Research Article: Music and Peacebuilding through Multi-Cultural Projects

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

“The institutionalization of Peace Studies is relatively recent, and the validation of music in that context is quite new” (O’Connell, 119).

Multicultural music projects have been used in various peacemaking efforts. Concerts, festivals, and events that bring different cultures and ethnicities together have been platforms to help people find common ground. “It has been believed that intergroup contact creates an opportunity for mutual acquaintance which enhances understanding and acceptance among the interacting group members, and thus improves the mutual attitudes and relations among groups with a history of conflict. Empirical findings have in general supported the hypothesis showing that contact does often change attitudes and relations between diverse ethnic groups” (Bekerman & Zembylas, 46). Although multicultural projects and events aren’t categorized as an official peacemaking method, “the general purpose of such events is commonly defined as an endeavour to ‘build bridges’ between different groups who are perceived to be in conflict” (Bergh & Sloboda, 6).

Multicultural music projects can also include radio interviews, studio recordings or writing sessions between music artists. If the artists have significant followings and gain vast media coverage, the collaboration can serve as a symbol of peace between conflicting groups and has the potential to inspire reconciliation amongst listeners. “Israel and Palestine, which due to their location and connection to ‘the West’ received considerable media attention and outside intervention, were the sites of frequent mediation efforts using the arts at the nonstate level. These range from joint Israeli-Palestinian CDs (Music Channel 1995) being recorded after the Oslo Accord.” (Bergh & Sloboda, 6).

In South Africa, soldiers fighting against apartheid demonstrated the power that voices and beats can hold in a time of conflict. Toyi-toyi, part dance and part vocal chant was used as a peaceful form of protest as exiled soldiers faced white police officers in the 1980s. Originally created by Zimbabwean freedom fighters, “toyi-toyi left an indelible mark on the demonstrations…white security policemen from South Africa were interviewed about the effectiveness of the nonviolent toyi-toyi ‘military.’ They described how intimidating ‘the chanting crowd was to young white soldiers, and how hard it was to get the raw recruits to stand their ground…a huge black crowd...voices and thumping feet, and yet surging forward as if it were they who held the power’" (Shank & Schirch, 6). Due to racial tensions, these demonstrations had the potential to evolve into violent outbreak. Instead, toyi-toyi was used as an alternative and peaceful method to directly address conflict.

Orchestras and choirs are also forms of multicultural music projects. When comprising people from various backgrounds, these integrative musical groups can create a standard of co-existence and reconciliation for communities. In Venezuela, the late Dr. Jośe Antonio Abreu worked to bring diverse groups of children together through The National Symphony Youth Orchestra. The orchestra “has been credited with contributing to social integration in Venezuela, [and due to Abreu’s work] 130,000 young people take part in a national system of 180 orchestras and a network of choirs” (Shank & Schirch, 8). Dr. Abreu was recognized for his musical peace efforts and was awarded TheGoi Peace Foundation’s 2013 “Culture of Peace Special Award.” In response to the award and his peacebuilding work, he stated: “I fight for peace every day. I think that one of the effective means to guarantee peace is to promote harmony through music. I think that music is the ultimate instrument to unite hearts and to unite the spirit of mankind” (Jośe Antonio Abreu, 2016).

Music Sociologist, Dr. Craig Robertson, has been conducting an ongoing study on an inter-religious choir in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina. His published article, Music andConflict Transformation in Bosnia: Constructing and Reconstructing the Normal, provides insights into how music can serve as a peacebuilding tool. In his early research, Robertson found that “music departments did not seem to be exploring the wider social meaning of music, which [he] began to feel was crucial in order to understand how music might assist in conflict situations” (Robertson, 39). Prior to his study he researched various “conflict transformation and mediation professionals” (Robertson, 39) who developed various criteria. The criteria was used to create a basis for predicting a music projects’ “success” in transforming conflict. Drawing from the research of Bercovitch, Small, Paksoy, Quigley, DeNora, Ting-Toomey and others, Robertson searched for a project that met their collective criteria.

He eventually found Most Duša, “an inter religious choir from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina” (Robertson, 41). The choir only met a portion of the criteria, and Robertson “predicted that research might show the Most Duša choir to have had only marginal success, if any, at transforming conflicts in the Bosnian region” (Robertson, 49). However, after spending several months with Most Duša, Robertson found his prediction to be inaccurate. The choir surprisingly displayed success in transforming conflict despite not meeting most of the expert criteria. Roberston came to believe that “with a fair amount of collected data and new perspectives gained from music sociology…his original set contained some assumptions that had not been substantiated” (Robertson, 49).

