View of Anger, Joy and Hope: Reflections of a Revolutionary. An Interview with Nigel Osborne.

[Original Voices: Interview]

An Interview with Nigel Osborne

By Alpha Woodward

Introduction by Leslie Bunt

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this text written by music therapy colleague Alpha Woodward. For quite some time Alpha and I have been exploring how to communicate to the international music therapy community through ‘Voices’ something of the essence of the work of a quite remarkable man, Nigel Osborne. Alpha has provided a creative solution to this challenge by interweaving excerpts of an interview with Nigel within the context of a case study exploring the background and evolution of the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar. As Alpha points out in her text Nigel Osborne is a great friend and ambassador of music therapy, although not formally trained as a music therapist. His work touches on so much that is fundamental to the work of music therapists and as he says "enlivening children through song." But Nigel goes further in combining this passion for music with his burning desire for social justice and action.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the 10th World Music Therapy Congress that we organised in Oxford, UK. One of the three main themes at the congress was "Music, Culture, Social Action" and it was very fitting that Nigel Osborne gave the opening keynote address to the large audience of over 800 people in the Sheldonian Theatre on that warm day in July 2002. As a summary to his address Nigel reminded the audience how music therapists have: 1) much to further a practical understanding of music, given the emphasis on the use of improvisation with people of all ages; 2) much to contribute intellectually to the academic community in discovering more about what music is about, and 3) a moral imperative to engage in work in areas where there are complex social and cultural challenges (Music Therapy World Congress, Oxford, 2002).

Before Nigel finished talking I recall passing him a note, inviting him to engage with the audience musically. We were able to then witness for ourselves a master musical communicator at work as he taught the audience a traditional Balkan song, adding parts and layering different harmonies. The theatre resonated with song and an evolving sense of social cohesion through music. What better beginning to set the scene for an international congress on music therapy where one of the aims was to explore music therapy as "a contemporary force for change?"

Alpha Woodward
Alpha Woodward

Author's note

The following interview with Nigel Osborne is an excerpt from my case study that examines the vision and values that engendered the music therapy program at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, 1997 – 2007. Although this interview excerpt keeps an eye to the complex culture in which the program was germinated, it focuses on my interview with Osborne in late 2009, and provides only one part of the argumentation for lessons learned in the case study from which it is extracted.

Anger, Joy and Hope: Reflections of a Revolutionary

In the Balkans you live on the edge. Your nerve and zest for life increases by taking small steps into uncharted territory – and risk-taking - however small - becomes a pleasant addiction. When you live here as a foreigner, you accept pushing your own comfort level as part of the adventure. For a local resident, adventure is in the blood as spontaneous joy, laughter, tears and Sevdalinka – the folk music. It seems as though people are born singing ‘Sevdah’. Such is the spirit of the Balkans – a region of soul-deep connection to something ancient - something in the earth that is unspeakable, but alive and very real. (Journal reflection, summer camp, Sarajevo, September 9, 2009.)

alt text
Alpha Woodward at the top of Diva Grabovica, Kanton Naretva - March 2007.

The relationship between the land, the cultural personality and the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is complex. The enigmatic climate and landscape of this country is felt like a force of its own and cannot easily be ignored in the psychosocial or political behaviours of the people who live there. Even visitors remark upon their heightened sensitivity to a kind of presence this region expresses. So the culture and its landscape maintain a presence in this portrait – like a chorus that hums in the background, and is perhaps the most important participant of all – an essence that informs the tonal feel of the aesthetic whole (Lightfoot, S. & Davis, J., 1997, p.33). The land is not the voice for the narrative, but it is the constant muse that informs the context around it – much like the background of a picture – or the negative space around the foreground, because it is in an inescapable relationship to all that is, and all that is perceived to be. Such is the magnetic, mysterious and ancient culture that is sewn into the mountains, valleys and rivers surrounding Mostar where I lived and worked for almost four years. “The wind, she is like a freight train.” The music, she owns the soul.

alt text
Nigel Osborne leading children’s music camp in Pula, Croatia, September 2005

If ever music owned a soul, it chose Nigel Osborne as its keeper. Osborne – or simply, "Nigel" as he is known, was a young student composer in the 1960s when he first travelled through Bosnia and Herzegovina and fell in love with the music, the culture and the people. Bosnia and Herzegovina was still a republic of Yugoslavia and it seems that he found a comfortable resonance for his restless socialist proclivities while he learned the language and the traditional musical repertoire of Sevdalinka.

