each other. The pedagogical goal (musically speaking) is to facilitate and support their formation so they can perform publicly for community, regional and even national events.
But there’s an outcome of the project that’s much further-reaching than this, and it’s the civic formation of young people in a culture that holds non-violence as a core-principle. The four music teachers for Music for Hope (who are local and themselves were trained by the project in its early years) don’t just teach classes and coach bands but they also take on mentor and even parental roles for the youngsters who participate in the project; they facilitate other non-musical activities that help nurture a sense of companionship as well as civic duty.
The games they play and activities they carry out strengthen the social bonds that are already forming as a result of the music practices and the result is better music but also stronger cohesion, confidence, and ultimately, more stable lives for the boys, girls and young women and men who participate in the project.
It’s not easy though. There are currently 4 music teachers and one project co-ordinator. Between them they cover approximately 12 different communities and teach approximately 150-250 youths a year (numbers vary from year to year depending on migration patterns and also the security situation which can affect whether these children and young people can travel between communities to go to music practice).
What we do know is that Music for Hope is life changing, and in come cases life saving for many of the young people involved. We have a commitment to ensuring that there is a safe, creative space for young people in the Bajo Lempa communities for as long as they need us. We hope that our music activities will continue to grow a culture of peace, cooperation and solidarity for many years to come and we welcome you to be part of that journey.