Most Duša sang music pieces that represented the major regional faiths, despite the criteria that new music should be created. Instead of performing in neutral spaces, as also suggested, the choir performed in “spaces loaded with strong cultural and religious meaning such as Catholic churches, synagogues and mosques, none of which can be considered neutral” (Robertson, 50). These dynamics perhaps supported reconciliation as choir members and listeners were never forced to forget their cultural backgrounds but were able to recognize other people’s experience and hold space for both. “One thing, however, that clearly emerges from the literature about reconciliation is that it is a process of bringing people together, dealing with the past and ‘moving forward’ in the formation of shared meanings. In this sense, reconciliation can be seen as a therapeutic praxis of recognizing those who suffered and taking into account their demands. Recognition of each other's suffering, as noted earlier, is important for creating a new reality that does not forget the past, yet has the courage to move forward” (Bekerman & Zembylas, 58).

There was a strong hierarchal system within the choir that defied a few different intergroup contact theories. In the 1950’s, G.W. Allport speculated that contact “should occur between individuals who share equality of status” in order to improve intergroup relationships (Bekerman & Zembylas, 46). In addition, Robertson theorized that “a member of the community would need to act as a facilitator for the groups involved to work together towards conflict transformation” (Robertson, 50). However, the choir conductor was “from the community and brought representatives from the different groups together…he is very much a leader rather than a facilitator” (Robertson, 50). Most Duša’s hierarchy seemed to supplement the loss of a larger social system and choir member’s “desire for stable social identities that they felt were missing in their daily lives” (Robertson, 50).

Unexpectedly, the choir transformed conflict by triggering a “remembrance” process; the performers (and listeners who gave feedback) were able to remember a time of unity through the songs. “In the process of remembering, it becomes possible to recreate a sense of co-operation in the future since it can be imagined in the present” (DeNora, 65).

“Most Duša have explored commonalities but these do not form a shared music. Instead, the different identities are celebrated together, and this triggers a common memory of a time when all of these religious traditions could co-exist peacefully. It is these memories rather than the music itself that seem to contain shared values and beliefs. It would therefore appear that through the combination of performing and listening to the juxtaposition of the music from the traditions in question, this could serve as a trigger to a common memory that contains their common values and beliefs. It is this process of remembering which seems to provide the members of Most Duša with the motivation for positive conflict transformation and the belief that this transformation is possible.” (Robertson 50).

The harmonious “collective memory” that the choir sparked was able to serve in a positive way and has the potential to impact others. “Collective memory refers to people's shared recollections of past events and past memories that are embodied in ‘technologies of memory’ such as films, books, documentaries, poems, songs, memoirs and the like, so that they are allowed to be transmitted to future generations” (Bekerman & Zembylas, 54). This occurrence can also work against reconciliation efforts, as sometimes negative memories and emotions emerge. However, in Most Duša’s case, the inner workings and results challenged several expert’s criteria and theories and had surprising success. Robertson’s study can help researchers gain better insights into how music can uniquely transform conflict.


Bekerman, Zvi, and Michalinos Zembylas. "On Conflict, Identity and More." Teaching Contested Narratives, 2012, 44-68. Accessed April 12, 2019. doi:10.1017/cbo9781139015646.005.

BERGH, ARILD, and JOHN SLOBODA. "Music and Art in Conflict Transformation: A Review." Music and Arts in Action2, no. 2, 1-16. Accessed April 12, 2019.

Goi Peace Foundation. YouTube. December 15, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2019.

O’Connell, John Morgan. "Music in War, Music for Peace: A Review Article." Ethnomusicology. February 23, 2011. Accessed April 14, 2019.

Robertson, Craig. "Music and Conflict Transformation in Bosnia: Constructing and Reconstructing the Normal." Music and Arts in Action2, no. 2, 38-55. Accessed April 12, 2019.

Shank, Michael, and Lisa Schirch, 2008. "Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding." Peace & Change33, no. 2 (2008): 217-42. Accessed April 12, 2019. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0130.2008.00490.x.

#crosscultural #music #projects #peacebuilding #conflictresolution #peacemaking

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