Songs for sustainable peace and development

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a project of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology


These projects center on popular music, dance, and drama as an expressive tool to directly promote and support sustainable peace and development, with special focus on refugee issues, health and education, particular for the youth. These projects deploy music as an expressive form of C4D (Communications for Development), delivering powerful messages to large numbers of people in underdeveloped areas who are thereby socialized around the associated issues, while raising global awareness.

Currently, we're working together with musicians in Ghana, Ethiopia, and Liberia.

Many of the latter are former refugees from Liberia's civil wars of 1989 - 2003, producing popular mediated songs to promote a harmonious society in an economically and politically turbulent post-conflict society, and to raise awareness about key development issues, particularly health and education. Our ultimate goal is to establish an NGO in Monrovia, training musicians and supporting production of Creative Commons-licensed music circulating freely towards sustainable peace and development, both to deliver crucial, transformative messages to a war-torn society, and to raise global awareness and concern about post-conflict issues.

We're working together with the Youth Home Cultural Group in Tamale, Ghana for health promotion in rural areas of Ghana's Northern Region, producing dance dramas to be performed live in regional villages. [1]

And we are developing a song focused on maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH), in support of a project in Ethiopia, in collaboration with the University of Alberta.

We're also planning future projects in other locations around the world, including Egypt, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere.

The power of music in global human development

Songs for sustainable development and peace...why, and how? In contrast to infrastructural development projects like building roads, schools, and hospitals, songs are intangible yet relatively inexpensive to produce, filled with a symbolic affecting power that compensates for their insubstantial physical presence. Massive, costly physical projects work impressive physical transformations: clean water, sanitation, health services, education. Music doesn't have the power to effect such physical transformations directly.

But music brings its own special power, and popular music in particular. Circulating rapidly through multiple media networks -- Internet, radio, TV, mobile phone --popular music (by definition) engages the broadest possible social spheres.

Songs for peace and development are a special type of music, working their effects by fusing currently popular styles with evocative, topical lyrics conveying messages for peace and development. Familiar styles, catchy tunes, and well-known performers attract listeners' attention. Carefully crafted lyrics deliver the transformative messages focused on specific development issues.

In West Africa, where we've been working, popular music sounds--especially hiphop, gospel, R&B, and reggae--draw listeners in, raising solidarity, and heightening emotional receptivity. The lyrics of these songs, however, are not typical of such genres, but rather are composed expressly to address immediate, pressing social issues, diffusing crucial verbal and emotional messages capable of changing behavior, triggering action enabling people to reweave social fabrics rent by war.

Songs can promote social harmony, by emphasizing religious tolerance and interethnic respect, humanizing the "other" - an urgent need for societies split by civil war, but also for a global community prone to dehumanizing the far-off "other". They also include awareness of natural and human dangers that often follow in the wake of violent conflict, due to destruction of families, shocking poverty, rampant disease, poor health, collapsed infrastructure, psychological depression, and psychic trauma.

A song cannot bring clean drinking water, but can call attention to the dangers of unpurified water, and instruct on how to avoid them. A song cannot heal the wounded, but can call for tolerance and understanding. A song doesn't replace a school, but can remind parents--who might otherwise send their children to work--of its importance. A song cannot prevent a man from striking his wife or children, but can make him think before acting in repressed anger, or reflect carefully on what he has done.

Songs can raise awareness, change attitudes, and ultimately impact behavior, towards social progress. The impact of music videos is extended through a visual dimension as well. In this way, carefully crafted songs can contribute towards public health, ethnic and religious tolerance, improved use of educational opportunities, and reduced domestic violence. Such songs can serve as powerful tools for intangible, social and cultural transformation.

But the impact of these songs is not limited to the societies whose issues they address. They bear crucial messages also for the rest of the world to hear, especially the developed world, whose citizens need to think more globally and empathetically about their fellow human beings living in less privileged conditions. Here too music can raise awareness, and change behavior, for the better.

In West Africa, popular music is everywhere - an essential part of daily life, even for those mired in dire poverty. We've been working with Liberian refugee musicians in Ghana who know these hardships firsthand. They also know very well the power of popular music, and how to craft songs -- from reggae to rap -- that are widely appreciated among their refugee peers, and beyond - among West Africans generally. Our first audio production Giving Voice to Hope: Music of Liberian Refugees centered on using music to tell the stories of these musicians, and the fractured society from which they've come. We are also working with traditional musicians in Ghana's Northern Region to develop "dance dramas" incorporating local drumming and dancing to convey messages designed to improve public health practices in rural villages.

