HEALING VOICES SING: THE ALCHEMY OF MUSIC
COMPILED BY LINDA DROSDOWECH
Winnipeg raised global social advocate and music producer Darcy Ataman was inspired to help sexual assault and trauma survivors heal by launching a music therapy program in Rwanda in 2012. His organization ‘Make Music Matter’ and ‘Healing in Harmony Program’ has empowered over 2000 survivors to write, sing and record their songs, reaching and inspiring millions. Today the organization is in Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey and is expanding to franchise their model with World Vision, DRC and ‘IMA World Health’.
Healing and Harmony
Kevin: Tell us about Global Change: Make Music Matter
Darcy: We go into hospitals in conflict and post-conflict zones and build recording studios. The participants who we deem as artists work with a local record producer in tandem with a local psychologist for three months to write and record the songs about their experiences.
Through the process of articulating their trauma, they begin to reduce their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. The music helps to reveal the pain and once it is revealed we can heal it.
They end up with an album of their own songs and become advocates for their community, help educate the next generation, reduce stigma and hopefully educate the wider world.
The ability to sing is the last thing someone can take from you
Kevin: In your programs you treat people who have survived sexual abuse. Are there men as well as women who access the program?
Darcy: Sadly the violations are skewed towards women. Most men don’t come in for treatment because of the heavy stigma. We also work a lot with children who are heavily traumatized from being born from rape.
Kevin: Why do you think music has the power to help people express pain?
Darcy: Trauma is locked in the part of the brain that only metaphor can get to. You need a side door to get in. Lyric writing and performance helps unlock and articulate pain in a way that’s not re-traumatizing to the individual. The ability to sing is about the last thing you can take away from somebody, and therefore it remains inclusive even in a conflict zone.
Rape is cheaper than a bullet
Kevin: Some people have been through things we cannot imagine.
Darcy: Rape is used as a strategic weapon of war. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s cheaper than a bullet. You’ve wrecked her life and if she has a child, that kids’ life, the husband usually leaves and she’s ostracized from family and community. She can’t contribute to the economy. One rape can have generational impact.
Kevin: Who was Darcy before Making Music Matter?
Darcy: Music was the mechanism I used to alchemize pain when I was younger so I became a music producer to give that to other people.
Kevin: How did the music industry lead you into humanitarian projects?
Darcy: I was living the dream producing music in Philadelphia and I would take breaks on the Internet. My mind was ripped open reading about the Aids Pandemic in Sub Saharan Africa. I became obsessed with the subject and increasingly angry that so little was being done to help. My father was a holocaust survivor, and my bedtime stories were about that so it made me inherently empathetic as a child.
Strength in storytelling
Kevin: How do you get them to share those first songs?
Darcy: They bond as a group. Even though rape is so prevalent, they think it has only happened to them. It’s isolating. When one person opens up to tell her story, it gives strength for another to share and has a domino effect.
The song writing usually begins with the story of how they were raped and delves into the feeling that they will never get over it. The next songs begin to redefine the future. The end song is often actively defiant and on the offensive to call out their perpetrator and the government.
The women are the artists. We don’t tell them you need to release a certain song. It’s all up to them. We have a psychologist present in the sessions to ensure their healing journey is paced and guided in an effective and ethical manner.
The power of a song
Kevin: Do those songs make it to radio?
Darcy: In the Congo it goes to the local radio stations that have five million active listeners. We have a record label with Warner Brothers in Canada, and they are available on Apple Music, iTunes and Spotify. I particularly enjoy when those songs are on the radio and I make the government very mad at me.
Kevin: Are you afraid of backlash?
Darcy: I have a heavy armed security team that follows me everywhere. It’s sadly a part of every day life.
There is a song ‘Criminal Father’ that calls out men in society who commit rape or allow it to happen. Heavily armed military men call in to complain to the radio stations about it. I find it fascinating that the people with the bullets are afraid of the people with the songs.
Re-stitch their souls
Kevin: What is the After Care Facility?
Darcy: There is the hospital that treats women who need physical surgery to be repaired who were violated. Some have needed two years worth of surgeries to be functional again. The After Care Facility re-stitches and rebuilds their souls and minds, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally, so they can return to the community.
My body is not a weapon
Kevin: How do you know a program is successful and worth continuing?
Darcy: We are literally at triple capacity, but I measure it with small victories I carry around in my pocket.
One of the ladies has two children born of rape. Typically a mother will reject these children due to the reminder of the trauma. This mom said: “I will never love this child” and she never held him. Then she went through the program and participated in the writing of ‘My Body is not a Weapon’. She performed it at a community center and the crowd’s energy back to her validated her experience. At the end of the song she walked off the stage, picked up her child for the first time, and took care of him from then on. That’s what keeps you going.
Exploring new opportunities
Kevin: Are you desensitized?
Darcy: You think you’re desensitized, but you’re not. The trauma invades you and you don’t realize it. You have to amour up to survive, or you can’t make the commute to work. It takes an hour to drive in and you see people are getting killed but you don’t stop. Over time you forget to leave the trauma at work. You bring it home. This wasn’t great for my personal life. *laughs* I’m starting to get better at that. You have to be careful not to get too armored up for the work or you won’t be effective.
Kevin: You need sympathy and empathy.
Darcy: It’s a tough balance. I have lost friends. Some have been assassinated. Some are doing well one day, but then you see them and know they need to go home.
Who will heal the healer?
Kevin: When you’re helping person after person, situation after situation, you take on some of the trauma. How does music help YOU get through?
Darcy: I have been on the ground for ten or eleven years experiencing war and trauma. Music makes me feel like I’m somebody special. ‘Go to songs’ make me feel like I’m heard and validated.
Kevin: Is there a breaking point?
Darcy: The normal run is two years and I’ve been going for eleven. *laughs* This is the last year. We are at the stage where I do not need to physically be there.
Kevin: So what is next? What role will you step into?
Darcy: I will turn into the advocate and fundraise in Europe, the UK and North America to ensure our mechanism, our culture, our company and the team we have created keep going.
A chance in the world
Kevin: How long did this take to be recognized as a valid form of therapy?
Darcy: The first time I went to Panzi hospital I got a tour of the wards. It’s in the middle of a slum so it’s chaotic. I saw these young, unattended children. A little baby came and motioned to be picked up. He fell asleep in my arms and we continued to walk around the hospital. It dawned on me: These were the kids born of rape who were left there.
I started to think how many strikes a kid has against him before he has a chance to start. The trauma is passed down in utero from his mother. The baby is rejected. No early education opportunities. He lives in a slum. He hasn’t seen the outside of the hospital. What chance in the world does he have? That really angered me.
Won’t give up
Word spread and a lady wanted to tell me her story. She worked in the mines. Everyday she made the choice to go to work knowing she’d be raped or not be able to feed her family. She told me this irreconcilable dilemma through song and dance. It was at this moment when I thought: “This is going to work. I won’t give up”.