Among the global efforts to help the people of Darfur is a new CD. We Are All Connected: Berklee College of Music Reaches Out to the Women of Darfur is a collection of R&B, soul, jazz, pop, world and gospel songs. This musical gift does more than benefit relief efforts in this region of Sudan, where three years of fighting has killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced two million others from their homes. It also proves that music has the power to heal and create connections of caring.
During the African famine in the mid 1980s, Linda Mason lived in Sudan, running a humanitarian relief program. Last year, she returned to Sudan as a member of a women's delegation investigating war crimes in Darfur.
"We were there taking testimony from women, victims of war," she says. "We spent two weeks taking testimony from about 60 women, hearing their stories of war, which were quite moving."
On the last day of the trip, Mason says, she presented those women with a gift, two songs written by two students at Berklee College of Music, where her husband serves as president. "I played these songs on my laptop in the middle of the camp and my interpreter translated the songs into their local language as they were played," she says.
"The women just sat there, stunned. They had no idea that people outside their small area knew what they were going through. They were incredibly moved and touched by these beautiful songs and the lyrics that were sung directly to them. So they were crying, trilling and holding each other's hands. At the end, they jumped up and said, we would like to offer a musical gift back to you."
The Darfurian women started singing some of their traditional songs, and Mason started recording them.
"When we came back to the States - the small group of women that I went with - we all felt very inspired to bring these messages and stories back to the United States, and to build on this connection we had started," she says. "Then the CD idea started to snowball at Berklee."
The College announced a songwriting competition for the CD. Mason's recordings were put on-line, and participants were encouraged to use them as inspiration. Associate Professor Leanne Ungar says it turned into a school-wide project.
"My real role was kind of finding teachers from all over the school that would mentor the writers and help them produce their songs," she says. "We had a little over 40 submissions. We had songs from every genre I can think of: jazz, rap, industrial, electronica, country and pop and alternative rock and roll. Many of the writers were students, but also we had alumni, we had teachers, and we had staff."
Staff member Damien Bracken wrote Tell Me Your Name, one of the 18 songs selected for the CD. "The samples of these Darfurian women's voices singing were very moving to me," he says. "Just around this time, the Live Aid Concert happened on TV, the effort that was headed by Bob Geldof. There was a wonderful moment where he put up the photograph of the poster child for the original Live Aid concert. Then [he] invited that child to walk out on the stage as a 21-year-old young woman. It was an incredible moving time." Bracken says his song, Tell Me Your Name, was inspired by that incident. "I thought of this idea of actually engaging in a conversation with somebody and really connecting with them."
Linda Mason says songs from We Are All Connected have been performed at Berklee's commencement ceremony, on TV and at support rallies. "This past September in New York City in Central Park, where about 30,000 people attended, we opened this rally with the story of the musical exchange and some of my stories from Darfur," she says. "Then one of the songs was played, We Are All Connected, which was written by a 19-year-old Berklee College student, Andrea Whaley."
"As a songwriter," Whaley says, "I feel very honored. I'm really glad that my song was able to help the cause and support these women who are suffering greatly. It's allowed me to open up my songwriting abilities to a wider subject. It's been an amazing experience."
Andrea Whaley says she and the other songwriters hope their music will help raise awareness about the Darfur crisis. Proceeds from the CD will go to relief efforts for women and children in Darfur.