News: Basher's Trip To Sri Lanka

Stormzone drummer Davy "Basher" Bates recently returned from a two week trip to Sri Lanka, teaching the children all about percussion in an effort to help bring together communities in a divided nation. Here's a brief synopsis of the trip, in his own words:

What an amazing experience my trip to Sri Lanka turned out to be. It challenged my skills as a facilitator/tutor, forced me to think creatively, tested my methods of communication, and reinforced my belief that the arts can be used in a positive way to the benefit of individuals and communities. The trip surpassed all my expectations.

The reason behind  making the trip to Sri Lanka was to look at ways in which music can be used to help create a positive outlook for people living in a 'post conflict' environment. Sri Lanka, like Northern Ireland, has had more than its fair share of internal troubles. Thirty years of civil war has taken its toll on both the country, and its people and methods are being sought to help rebuild and to move forward. 
Before making the trip I was involved in facilitating workshops in three of our schools, Newtownbreda (Belfast), Forthill (Lisburn) and St. Columbanus (Bangor), where we recorded the students creating music (audio and video). This music included a recording of 'Tell Me Ma' which was chosen to represent Irish culture. The students also wrote letters of introduction and video footage was made showing guided tours of their schools.

Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, I attended a meeting was with the zonal director of Mullaittivu (Mrs L. Malini Weniton) located in the north of the country. She explained that she was responsible for the educational welfare of students attending 61 schools within the region. She outlined  the hardship that many of the students have to endure ie: the distance some of them have to walk each day (up to 3k) to and from school,  many in bare feet. Quite often the children would arrive at school without any breakfast as their families were too poor to feed them. The schools now try to provide the children with one meal a day (normally a breakfast), funding permitting. She also explained that there are children forced to live in 'homes', either because they live too far away to walk back and forth to school, or because their families could not afford to keep them, such is the poverty level within the region.

The children that I found myself working with are involved with  a youth orchestra (The Music Project), which was established for two main reasons:
 1) To give an opportunity to young people to learn a musical instrument. The orchestra starts all children (300+) on recorders, before moving them on to violins, flutes, trumpets, clarinets and percussion. The founders of ' The Music Project' believe that through the learning of an instrument, the students will build self confidence, self esteem and a sense of achievement in addition to the actual ability to make music.  

2) To create an opportunity to 'unite'  children in the north of the country (mainly Tamil) with children of the south (mainly Sinhalese).  Although the children are taught in their own schools they will be brought together on the last week of August '14 for a 'boot camp'. This will give the students an opportunity to rehearse together for a concert to be given, primarily for their parents, at the end of the week. I have been invited to take part in this event, something I would really like to do.
During the course of my trip I visited four schools in total. Yohapuram MV and Mallavi Central in the north, Lakdas College and Jayashanka College in the south. The schools may have been in different regions, but the spirit of the children was the same. They were fun loving and good natured. They clearly loved playing music and once we had established a connection the sessions were productive and fun. To my surprise each of the four schools had learnt 'Tell Me Ma' and we were able record their versions (audio/video) and then mix them with the versions recorded in our local schools. Communication at times was a little tricky, as the students command of the English language was limited (I can speak neither Tamil or Sinhalese), but this barrier was largely overcome through demonstrating what we were trying to achieve. One or two of the tutors were also able to help by acting as interpreters.

I mentioned earlier that I believe I have benefited greatly from my trip to Sri Lanka. This is because it took me completely out of my comfort zone, challenged my self- confidence and forced me to find alternative ways of communicating when language was not an option. It also gave me an opportunity to experience a different perspective on life. I was exposed to the harsh reality of  poverty. I saw the children running around in their bare feet. I heard stories of their hardship and suffering. I visited a children's home run by a couple nuns and saw the  limited facilities available to them. Never before have I been on a trip that stirred up so many different emotions. There was  the joy of making music with the children, but I also felt extreme sadness when I discovered the reality of their circumstances. I also discovered what it was like to be in the minority. I have been abroad before (tourist destinations) but this was a totally different experience. Never before have I been in a country where I felt this level of vulnerability. I was unable to communicate with the guards at a border check point and I felt intimidated.  Movement between the north and south is closely monitored and the border guards are quite nervous of western visitors.  Thankfully, much to my relief, there was someone with us who was able to take care of a potentially difficult situation. I was also conscious of the fact that I was being constantly stared at. This was a little unsettling at first, but as my confidence grew I realised this staring was nothing to fear, it was just curiosity. A simple smile or a handshake was all it took to ease any fears I had. This was totally understandable as, upon reflection, I myself do not remember seeing another white person  once we had left Colombo. As a result of this experience I now have a better understanding of some of the difficulties many of  the foreign musicians that I work with must feel living in N. Ireland.
Do I consider my trip to Sri Lanka to have been worthwhile?  Absolutely. I have learnt so much from it, but perhaps the most powerful lesson for me is the reinforcement in my belief that the arts can have a positive impact on other people's lives. The children that I was working with have, through their involvement with the youth orchestra, been given an opportunity to grow not only as individuals (increased confidence, self esteem, discipline), but also to grow as a nation, a step in helping to build relationships between the people of the north and the south. Surely this must be considered a worthwhile pursuit .

8 Jun 2014

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