I ' ve Witnessed Music ' s Healing Power
By Darcy Ataman
Content Warning : references to sexual violence , rape .
During this historical time of COVID , I ’ m certain that like myself , others have been using music to mitigate shadowy thoughts brought on by social isolation and uncertainty , and as a way of infusing joy back into our breathing and bloodstream . Whether it ’ s receiving a new vinyl record in the mail from a special order , discovering a new artist on a streaming platform , or working on the score for my latest film project , music continues to administer comfort and relieve stress . It provides a means to alchemize and reframe my thoughts and feelings into something concrete and manageable . It has been a constant and personal reminder for me of its power and , more specifically , of the humanitarian work by the NGO I founded , Make Music Matter .
Make Music Matter ’ s Healing in Harmony program is a unique form of group therapy that brings together trauma survivors with a local psychologist and local music producer to write , record , and professionally produce songs about their emotions and experiences . The process helps participants to develop potential for transformative change , take control over their treatment pathway , and build selfesteem while re-establishing their sense of identity and agency .
Our first major peer-reviewed research study proved that the majority of our participants had a significant decrease in the three primary mental health indicators of trauma ( PTSD , anxiety , and depression ). Furthermore , results remained the same up to six months after they completed the program despite living in an active conflict zone . While we are currently operating in eight countries globally ( Democratic Republic of Congo [ DRC ], Rwanda , Uganda , Guinea , South Africa , Turkey , Peru , and Canada ), the majority of the 5,000-plus participants who have completed our program are survivors of sexual violence from the DRC where rape is widely used as a weapon of war .
In the DRC , faceless violence like that against women and young girls in vulnerable communities is an act of cowardice , driven by self-serving individuals wishing to maintain a shrinking position within the status quo . However , I would like to recount two examples I have personally witnessed where the power of music to heal has usurped the fragility that is born from poverty and conflict , and the intersecting factors that perpetuate the need for humanitarian interventions .
Example 1 : By the age of 15 , Etoile ( name changed to protect her identity ) had two children born of rape from two different perpetrators and attacks . One child lived with her grandmother in her home village and one lived with Etoile at Panzi Hospital in the DRC while she was in the midst of both her physical and psychological healing journey . Just before Etoile entered our program , she told me that she would never love , touch , or care for this child as it too viscerally reminded her of the traumatic event . Instead , the surrounding local community did their best to collectively tend to the child as , without a mother ’ s love and touch , the baby would statistically become a child soldier and perpetuate the cycle of violence against the most vulnerable , becoming an affront to our common humanity .
One day , as part of the Healing in Harmony program , Etoile participated in a community concert , joyfully singing . In an act of defiance , she took ownership of her story and the shame she felt . It signaled a reframing of her experience , alchemizing her pain into power and new dreams . Etoile became so emboldened by the crowd ’ s response to her performance that after finishing , she immediately walked off the stage straight to her baby sitting on the floor and picked him up for the first time ever . She has been giving him love and affection ever since . It was a beautifully symbolic moment where one could witness the cycle and scourge of impunity being broken , hope and dignity acutely renewed .
Example 2 : As we work to continually improve and iterate the Healing in Harmony program , I used to spend a fair amount of time in the studios where the sessions take place . One day as I sat in the back of our room at Panzi Hospital , I wondered what our participants ( all of them , sadly , survivors of extreme sexual violence ) thought about this heavily tattooed , seemingly strange and exotic person sitting taking notes . I then asked our psychologist to ask the participants in their local language how they felt when I saw them . What did they believe my perception of them to be ? One elderly woman deep in her healing journey stood up and said in Swahili , “ I used to think you saw us as completely worthless human beings because of what happened to us , without value because we were raped , but now I think you see us as artists .”
As we look towards the end of life within a pandemic , we all share a deep wish and desire for peace , security , and a life imbued with the hope for a brighter future . Make Music Matter will continue to do its part to heal the collective trauma of survivors worldwide , which in turn will help communities make decisions based on prosperity and not despair .
With music , hope will remain abiding and immutable .
Darcy Ataman , M . S . C ., is the founder and CEO of Make Music Matter Canada and Make Music Matter USA . MMM uses music therapy and the creative process , plus an emphasis on local leadership , to empower marginalized individuals and communities . Darcy is also a music producer and the co-founder of A4A Records & Publishing alongside producer David Bottrill .
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