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The songs of my neighbours

By Alix Norman

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.” Wise words from Kahlil Gibran, and a sentiment paralleled here in Cyprus with the collaborative project Songs of My Neighbours. Running from last autumn to summer 2015, and led by the Centre of Performing Arts Mitos, this an EU-backed cultural programme that aspires to facilitate dialogue and social justice between communities in conflict zones through the arts and theatre.

“The idea of this project is ‘If I sing the songs of my neighbour, who lives in my country and with whom I am in conflict, will there be any change in our relationship?’” explains Elena Agathocleous, Mitos’ Artistic Director. “Beyond the propaganda and the phantoms with which our generation has been brought up, we want to see clearly who our neighbours, the Turkish Cypriots, really are.”

At the core of the project is the idea of listening to each other’s songs and stories through a process of artistic research. “Traditional songs – songs of conventional but also invented traditions – contain cultural information about our ‘Others’,” says Elena, explaining that Songs of our Neighbours began with the simple query into how music can bring peoples closer and “to a better understanding of self”.

Artistic director of Mitos (an NGO for artistic development and collaboration), Elena has been working intensively on the project alongside Diomedes Koufterou and Lukasz Walewski and a number of local artists for almost a year. “Songs of our Neighbours is an EU-backed programme with funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture which is taking place in three countries simultaneously,” she says, explaining that in Italy the participants are working with the Roma, and in Poland with the Polish Jews.

“In all three countries, we began the process with research into the songs and stories of our neighbours, the myths and personal memories that abound,” she continues, giving the example of Paramali village, chosen for its links with the Turkish Cypriot community. A place that was once home to a thriving Turkish Cypriot community, parts of the village now lie abandoned, leading the group to focus specifically on the personal accounts of those who have had to leave their homes and move to the north. “By seeking out those who had once lived there, asking them to share their memories of the place, we discovered more about our own national identity,” says Elena.

However, in the process of investigating the songs and stories of the past, the group soon appreciated that there was a great deal more to the project than they had initially envisioned: “We began to discover that to really facilitate a better understanding between communities, our neighbours would actually have to be involved in the activities being organised. We realised the importance of working together with our counterparts, the necessity of sharing, creating relationships.” And thus the group began searching for links, sharing the idea with people they met along the way and bringing them on board.

“The aim, of course, is for a better understanding of others,” says Elena. “And so involving Turkish Cypriots in the process is crucial: of course we’re against xenophobia, racism,” she adds. “But this is a project that goes deeper than that. It’s about discovering our own feelings – garnered from propaganda and the media – as well as developing a sensitivity and understanding towards others through a form of art which is very direct, very accessible and occurs in all cultures.”

The first event – which happened last week – was based on the Paramali research, and involved the audience being invited to walk through the village while being able to experience some of the songs and stories from the past that have been collected from previous residents. “It was a wonderful event,” says Elena. “A way to give a voice to a village that has been silent for years. And it was a great opportunity to facilitate dialogue between the audience and the performers, a way for people to start questioning their thoughts and feelings.”
The next event in the programme will be held at Limassol Castle this coming Sunday, a festival which is free of charge and open to all. Starting with a ‘Human Library’ (in which the audience can ask questions of a human ‘book’ who represents a minority community), which will be held in collaboration with Youth For Exchange, the day will continue with a series of short musical performances from contemporary artists working for the most part with traditional sounds.

There’s a drumming school, a chorus (a result of work sessions entitled ‘Listening, Understanding, Singing’ that have been taking place over the past few months), a jazz quintet and a performance by Monsieur Doumani. At the same time, there will be a series of film screenings curated by the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus, and the day will end with a DJ-led improvisation set involving all the musicians at the festival.

And then, of course, it’s straight on to the next events: “All three countries involved are creating a theatrical production,” says Elena, discussing the group’s future. “We will be holding an artistic residency in June to exchange the results of our research before beginning work on our creative performance. And by 2015 we will be editing the documentation of our project into both a film and a book, before closing with a symposium in Cyprus itself.”

By the time it’s all over, Songs of our Neighbours will have created a platform for discussion, facilitating a better understanding of our shared cultures. “We’re hoping to achieve the beginning of a dialogue, the start of speaking about our emotions as neighbours,” Elena concludes. “Communication is the key to understanding.” And what better way to share one’s traditions, thoughts and emotions than through music? It is, after all, the ‘language of the spirit’.
For further information on ‘Songs of our Neighbours’, visit the website www.songsofmyneighbours.eu or the Facebook page www.facebook.com/pages/Songs-of-my-Neighbours or call 97879793
This Sunday, May 18 will see the group present a festival at the Limassol Castle. Entrance is free, and all are welcome to attend

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