The start of this week began with some absolutely shocking news involving the violent death of a well-known music teacher. It wouldn’t be a appropriate for me to go into the details in this blog but at the same time what happened has directly and profoundly affected everyone I am working with because the people involved with this tragedy are/were a part of the organisation. For this reason it feels impossible and dishonest to continue writing about my project in Juarez without at least referencing and reflecting on what has happened.
I heard about the news on Sunday evening, the night before I was due to deliver a workshop to all of Ccompaz’s music teachers about the role of inclusive music technology/disability. Already feeling nervous about delivering this session with my basic level of Spanish the news made the whole notion of setting up sensors, body mapping software and exploring iPad apps seem utterly ridiculous. From the moment I heard the news until I arrived at the venue the next day I kept questioning whether I had heard the information correctly, maybe my English ears had misheard a vital word (which happens a lot). However, when I saw the quiet, sad and subtle looks amongst my colleagues who are normally so warm and enthusiastic I knew the terrible news was true and needless to say it wasn’t an easy workshop.
I will forever be utterly impressed and moved that Ccomapaz staff turned up on that morning and it only goes to reinforce everything I’ve learnt since being here about this young group of music teacher’s dedication and commitment to their work. Not only the teachers but also the organisation’s CEO Alma Rosa Gonzalez, who has been an immense matriarchal figure of guidance and empathy. I have seen her embrace, reorganise and lead her workforce through this, the busiest week of their year with grace and integrity. Partner organisations have rallied round to show support, conciliation and most vitally, counselling for children and music teachers. The person who really impacted on me though was one of the coordinators. She came to pick me up from my hotel minutes after leaving the funeral. She was understandably emotional and shaken. I asked her why she didn’t take the day off to be with friends and family etc. She stopped the car, and through tears looked me in the eye and said, “because of our moto Jim.” I said, what is it and she replied what roughly translates in English to “to disarm the young people from material and harmful things and to arm them spiritually and educationally through the power of music. That’s why we go to work and that’s why I can’t take the day off”
The workshop was planned in advance to be very practical with a significant amount of time for exploration and improvisation. On reflection I should have taken more control of the session, as this approach requires participants to be totally focussed and tuned in, which was entirely impossible under the circumstances. There were however some beautiful and what I felt to be healing moments when we all learnt some basic African songs/rounds together. This got me thinking about the healing quality of singing with the context of a city like Juarez.
I’ve had the opportunity to have a number of conversations about what has happened and they all feed into a notion that in many ways Juarez is a city suffering from societal posttraumatic stress. It’s a term I hadn’t come across before and yet it’s indirectly and subconsciously referred to quite often within my conversations. The people I have been working with didn’t flee the city when the violence was at its height like so many did. They gritted their teeth and persevered with making a positive change through music in challenging and stressful settings. They witnessed horrific things within their communities and to people they knew but stayed the course by doing so strengthened their resolve. To put this into perspective, today I spoke to a woman who has had 4 friends murdered and another tortured. (the shocking details of which I can't really go into here). Thankfully those days appear to behind them but there are still very recent memories, there is still stress, poverty and fear. All of these elements can bubble below the surface until one day they explode. Even the stats demonstrate this with 10 of the 60 deaths in October being related to domestic homicide.
The work that Ccompaz do with their young people is unarguably transformative and inspirational but if there’s one thing that I think would make a huge difference it would be to bring singing into their programmes. Why? Well during the workshop I refer to I saw directly how process of singing, breathing, vocalising and harmonising brought a sense of healing and togetherness for the group. When visiting the young people I am consistently forced to sing songs for them and they always join in with enthusiasm. I think underneath the passing excitement of the random English guy in Juarez these kids want to be heard, to have a voice and to express themselves, perhaps further than their instrument will allow them to. I think geography is also a factor. It’s my opinion that many Mexicans find naïve comfort in the notion that way across the desert, on the US border there is “an awful and violent place called Jaurez”, it almost feels like another country so no need to worry too much about issues closer to home. The reality is that Juarez is moving on. It is vibrant city full of creativity, arts and culture but it’s attributes are silenced by history, geography, ignorance and misconception. It’s my strong belief that singing and song writing (another important blog/subject) could play an important role in giving voice to communities in Jaurez, deepening community cohesion and providing a positive and peaceful outlet for the stress and pressure that many communities feel.