Singing the Bridge Festival in Derry~Londonderry

Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin and Musicians Without Borders collaborate on Derry~Londonderry music festival from May 16 – 19

Singing the Bridge is a community music and music therapy festival, which takes place in Derry~Londonderry from May 16 – 19, with events shared between the Waterside Theatre, Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin and St Columb’s Park House.

It isn’t quite a festival, however. It’s much more exciting than that. It is both a continuation and a beginning. It aims to help meet the UK City of Culture's Music Promise and ensure a vital and lasting legacy for the city of Derry. The festival is organised by Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, operating with its key partner, Musicians Without Borders.

Based in the Netherlands, MWB is a worldwide organisation that aims to use 'the power of music to connect communities, bridge divides and heal the wounds of war and conflict'. Their musicians work with victims of violence and trauma, in areas divided ethnically, politically, and by religion, to help rebuild communities previously broken by war. MWB is currently engaged in projects in Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine.

Peter O’Doherty is the co-ordinator of the four-day festival. A professional events organiser, O'Doherty is from Ireland but is now based in Holland. A former community musician, with a degree in music, he has, among other things, worked in Bosnia with Warchild. He describes Singing the Bridge as a 'chain of conferences, with elements of a festival. It’s a philosophical approach to music as a vehicle for reconciliation within and between communities.'

The schedule includes a series of workshops and talks, with the occasional jam session sprinkled in. The workshops are designed for community leaders and workers to come together and learn how to use music to work with their particular groups.

The opening workshop is entitled 'Singing to our Babies', and stresses the importance of music in helping to form sounds and make noises, which will lead ultimately to coherent and cohesive communication. But the workshops are designed to help address the needs of all ages. O’Doherty talks of the changes that can be seen in those who engage in music.

'Music therapy has long been used in a clinical approach, to develop a greater sense of well-being, and address mental health and behavioural problems. Being a soloist gives confidence and the chance of self-expression. You can be yourself. But you’re also part of a team, where others allow you space for that expression.'

Within that security that a group provides, criticism can be given and accepted, and that too is a vital part of self-development that music can contribute to. Discipline, too, can be enhanced, not to mention the fun and enrichment that playing or singing can bring. Like sport, but without the elements of competition and opposition, music can engage participants and teach them things almost incidentally, or with trickery.

If you are working in a group, the principal point is to produce a good piece of music. In order to do that, of course, those qualities of trust, practice, discipline, mutual reliance, organisation, and togetherness are subtly developed. 'Every culture has a form of music,' adds O’Doherty. 'Every society has an instrument.' Music, therefore, is a natural route to follow when it comes to engaging with people.

This, however, can sound a warning. If every culture has a form of music they can call their own, it means another culture or side might automatically reject it or feel challenged by it. O’Doherty recognises this. 'Songs can be highly politicised. Music can be, and has been, used as a weapon of war, so you have to be careful about what music is used.'

MWB understand this point too. It has set up rock schools in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Palestine, rap has been used to engage young people. It has used forms of music which are neutral, separate from local politics and history.

However, neither Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin nor MWB is looking to impose particular forms of music on communities or community leaders. One criticism of El Sistema in Venezuela is that it has taught purely western European classical music to the young people involved. Singing the Bridge aims both to show people and listen to people as well.

As such, on the final day of the festival, there will be a brunch discussion entitled 'Looking Forward'. 'We want to develop long-term projects,' says O’Doherty, 'so we hope to find out what’s needed by people during the festival, and then facilitate that need. This must be ground upwards. People must be able to do it by and for themselves.'

Eibhlin Ni Dhochartaigh is Arts Development Officer at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin. She describes this as a festival of possibilities, but is working hard to ensure it provides a legacy for the entire city. One of the elements of that legacy will almost certainly be a music academy. 'I believe this will happen,' she says.

The academy will train both musicians and music teachers, and will focus on traditional and contemporary music. The academy will include music studios and it is intended to keep working with Musicians without Borders in developing community music projects. 'We must maintain the adrenaline.'

The festival concludes with a concert at Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, featuring many of the workshop participants, as well as a MWB ensemble. It is hoped that, among those attending, will be Martin Luther King III, in Derry working with the Rev David Latimer’s Bright Brand New Day initiative.

For further information, or to participate in any of the workshops, visit the Singing the Bridge website.