"Music does bring people together. Not.”
How does someone from the world of experimental contemporary music end up on the front lines of conflict and poverty? And what does he learn from these cultural and humanitarian wanderings about humankind and music? A portrait of Lukas Pairon, founder of Ictus Ensemble, Music Fund and the Third Party, and doctoral researcher at the University of Ghent sheds light on these questions.
The Queen’s Gallery in the heart of Brussels is touted in tourist brochures as the most beautiful place to take pictures. Lukas Pairon holds office as Director of Music Fund inside this glass palace, in a tasteful, small studio on the second floor, high above the trades and tricks on ground level. With ‘Music Fund’ he has been collecting and restoring some three thousand instruments, and has given about two thousand of them to music schools in Gaza, the West Bank, Kinshasa, Maputo (Mozambique) and Tetouan (Morocco) in the last eleven years. The request for musical instruments originally came from music schools in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Pairon and his contemporary music ensemble Ictus became involved in the training of musicians there.
It took two years before he turned that request into a collection in partnership with Oxfam Belgium. It was an instant and resounding success: more than five hundred instruments were collected from ninety locations. “We offered people the chance to give something, and that was appreciated,” says Lukas Pairon thoughtfully. “And we found that an instrument is more than an object that you simply give away. Each instrument is a web of emotion and memory: the donor himself has played it for years, or his children, or a deceased relative. And so the passing on of an instrument is not a goodbye, but rather the beginning of a new relationship. Everyone wants to know where his violin, guitar or piano is going, who is using it, and what is happening to these people. The donor mentally travels with the instrument to areas of conflict or extreme poverty.”
Moreover, the story about the need for musical instruments for music schools in the Palestinian Territories worked as a kind of mental electroshock. Pairon is very aware of the fact that most people protect themselves from the never-ending bad news coming from the Middle East. From behind that information shield, Palestinians and Israelis look like abstractions, moving interests, rather than fathers or mothers, or children with dreams for the future. Palestinian parents who want to send their children to the music school, or ten year old boys or girls who practise Für Elise between the sirens and curfew: that suddenly turns them into people of flesh, blood and culture again.
Music Fund now has fourteen permanent collection points in six European countries, but has shifted its priority to education: “For what happens to a piano or a violin as soon as it arrives? If there are no qualified repairers of these instruments, it would all be of very short duration. And if there are no well-trained teachers, the instruments are underutilized. “
One of the initiatives to which Lukas Pairon lost his heart, is the music school of Gaza. Music is not self-evident in Gaza – almost an open-air prison, with sixty percent of the population unemployed, and with the all but melomaniac Islamists of Hamas in power. It is a small miracle that the AM al-Qattan Foundation nonetheless managed to open a music school in September 2008. The school was laid to ruin during the Israeli operation Cast Lead in December 2008, but the doors opened again after two months.
Pairon: “Then you ask yourself what it is that inspires these people. What is it that makes music so essential that people do whatever it takes to follow their violin lessons, to study their chamber music or not to miss their lute lessons even in the most extreme circumstances?”
That sounds like a rhetorical question from someone who has been committed to improving music education on the frontlines of conflict and poverty for more than ten years, from Gaza, across Africa, and now to Haiti, where Music Fund starts this year. Yet Pairon does not have the answer to his own question.
Not yet anyway. He started doctoral research under the title ‘The significance of musical education for young people affected by conflict or violence’ this year. Pairon will be spending most of his time with young musicians in Gaza, but also in Kinshasa, for this research. He will follow two orchestras with young people there: a project with street children and so-called “witch children”, and a project with kulunas or gang members.
If he carefully scans the subject of his future research, Lukas Pairon notices that to some extent young people in Gaza or Kinshasa do the same as the professional musicians he worked with in Vindictus until the end of 2012: they make beauty for which nobody is necessarily waiting, but which creates an unlikely satisfaction in their own lives and beings. And they often do so at their own risk. They collide with the grim dogmatism of those in power in Gaza; they go against the complete disinterest of the government in Kinshasa that abandons the unlikely breeding ground for artistic talent to its fate or to fierce commerce.
“In conversations about music in conflict zones the cliché generally cited is that music soothes the soul or that musical teamwork reflects the peace that comes from it. That is such an improbable exaggeration, as if music had magical powers. I cannot agree with that at all.” Pairon adds a footnote to that certainty a few moments later: “I must admit that I started to doubt my own scepticism about the impact of music in Gaza. I saw there that the young people involved in music and learned to play their instrument often by downloading internet courses, are actually very optimistic and passionate in life. Maybe the music lessons do have something to do with it?”
No peace dove
Music as an instrument of development, is the tagline of the Music Fund 2012-2015 strategy. The text elaborates: “Musical education and performance alone do not prevent conflict, nor do they alone promote economic development. However… well structured musical education can play a fundamental role in building or rebuilding a society, because attention is drawn to culture and is less focused on the misery caused by war and poverty.”
However, development is more than psychological comfort. Does Lukas Pairon also want to tackle social issues with the actions of Music Fund? The short answer seems to be no: “The shortest path to failure is to try to determine from over here how the world should look like over there. I do not want to participate in that. Our role is merely supportive: some of what the people want to do over there is made possible by things we can provide: tools, know-how, training … That is the answer to the objection that with western instruments we also export western culture: we only deliver what is asked for, and what they ask for are instruments that have been “adopted” and with which they make the music of their choice.”
Pairon refuses the role of peace dove, even though he sees the flutter of potential for artistic projects to create peace. “I do not even think we should set up musical encounters between Palestinians and Israelis. They can do so themselves if they want to.”
Is this attitude of non-intervention sustainable in the context of Israel and Palestine? Can Lukas Pairon continue to insist that he is only a technical, supportive partner, or does he have to choose sides?
Pairon confirms that indifference, even in its positive sense of openness to different possible truths, is not possible when you arrive in Palestine, which he has done more than fifty times in recent years.
“I think the occupation is terrible and am convinced that a solution must come ASAP. That is why I have always been so interested in what peace activists do on both sides of the conflict, often in dialogue with each other. But that is also why I am so opposed to the idea of an intellectual and cultural boycott of Israel.”
Pairon means it more fiercely than may be obvious on the surface. He seems to incarnate engaged equanimity, whether it’s about a missing tuning fork or the daily humiliations undergone by his Palestinian friends. “I could imagine the effect of a bank boycott and would definitely be in favour of a boycott of agricultural products originating from the settlements. But if a music school in Ramallah or Jenin would refuse a music teacher simply because he is from Israel, then I see that as a missed opportunity to make cracks in the wall. Such a music teacher engages in a long-term relationship with his students, but also with the parents and the community of these students. He would probably not get out of the town where he teaches all the time, leaving him to spend the night with the people. Such a person would then take home human stories from the Palestinian Territories. Wanting to end this exchange, to cut this link, that bothers me a lot.”
“I do understand that a Palestinian music school cannot work with every Israeli institution or individual. I understand that one needs to at least have a clear position about the occupation. That is politics. But a boycott directed against anyone from Israel goes beyond that and I cannot agree on that. That is a form of pacifism that will surely not bring peace.”