The Music Schools for Refugees project by Action for Hope is one of the 51 projects currently supported by the Cultural Protection Fund. The project aims to preserve and promote traditional Syrian music and musical instrument making among refugee communities in Lebanon and Jordan.
We chatted with Action for Hope Director, Basma El Husseiny, to find out more about the project, the rewards and challenges along the way, and what advice she would give to someone looking to apply for a Cultural Protection Fund grant.
Please could you tell us a little bit about your project?
Action for Hope Music Schools is one programme within Action for Hope’s New Artists, New Voices strand. It started in Lebanon in 2015 as a specialised, methodical and regular, music study programme that includes over 650 hours of music teaching for each student. It has since expanded and currently runs in two locations: Action for Hope Cultural Center in Barr Elias, Beqaa, Lebanon, and in Amman, Jordan.
The Music Schools aim to provide children, and young men and women living in refugee and marginalised communities in Lebanon and Jordan with the creative skills and tools needed to communicate, and to express themselves freely and creatively, as well as to enable them to work professionally as musicians. The schools also aim at preserving the traditional music heritage of refugee and marginalised communities through learning and practice, and enriching cultural life in Lebanon and Jordan with new artistic work made by young artists who come from these communities.
The selection process involves an open call, which is shared via social media, through marketing in refugee camps and schools, and increasingly through word-of-mouth from current students, graduates and their families. A cohort of around 55 - 60 students join the Music Schools in Lebanon and Jordan each year and embark on an 18 month (five semesters) foundation music course, which provides them with the knowledge and skills needed to play, read and understand music. The course centres around learning traditional Syrian and other Arabic music and includes classes in solfege, singing, rhythm skills, music theory, music history and instrumental skills. The range of instruments played by students includes oud, bouzouk, percussion, ney, clarinet, saxophone, violin, cello and accordion. Around 40-45 students from each cohort progress to become graduates, and continue to develop the skills they need to work professionally as musicians. Graduates are provided with basic professional skills training, and are supported to become small ensembles that present concerts and tours in Lebanon and Jordan.
Do you have any particular favourite moments whilst working on the project?
When you watch a young person learning music, there are many beautiful moments, although of course there are also many frustrating moments. For me, I love the moment when a student gets the instrument to play for the first time. When this happens, it is like a small miracle. I feel like a 5-year old watching a magician pull out a rabbit from his sleeve! Of course later on, this moment is forgotten and the students get used to playing and mastering music pieces but the look in their eyes at that moment is unforgettable. Another moment is also very special: when the first year students appear on stage for the first time at their end-of-year concert in front of their families and friends. The proud smiles and tears on the faces of parents are priceless.
For me, I love the moment when a student gets the instrument to play for the first time. When this happens, it is like a small miracle.
What have you found the most rewarding about working on your project?
I think the most rewarding thing about the music schools is that we were able to prove that refugee and marginalised communities value art the same as middle-class urban communities. In fact, these communities, often regarded as conservative and ignorant, take particular pride in their cultural heritage and regard it as an asset. This is proven by the steady increase in audience numbers and applications to the music schools, and by the support families give to their musically talented children.
Have there been any challenges along the way that you could tell us about?
The challenges are many, but are by no means prohibitive. We face difficulties finding suitable venues for training and concerts sometimes, and we struggle with the cost of transportation especially in Lebanon where there is no public transportation. But these are challenges that we can address and work with.
The biggest challenge we are facing at the moment is the political situation in the region and its impact on refugees who are the most vulnerable social group in the two countries. We have to balance carefully our strong sympathy with the quest for freedom, with the need to protect our students and graduates and their families.
The biggest challenge we are facing at the moment is the political situation in the region and its impact on refugees who are the most vulnerable social group in the two countries.
Do you have any future plans for your project / what do you hope for the project to achieve in the coming years?
We hope to build on what we achieved in previous years in a way that impacts cultural practices and discourses in Lebanon and Jordan. Working with refugee and marginalised communities does not mean that we have to continue to work on the margins of cultural life. The artistic quality of our work now is such that it can influence discussions and trends within the cultural community in both countries, about music, heritage and also about social cohesion and exclusion.
What advice would you give to someone looking to apply for funding?
I only suggest that for any funding application, it is important to always remember and highlight the impact on society, rather than the value of individual activities.
...it is important to always remember and highlight the impact on society, rather than the value of individual activities.
Earlier this year we shared a film in which historian, author and broadcaster Bettany Hughes visited one of Action for Hope's music schools. Watch the film below to see how displaced Syrian refugee children are learning traditional music and instrument making: