THE PIED PIPER OF BALATA ; the Palestinian Children of the West Bank Grow Up amid the Sounds of Guns and Bombs. but a Project Inspired by Professor Nigel Osborne Is Determined to Help Them Listen to a Different Tune. Reports Donald Macintyre ++ Music Therapy

By Macintyre, Donald | The Independent (London, England), October 3, 2006 | Go to article overview
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THE PIED PIPER OF BALATA ; the Palestinian Children of the West Bank Grow Up amid the Sounds of Guns and Bombs. but a Project Inspired by Professor Nigel Osborne Is Determined to Help Them Listen to a Different Tune. Reports Donald Macintyre ++ Music Therapy


Macintyre, Donald, The Independent (London, England)


The Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and one of Britain's foremost contempo-rary composers, is somehow managing simultaneously to play the guitar, dance, and conduct a class of 30 children in their lusty performance - in Mandinga - of a West African folk song.

The song, he has explained to the children sitting round him, concerns a cunning spider, who, uninvited to a village feast, beguiles a villager who comes down to the nearby river for water, so that he never returns. Then another villager is sent. And so on, until the whole village has been mesmerised by the spider's magical drumming. And then the spider runs to the now deserted village and consumes the feast.

The children, armed with shakers, triangles, chime bars and drums, enthusiastically beat out the rhythm as the words of the chorus - roughly transliterated as "Pigin do me so, kongo ayeri, ayeri kongo"- resounds through the open windows of the community centre, bringing to life a song created more than 1,000 years and a continent away.

The electricity brought to this room by the multi-tasking Nigel Osborne would be surprising enough even if it was not happening in the heart of the West Bank's most populous-and most problematic- Palestinian refugee camp, scene of some of the worst bloodshed during the past six years of conflict.

This is Balata, a stronghold of armed militancy and the target of at times almost daily Israeli incursions, where 150 Palestinians have been killed since the intifada began six years ago. It is also one of the most densely populated places on earth, home to 30,000 civilians who live in less than two square kilometres of cement- block housing packed so closely together that fat people cannot squeeze into some of the alleys between them.

Professor Osborne, whose works have been performed by orchestras across the world from the Berlin Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who has seen his operas play at Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, has come to Nablus to practise what he has preached for more than a decade: the huge potential of music to rehabilitate war-traumatised children.

He first asks the children to join him in singing a melodic African chant, increasing the volume and then reducing it to a whisper. Then he has them clap in time. Then he introduces them, still clapping, to the rhythm, then, with his guitar, to the tune, and then finally - for those that need it - to the words of an old Arab song: Aya Zeyn al-Abidin/Ir Wrd, Ir Wrd/Imfitah Baynil/Besatin ["Zeyn ul Abidin, you are like a rose that blooms in the garden".] "I have loved Arabic music for a long time - longer than you," he tells the children through the interpreter Assim Eshtaya, 27, a school counsellor in Nablus. "I won't say more, but longer. Now the notes in the song we learnt come from a very old traditional Arab scale." He plays the notes on his guitar. "Now I have a proposal. Would you like to create a new song with Arabic music?"

And so, with Professor Osborne allowing the children to decide the words of the song, which he suggests should be about friendship, and then to choose the melody, note by note, the song comes into being: "Dear friends, friends for ever, friends for ever," the whole group sings in Arabic.

Professor Osborne is here to support a project which he has inspired but which has been run by a tireless fellow Scot, trained counsellor and unpaid volunteer Sheena Boyle, who spent much of the summer training fourth-year Palestinian psychology students to oversee music sessions for traumatised children.

A UN children's fund report in January declared that "Palestinian children are showing increasing signs of psychosocial distress, manifested in aggressive behaviour, low achievement, nightmares and bedwetting." Palestinian social workers say that in a place like Balata, almost every child is traumatised to a greater or lesser extent.

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THE PIED PIPER OF BALATA ; the Palestinian Children of the West Bank Grow Up amid the Sounds of Guns and Bombs. but a Project Inspired by Professor Nigel Osborne Is Determined to Help Them Listen to a Different Tune. Reports Donald Macintyre ++ Music Therapy
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