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How music can help rebuild Nigeria

Gaby Reucher ad
December 13, 2016

In northern Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram is destroying musical traditions. But old recordings in the archive of the Center for World Music in Germany can help in the rebuilding of Nigerian society.

Musician in northeastern Nigeria
Image: Borno Music Documentation Project

More than two million refugees, in this case internally displaced people, are currently living in northeastern Nigeria - all Nigerians driven out from other regions of the country.

"Especially in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram has destroyed entire villages scattered over large swaths of land," explains Raimund Vogels, director of the Center for World Music in Hildesheim, Germany. He knows the area well, since he started collaborating with the University of Maiduguri back in the 1980s.

Destruction in Maiduguri, Nigeria
Boko Haram has largely destroyed the city of Maiduguri in the Nigerian state of BornoImage: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

For years, the Islamist terrorist organization Boko Haram expelled people from their traditional villages with the aim of destroying their cultural identity. Artists and musicians have been singled out, arrested and assassinated. For five years, the expellees have been living in refugee camps.

Now, preparations are being made so that they can slowly return to their home areas. "However, they will not be able to find their former village communities again as too many people there have died," says Vogels. "New village structures will need to be built up."

Solving conflicts with music

Music ethnologist Raimund Vogels thinks that art and music can make an important contribution in this phase of reconstruction, for example by helping overcome conflicts and traumatic experiences. "The idea is that conflicts can be solved more easily with the help of music. That phenomenon has been observed." Vogels is also convinced that the better people understand the culture and the cultural norms of their neighbors, the better peace can be secured in the long run.

Two people working on Nigeria music project in Hildesheim
Students are basing their research on recordings of folk musicImage: Isa Lange

In a new program for postgraduates called "Performing Sustainability - Cultures and Development in West Africa," postgraduate students from Nigeria and Ghana try to explore how that could work on the ground. In this program, the World Music Center in Hildesheim is cooperating with the University of Maiduguri and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. Within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN, Germany's Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation has provided funds via the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), to help support 18 African scholarship holders.

At the kick-off of the program, scientists and lecturers from Nigeria and Ghana will be guests in Hildesheim from December 11-17. In addition to talks on the new postgraduate institution, workshops will explore the role of music and art in the rebuilding of communities.

Making musical archives more accessible

The Center for World Music in Hildesheim came into being in 2006. Part of that center for music and ethnological studies at the University of Hildesheim is also an archive where more than 4,500 musical instruments and roughly 45,000 records are being kept. It's one of the largest such collections in Europe.

Xylophonmusik aus dem Nordosten Nigerias

But the music ethnologists do more than just collecting and preserving music. "One of the scholar's objectives is to find out what role the archives could play for the construction of societies in the future," says Raimund Vogels. How that could look is exemplified by music of the Australian Aborigines.

"Some of the songs describe rights to which land originally belonged to them," elaborates Nepomuk Riva, one of the coordinators of the new postgraduate institution in Hildesheim. "These songs convey legally binding and social traditions that one can work with."

Also, musical recordings from Nigeria that were collected during the 1980s aren't to be treated just as relics from the past. These musical pieces that have been passed on orally for generations could be useful in the reconstruction of villages in northeastern Nigeria.

In one project, many videos and records with traditional Nigerian music have already been digitalized. People can access some of them online. It is now the task of the postgraduate students to explore the meaning of these old recordings.

Two people working on Nigeria music project in Hildesheim
Students are basing their research on recordings of folk musicImage: Isa Lange

Doing research with local experts

The scholarship holders will mainly work in their own local context in Cape Coast and Maiduguri. "What we don't want anymore is for only Europeans and Americans travel to Africa to do research there and make proposals," says Nepomuk Riva, adding that this should be done by students who know local traditions. "And in the case of Nigeria, they are relatively safe there," Riva continues. "Right now, we Europeans cannot even travel safely to northern Nigeria. That's just not possible due to security reasons."

The students will not only do research on the ground, but also support the reconstruction efforts of NGOs. "We don't really expect to save this part of the world, or that traditions will come back to life simply because we post old videos on mobile phones," said Riva.

The online platform simply offers help in the decision process, trying to find out what could be useful for a future society. "We give them back part of their own culture. When it comes to music, that's easier than in the case of Nefertiti. We still don't know whether this will work out as we imagine."