Reconciliation: Does Music Matter?

Emilie Aussems
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.2.4


Music as a peacebuilding tool has been increasingly applied in post-conflict situations, in the form of peace concerts or festivals, instrumental or vocal ensembles, music schools or workshops. One of the best-known examples of such initiatives is probably the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded in 1999 by D. Barenboim and E. Said, it brings together Israeli, Palestinian, as well as other Arab musicians and aims to encourage dialog and coexistence through music in the Middle-East and the world.

Indeed, music is often perceived as a universal language or an instrument of peace in essence. It is claimed to facilitate positive relational transformation. It would, in other words, build bridges and transcend exclusive identities between communities in fostering cooperation, communication, understanding, tolerance, or empathy (Urbain 2008). Admittedly, more empirical evidence is still needed to confirm the alleged “power of music.” Nevertheless, musical peacebuilding projects have received growing international attention in the past decades. This is well illustrated by the designation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as a United Nations Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2016.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is no exception. Since the end of the war in 1995, musical initiatives for peace have flourished. At least 25 initiatives (excluding concerts and festivals) explicitly promote rapprochement between communities, including mainly choirs (e.g. Pontanima interreligious choir), orchestras (e.g. No Borders Orchestra, Balkan Chamber Orchestra), and music schools or workshops (e.g. Music bus, Crea Thera, Superar Srebrenica). I had the chance to observe and talk with organizers and/or participants of eight of them[1] during two field trips I conducted in BiH in 2017.

Listening to their experience, I realized that these organizations are struggling to survive despite the amount of international aid still dedicated to reconstruction and peace programs in the country.[2] In the midst of the economic crisis, music is obviously not a priority for local officials unless it helps strengthening their own community identity. In contrast, it is striking that foreign donors support mainly musical projects with a clear interethnic focus. For instance, as the Deputy Head of Mission of the Norwegian Embassy in Sarajevo explained: “Mostar Rock School qualified for support inter alia for their interethnic profile” (email, February 3, 2017).

Ethnic diversity seems to be at the foreground of reconciliation initiatives, being both the goal and the means to reach it. Indeed, it is considered as a way to build trust and reduce prejudice between former enemies through encounters around a shared interest and as the indicator of success of those activities.

Interethnic reconciliation certainly stands as one of the priorities in Western powers’ post-conflict agendas in former Yugoslavia. In building on its own history, the European Union (EU) is spearheading reconciliation, especially in former Yugoslav republics where it is explicitly raised as an accession criterion. “Reconciliation is (…) a necessary process. The EU, as the greatest peace and reconciliation project ever, can testify to that and serve as an example of what can be achieved,” stated the former European Commissioner for enlargement Olli Rhen (Sarajevo, July 11, 2005). Though, in BiH, the results of such policy are so far more expected than fulfilled. Ethnopolitical antagonisms between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks do not yet belong to the past.

In the field, many locals take a dim view of international projects that explicitly promote peace and reconciliation. At best, these initiatives do not seem to meet the expectations of the population. At worst, these good-faith attempts to bring peace are perceived as missing their aim. Indeed, young people targeted by peace programs did not experience the war. Therefore, they consider they do not need to get reconciled or to make peace with each other. In their view, to stress the necessity for peace and intercommunity cooperation would be a constant reminder of war and divisions preventing people from moving forward. In their view, activities should be positive and looking-forward, rather than negative and backward-looking. This opinion reflects a crucial need of the youth who tend to escape BiH, for lack of hope in a better future.

From this perspective, research undergone so far shows that musical activities may have a direct input into the conflict transformation process, well beyond the simple interethnic focus. The interviews realized during my fieldworks revealed two main effects of these programs that concern individuals’ personal and social development, rather than interethnic dialogue and tolerance.

On the individual level, my interviewees consider music as being first and foremost a source of happiness and inner balance: they play music to “be happy” and “make people happy.” Moreover, when playing music together, people share positive emotions with group members with whom they gradually create lasting friendships. A strong sense of belonging and identity based on a common passion develops within the group, described as “a family.”

Second, music improves skills such as musical aptitude, of course, but also the ability to work in a team, the satisfaction of effort or empowerment. For some, it is above all a source of pride and personal accomplishment. For others, it may even turn into a professional opportunity. Musical activities are incidentally often perceived as a form of education through culture. In this regard, music is associated with a “culture of peace” promoting values such as tolerance, solidarity, or cooperation.

Other voices perceive music as a constructive hobby offering opportunities: meeting and collaborating with new people, networking, or traveling are mainly cited.

