(This post was first written in two parts for The Bookswallis Facebook Page)
Twenty years from now, if someone asks me about how I weathered the ‘crisis’ i.e. the CoVid 19 pandemic, the biggest ‘hardship’ our generation has ever faced and the multiple ‘Lockdown’s’, I may not remember the details. What I will remember, however, is how music gave me something to look forward to, everyday, how music gave me hope and helped me forget my woes and the looming reality of the virus outside my door. A chance Whatsapp message got me hooked on a Facebook live music show. Bored of being alone at home, singer Carlton Braganza, posted on a whim that he would be singing live from his bedroom, on Facebook, every night until the lockdown was over. He thought he’d be singing for 14 days...the duration of the first lockdown, to a few of his friends. Little did he know that he would keep singing for what is now over 100 days, or that it would grow from 20 viewers on the first day to more than a million views in 4 months. What Carlton did was not just selflessly give off himself, singing songs he loved, but by including people in his chat and dedications, he created a community spanning the world, each supporting the other. We reconnected with old friends, made new ones, forgot our CoVid woes and lockdown blues finding hope in his songs and laughter in the comment sections chatter.
"It has even been suggested that music, in causing such bonding, created not only the family but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives."...Jeremy Montagu (ethno-organologist)
There couldn’t have been truer words to describe Carlton Braganza’s nightly shows.As Carlton performed a Thanksgiving special, his 101st show, I recalled how across history, there have been numerous instances where music has offered solace and hope, bringing people together and helping them hold on to a sense of identity.
The Ancient Romans used to say, ‘When the guns roar, the Muses are silent.’ The Muses, daughters of Zeus are considered to be the nine inspirational goddesses of the arts and sciences. However, I couldn’t help but think that Euterpe...the muse of music, has proved often that she doesn’t shy away from the tough times. Often, when the going gets tough and those proverbial guns and cannons are roaring and aiming at the human race, she nudges and inspires a few heroes to brave those cannons and bring hope and solace with their music.
One of the most notable examples of music offering comfort and solace, is the story of the musicians aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic. As that ill-fated ship began to go down, the ship’s musicians came together on the deck and continued to play, despite water and hysteria rising rapidly around them. They poignantly kept playing the hymn ‘Nearer my God to thee’, resigned to their own fate. As one of the survivors put it...“Many brave things were done that night, but none more brave than by those men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea and the sea rose higher and higher to where they stood; the music they played serving alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recorded on the rolls of undying fame.” People have wondered and many theories abound about why the musicians kept playing. A friend of Wallace Hartley, the band leader says in retrospect…”I know he often said that music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”
THE BRAVEST MAN IN THE WORLD by Patricia Polacco. Patricia Polacco weaves fact and fiction as she narrates a fictional story about a stowaway aboard the Titanic and his relationship with the ship's violinist, Wallace Hartley. This is a lengthy, emotional story narrated by a grandfather (the stowaway) to his grandson, who refuses to practice the piano which he considers to be ‘sissy stuff’, wanting instead to be a superhero. The story of Wallace Hartley leaves the young boy dumbstruck, as he realises just what a superhero can be made of. The real-life details about how Wallace Hartley’s violin was recovered, mentioned at the end of the book, emphasises the book's factual base. This book is suitable for older elementary children.
For the teenage child interested in the musicians on the Titanic:
-The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic by Steve Turner -And the Band played on by Christopher Ward
Not too many years after the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War broke out and I don’t think people could have imagined a bleaker time! The history books tell us that the conditions were appalling and the loss to life...unprecedented. Yet out of this bleakness emerged a story which lifts all our hearts and souls. While historians disagree about the exact details of this incident, the popular story has been put together using diary entries, letters written back to family at home and survivor accounts. Christmas 1914, a truce was called between the soldiers on the opposing sides. This truce did not come about because of any official sanction, but rather called by the troops themselves. Some accounts say that the Allied soldiers peeped out of their trenches tentatively shouting “Merry Christmas”. Others said that the Germans held up signs saying , ‘You don’t shoot, we don’t shoot.’ The German and British, Belgian and French soldiers lay down their arms and played football together, ending their evening with renditions of Christmas carols. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” This moving story shows us just how much potential music has to blur the lines of differences, offering faith in the moments of dark despair.
This story has been immortalised in numerous children’s books, here are a few: SHOOTING AT THE STARS by John Hendrix CHRISTMAS TRUCE: A TRUE STORY OF WW by Aaron Shepard WAR GAME: VILLAGE GREEN TO NO MAN’S LAND by Micheal Foreman
The horrific WW1 moved onto the Second World War and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Surely the Muse Euterpe, couldn't possibly nudge prisoners in the horrific concentration camps to sing and make music. But oh, she did! Although we do not hear about it, music of all styles and genres were played in the Nazi concentration camps and the ghettos.
