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The Power of Music: Art for Refugees in Uganda

For more than a year now, the mobile music lab from Bavaria has been on the road in Uganda. With a stock of instruments, a stage and a recording studio on board, Lab Uganda travels through BidiBidi, the world’s second largest refugee settlement. About 240,000 refugees live here, on an area of 250 square kilometres – more than half of them children and youngsters. The Lab Uganda project aims to provide them with new perspectives through music.

Musicians play a concert in the truck on a fold-out stage
A stage on wheels: The culture truck Copyright: Geoffroy Schied/MUSIC CONNECTS e. V.

Everyone there, in the scattered villages of mud huts, is familiar by now with the conspicuous truck, its staff of specially trained music teachers and its “cargo” – a stock of instruments that can be borrowed, and teaching materials for e-learning complete with WiFi and computers. The truck is a professional recording studio, a fold-out concert stage, a cinema and a music school all in one.

 

The idea for the mobile music lab was conceived in 2019 during a classical concert tour through refugee settlements in Uganda by the Munich-based charity Music Connects. After performances in BidiBidi, people – especially the youngsters – were keen to talk to the crew, say Annette Davidson, Elisabeth Baumgartner and Tina Vogl from Music Connects. The dedication with which the refugees make music and the importance of playing together, especially for displaced people, moved and inspired them to further action.

“The young people had nothing – no equipment, no instruments. Yet they have so much to say. We quickly realised that we wanted to give them a voice and support them with music also in the long term.”

Annette Davidson, Chairperson of Music Connects

If you want to reach as many people as possible in a huge area like the BidiBidi refugee settlement, a single music school at a fixed location won’t get you very far. A mobile solution was needed. Backed by the commitment and expertise of the project’s many supporters, a used truck was converted into a mobile music truck. This mobile music lab began its voyage to Africa about a year ago. The launch was accompanied by a cultural programme in front of the Gasteig with the support of members of the Gasteig team. The Gasteig itself aims to support the project as a long-term partner. Since then, Lab Uganda has travelled hundreds of miles a day, moving both its bulk and those who use it or see it in action, which never fails to impress and inspire the volunteers at Music Connects: “Every time the truck shows up, hundreds of people flock from all over to watch, join in and get on stage.”

Young refugees rush to class with their instruments
Ugandan boy with microphone and headphones recording sound
Brass musicians parade with drums and wind instruments through curious rows of spectators in Uganda.

From Beethoven to brass band

Right from the start, the volunteers were keen “not to be seen as ‘white saviours’, bringing Mozart to the rescue”. Talking with locals and backed by the experience of local partner organisation Brass for Africa, it became clear that brass band music would be the best fit for BidiBidi. Due to the country’s British colonial history, itinerant music formations – the marching bands – already have a history in Uganda. Also, brass instruments are not very sensitive to climatic conditions, are easy to disinfect and are comparatively easy to learn to play. While Music Connects now works from Germany to acquire funds, extend funding applications, optimise timetables and search for new project partners, the NGO Brass for Africa manages the truck on site in Uganda and creates jobs for local people – as truck drivers, as music teachers or in project management.

 

Every day, the rugged truck embarks on a trip of about one and a half hours on unmetalled roads of red sand to one of its destinations within the refugee settlement. Once there, everything is unloaded: a huge generator, about 40 brass instruments, keyboards, guitars. By this time, the truck is already surrounded by lots of curious spectators. Then there’s music everywhere, with many lessons taking place at the same time. Meanwhile, inside the truck, people are poring over computers, learning to play the piano or trumpet with headphones and e-learning tutorials. The built-in recording studio is also very much in demand. Three hours later, everything is stowed away again as Lab Uganda prepares for the return journey to its base camp in Yumbe, where its arrival is also excitedly anticipated: Here, local kids take regular music lessons after school. There are also stage shows every fortnight, which attract droves of people, many of whom travel for miles on foot to attend.

 

Girl with tuba is eyed with interest by neighbors
Music has already opened up new perspectives for many refugees. Copyright: Geoffroy Schied/MUSIC CONNECTS e. V.
Radiant musicians from Brass for Africa at the concert
A new life through music: teachers from Brass for Africa Copyright: Geoffroy Schied/MUSIC CONNECTS e. V.

From street child to music teacher

The BidiBidi refugee camp is not intended as just a temporary shelter. Rather, it aims to allow refugees from South Sudan and local Ugandans to jointly build a life in peace. That’s why Lab Uganda wants to support the young refugees and the host country’s people with both jobs and music in the long term. The NGO Brass for Africa is a good example of what can be achieved with music. The organisation has a track record of providing music lessons to children in orphanages, slums and prisons, and many of these former street kids have grown up to work as teachers for Lab Uganda. Music once changed their lives, giving them self-confidence and courage; now they, in turn, help disadvantaged refugees as Lab Uganda teachers – full circle through the power of music.

 

To ensure that the truck can bring its valuable cargo to the people, many partners must work together hand in hand. Despite precarious funding, the Music Connects team remains optimistic. Music plays a unique role and creates hope: Perhaps a second music truck will soon travel along the sandy roads of Uganda?

 

“Art, like food, is a necessity, and the music truck brings the required resources to places where they are not otherwise available. That’s why we also want to permanently cooperate with Music Connects in this project.”

Gasteig Managing Director Max Wagner
Gasteig employees and interested parties exchange ideas about technology and music in Uganda.
Music connects: Gasteig employee Anton Hartmann in Uganda Copyright: Geoffroy Schied/MUSIC CONNECTS e. V.
Interested in Lab Uganda? Find out more about the project and ways to donate here

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