The project

project goals: public health, education, tolerance, peace

We're now focusing on sponsoring collaborative community-centered production of songs disseminating messages promoting positive social change and cultural harmony, especially in the domains of public health and education, ethnic and religious tolerance, and peace.

In West Africa songs are comparatively inexpensive to produce. About $2000-$3000 suffices to compose and record a song, compensating musicians, composer, and lyricist (music videos cost about twice as much). Artists involved in the project agree to be paid a modest honorarium in advance, with no subsequent royalties, signing a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License guaranteeing artist recognition and artistic integrity, but allowing their song to circulate freely, thus maximizing its impact.

Besides mediated popular music, we are also exploring the use of more traditional, live musical performances that carry similar development messages, especially for rural areas where traditions are more entrenched, and media access more limited.

We are also concerned to conduct research evaluating the impact of these musical interventions, and providing feedback to the production process, in order to develop ever more effective methods for development education, especially for public health promotion. Such research can be conducted via KAP (knowledge/attitudes/practices) surveys, focus groups, and interviews, conducted in person, or via mobile phone feedback systems (highly effective because mobile phone penetration is typically excellent).

Ultimately we hope to establish NGOs dedicated to music production for sustainable peace and development, starting in Monrovia (Liberia's capital), training musicians and supporting production of Creative Commons-licensed popular music circulating in the public domain towards sustainable peace and development, both to deliver crucial messages to a war-torn society, and to raise global awareness about post-conflict issues.

In this way we seek to achieve four goals:

  1. Support sustainable development and peace in war-torn societies, by using music--disseminated through local mass media--to focus attention on critical social issues (such as public health and education), and changing behaviors.
  2. Raise global awareness about these issues, via Web platforms such as iTunes and YouTube channels, and by including a wide network of participants, thereby encouraging compassionate action
  3. Support musicians materially and symbolically, by providing training in music production, enhancing profile, and offering a modest stipend, thus reviving musical cultures of war-torn societies generally, restoring their music scenes to the global map.
  4. Contribute to scholarly knowledge about the impact of music-based development education, especially for health promotion.

project method

Production of each song will take place in several phases:

  1. A textual theme is provided by a member of the project team, or by a potential sponsor. Themes may include a wide array of issues - public health, education, domestic violence, etc…
  2. Participating musicians rapidly develop this idea into a song prototype, a musical draft, using local computer facilities to generate sound, resulting in a text file of lyrics, plus an mp3
  3. The project team seeks a sponsor, well-suited to the theme, to raise about $2000-$3000 per song (somewhat more for music videos) depending on the number of musicians involved. This manageable figure falls well within the range of NGOs or even community organizations (e.g. churches and schools).
  4. Sponsors engage with the song production team, suggesting modifications to text and music, in an open dialog aiming at harmonious agreement. Once achieved, the sponsor sends funds for implementation
  5. Funds are used to produce the song at a top-tier local digital recording studio, resulting in a professional sound, without the need for travel, as well as providing a modest honorarium to the artists.  Pro bono postproduction contributions come from North American studios, such as Rhodes Recordings in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Sometimes multiple mixes are developed to suit different audiences.
  6. The digital song (sometimes with accompanying video or documentary material) is digitally distributed...
    1. Locally through cooperating radio and TV stations
    2. Globally through the Web, including iTunes, podcasts, YouTube, etc. Besides the songs themselves, a podcast may also carry other material, such as interviews with the musicians, along the lines of Refugee Music TV (see

THE MUSIC: Songs for sustainable peace and development

Many of these songs result from our initial collaboration with LIberian refugees in Ghana, and fit also under the Giving Voice to Hope project, devoted to applying music towards human development in urban post-conflict societies.

Following our initial audio CD in collaboration with Liberian refugees...

we began to draft and produce songs for sustainable peace and development. In collaboration with African musicians, most of them former residents of the Buduburam Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. There are now six such songs. Three have been funded and produced in professional studios in Accra, Monrovia, and Edmonton; one (Child Education) is in production, while another two (drafts produced at Buduburam) are ready for dialog with potential sponsors (sponsorship total in parentheses, for audio only except as noted).

We are also engaging the power of traditional music and dance, in Ghana's impoverished Northern Region.

Songs for Sustainable Peace and Development: Funded and completed

Songs for Sustainable Peace and Development: Funded and in progress:

  • Music for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, funded by Global Affairs Canada development (ex-CIDA), through a Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry grant in collaboration with St. Paul's hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The song is to be produced by Ethiopian-American bassist and producer Thomas Gobena, with Michael Frishkopf. See profiles here.

Songs for Sustainable Peace and Development: Unfunded:

Please help!

If you are interested in sponsoring one of these projects, or in proposing another, please write us. Thank you for your support of this project!

-- Michael Frishkopf