Music was played on command. Prisoners sang songs...marching songs as they worked, orchestras made up of prisoners who were musicians, played music by German composers to drown out the sounds of the executions or to entertain the guards. Prisoners who played for the guards or the commandants, played for survival and for the extra scrap of food which came their way. Although music saved their lives, they were racked with feelings of guilt, of benefitting from their talent while people all around them were being put to death. The fact that they often played music...most often Mozart, as new prisoners were marched to the ‘showers’, only heightened this guilty feeling.
However in contrast, prisoners also played music for themselves or for fellow inmates...it could be something as simple as humming or whistling a tune. This often served as a means of psychologically resisting the Nazi’s and their ideologies, and more importantly of a means to alleviate the terror. The destructive intent of the Nazi’s was not only directed at the physical existence of the prisoners, but also at destroying and wiping out their culture. By playing their traditional music and singing their songs, in music they found a means to hold onto their culture and tradition. “Music gave us so much, to escape even for a few moments to a ‘normal’ world” explains Greta, a survivor from ghetto Terezin. Although, they could not escape from the horrific reality around them, she says, “music allowed us a complete disconnect and emotional escape from the daily life”.
Here are a few books which are centered around Music during the Holocaust:
-THE HARMONICA by Tony Johnstone
This powerful and moving story which highlights the transcendent power of music, is inspired by an account of a Holocaust survivor. When a young boy is sent to one concentration camp and his parents to another, it is his parents gift of a harmonica which keeps him alive, as he plays each night for the camp commandant. Confused at how a man so evil could appreciate something so beautiful, he invokes his parents and his favorite musician Schubert, who wrote beautiful music in dark circumstances. Racked with guilt of benefitting from a horrible situation, he is soothed when a fellow prisoner thanks him for his music, which lifts their spirits, even if only for a moment.
THE MOZART QUESTION by Micheal Morpugo
This is a personal favourite by one of my favourite authors for children. When Cub reporter, Lesley, is given the opportunity to fly to Venice and interview the great violinist, Paolo Levi, she is nervous and excited. The only briefing she receives is that under no circumstance must she ask, "The Mozart Question." But what is the ‘Mozart Question?’ Not knowing what the question is, she blunders through the first minutes of the interview, confessing that under no circumstances will she ask this question. To her surprise the great violinist feels it is time to share his secret...the answer to why he never plays Mozart. As his story unfolds, Lesley discovers that Paolo Levi is a descendant of holocaust survivors. While his story tells us how music aided survival, it also exposes how the atrocities of the past are often not discussed, their effects scarring generations as they struggle to understand.
THE WREN AND THE SPARROW by J. Patrick Lewis
This is a beautiful allegorical tale about an elderly musician who plays his hurdy-gurdy in defiance of the Nazis. With the help of his only student Sparrow, he defies the Nazi’s by using his music, inspiring his town on one of the darkest days of their lives. His simple act inspires generations across continents.
Fast forward to today, our current times....imagine living on a landfill. Imagine separating garbage for a living. Imagine not being able to go to school because you need to work collecting and reselling garbage, to just live. Imagine not being able to drink the water in your neighbourhood because it’s so polluted. Cateura is a slum built on top of a landfill, in Paraguay. Illiteracy is rampant and a violin is worth more than a house here. In the midst of all this, Favio Chavez, an engineer-music teacher-activist tried to bring a ray of sunshine into children's lives by offering free music lessons. When he realised that there were many more students than the number of instruments he had, he banded together with a few others and experimented with a range of materials they could find in the landfill, creating instruments of their own. The children were taught music on these instruments, and under the guidance of Chavez, came together to form the ‘RECYCLED ORCHESTRA OF CATEURA”’. They now perform all over the world, famously with heavy metal band ‘Megadeth’.
In an area riddled with poverty, crime, illiteracy and pollution...music has offered a sense of pride and ambition. A testament to the power of music as an agent of change and hope.
Read one orchestra member’s story in: ADA’S VIOLIN: THE STORY OF THE RECYCLED ORCHESTRA AUTHOR: Susan Hood ILLUSTRATOR: Sally Wern Comport
At times in our lives, when it is difficult to put our thoughts and feelings into words, music is there to comfort us, its familiarity wrapping us in a blanket of warmth and reassurance. Music helps us hold on to our identities and in that reassurance we find resilience. Music helps us remember and reconnect with friends, family and community...our wonderful human instinct to seek out mechanisms that enable cultural reconnection, kicking in.