“There are a lot of opportunities here (…) Well, we get to see new places, new people; not only do we play, we get to do it together. (…) We are here to make music, and to make people happy, and to socialize and struggle together to be a family, an orchestra family,” summarized a member of the Brass band orchestra of Stolac (interview, April 5, 2017). This single illustration shows that musical activities meet the interests and needs of the population much more directly than most “reconciliation programs.” Interviewees consider that it allows them in a consensual way to meet basic human needs such as love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. Their experiences suggest that the construction of an enduring peace is hardly conceivable without relying on accomplished individuals. According to Tina Ellen Lee, Artistic Director of Opera Circus UK and the founder of the international youth arts program The Complete Freedom of Truth (TCFT), music and the creative arts can often help to give meaning and reveal the inherent potential in young people. Sometimes working through culture and the arts can inspire activism and a desire to work toward social change within communities (interview, July 28, 2017). To give only one example, his passion for music gave hope to Marko Stankovic who wished to share with others what he experienced himself. He therefore organized the Arts&Friendships 5-day residency in Srebrenica. This was inspired by his participation to TCFT program (interview, July 13, 2017). To some extent, musical activities thus appear to instill a positive spiral.

On a collective level, playing music together is also perceived as a way to depoliticize intercommunity relationships through a shared ordinary activity, an occasion to alleviate the weight of “politics” and “nationalisms” that interfere in all areas of life. Thus, it normalizes rather than underlines the ethnic mix. According to Orhan Maslo, director of the Mostar Rock School: “Of course, they know this is the only place where massively Croats and Bosniaks meet. (…) But we are not talking about it at all. We wanna make that to be normal” (interview, April 6, 2017). After the extra-ordinary experience of the war, many interviewees have expressed the wish to live a normal life. Hence, the importance of ordinary activities such as music developed organically as part of civil society rather than constructed from the outside.

These remarks lead to a paradoxical conclusion. On the one hand, Western countries invest in an expensive “interethnic reconciliation” policy that, in most cases, neither meets local expectations nor leads to tangible outcomes in terms of sustainable peace. On the other hand, music programs struggle to survive even though they meet the population’s interests and needs, and reach attested impacts in terms of conflict transformation. Faced with this statement, it is crucial to put into question the driving forces that characterize post-conflict settings: is reconciliation too ambitious an aim? Would it not be more appropriate to focus on more modest goals—that can at least be reachable?

These questions do not mean that conflict transformation can be reduced to simplistic and exclusively cultural processes. It is clear that culture and art alone will not solve the situation in BiH or in any other post-conflict context. In the aftermath of mass atrocities, transformations must take place on both structural and psychosocial levels in order to move forward. This evolution requires determined efforts by official representatives on all sides and the active participation of all actors affected by the past violence. These two conditions are to some extent missing in the Balkans.

To conclude, it is worth underlining the ambivalence of art and culture. They are neither positive nor negative as such: their meaning depends on the objectives that are pursued and the contexts in which they occur. The last century tragically demonstrated their power to divide people. Music was employed at many occasions to incite violence and reinforce exclusive identities or used as a weapon, even as an instrument of torture (O’Connell and Castelo-Branco 2010). It is time for scholars and practitioners to question the mechanisms at work and to expose the conditions that guarantee successful cultural policies in terms of conflict transformation.


Emilie Aussems is a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain-Belgium). She is a member of the Centre for International Crisis and Conflict Studies within the Institute of Political Science Louvain-Europe (ISPOLE). Her research focuses on issues of postwar reconciliation and the role of culture – more specifically art and music – therein. She is interested in the geographical region of Bosnia and Herzegovina (and more broadly former Yugoslavia) where she has carried out several stints of fieldwork.



[1] The projects in question are the choir Harmony, the Mostar Rock School, The Complete Freedom of Truth, Arts&Friendships, the Balkans’ Summer Music Camp, the Brass band Orchestra of Stolac, Ardea and From Woman to Woman.

[2] In 2012, total post-war donor support was estimated at $8 billion (USAID 2012). Although donor engagement is decreasing, BiH still receives assistance from important donors, European Union (EU) being the largest. As an example, the financial assistance of the EU under the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance amounts to €167.1 million for the 2014–2017 period.



O’Connell, J.M., and S.E.S. Castelo-Branco (eds.). (2010) Music and Conflict. Urbana, IL, Chicago, IL, and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Rehn, O. (2005) The Balkans, Europe and Reconciliation. Debate in Sarajevo University, Speech/05/434 Sarajevo, July 11.

Urbain, O. (2008) Music and Conflict Transformation. Harmonies and Dissonances in Geopolitics. London, New York: I. B. Tauris.

USAID. (2012) Country Development Cooperation Strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina 2012–2016. <; (Accessed 21 September 2018).