Osborne is currently the Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a brilliant composer and lecturer. That alone earns him high profile attention. His formal biography is impressive, having been awarded an MBE and having studied under Egon Wellesz, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, and Witold Rudzinski. He is a prolific composer in all genres, but is mostly known for his operas that engage controversial social issues. He is also the adjunct instructor for the community music program at Queen Mary College in Edinburgh, and often lectures in conferences on the topic of music and medicine. Since the late nineties, he has brought bright and talented music students to the Balkans to assist at an annual summer camp for special needs children and youth. With these many accolades and achievements, it is interesting that the one that seems most meaningful to him is the media’s designation for him as "music therapist" and "pioneer in the use of music in therapy and rehabilitation for children who are victims of conflict." [1] Although he is not a formally trained music therapist, he has come to be known as the father of music therapy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is a designation for which he may be entitled through his numerous contributions in bringing professional music therapy to that region.

Between the years 1991 and 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was in the grip of two distinct horrendous wars that displaced two million citizens, imploded the entire infrastructure and killed or wounded close to a million people – one fifth of its entire population. The mass collusion of brutality and betrayal over these four very difficult years resulted in the fragmentation of former Yugoslavia into ethnic nationalistic divisions and tore apart the fabric of its once cohesive culture resulting in denial, paranoia and blaming attitudes at all levels of society. Societal coherence, one’s cultural context and individual identity had all but disappeared in the post-conflict years, resulting in an overlay of prolonged secondary chronic culture shock with possible unresolved primary trauma. The society has been further burdened by increases in mental health issues at all levels within BiH. The World Health Organization (WHO) has not updated their records since 2005 and the last census was done in 1991. Upon the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995 the international community rushed into this deconstructed society to do what it could to assist in the recovery process with little concrete information as to what the situation was. Some of this rush to help was organized, but much of it was not.

The world-renowned Pavarotti Music Centre (PMC), the home of the music therapy program, was a purpose-built cultural centre to house music therapy and other music programs for children and youth suffering from PTSD from the events of two brutal wars. For those of us horrified by the accounts we had heard about the wars, the building of this cultural centre in the heart of the east side seemed to be the epitome of humankind’s highest aspirations; either a paradox to – or a metaphor of - the phoenix and the ashes of destruction from which it rose. It was a vision that made me proud to be part of the human race. It formed an impression – an illusionary ideal of heroic proportions – that magnetized me to the project and so when I was offered a position as senior music therapist at the PMC in January 2004, I left my position as Professional Practice Leader in a hospital in Vancouver to be part of this vision. Many music therapists had served before me and had added to the legacy of professional commitment and a high standard of clinical excellence in this very troubled community. I lived and worked in Mostar, BiH for four years with music therapists from Germany, Denmark, the U.S., Belgium, Canada and Holland before the program eventually came to a natural close when funding ran out in 2007[2].

In the course of doing an historical ethnographic case study on the music therapy program, I focused on the values and vision that inseminated the music programs in 1997. And since Nigel Osborne was a key figure at the beginning of the PMC and later in his more diversified interests in culture and community music development in the Balkans, the study was centered on my interview with him - within the context of leadership and change theory. Also, the complete history of the music therapy program is within his recall and experience, and so he was an invaluable resource for the study.

Reflections of a Revolutionary

alt text
Nigel Osborne and student at a summer music camp near Sarajevo, BiH, 2009

Quite literally, the interview with Nigel took place over a small bottle of scotch in the wee hours of September 6, 2009 at a horse ranch in the hills outside of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was the only time he had in his busy day schedule that was an intense week, already squeezed between a project in Los Angeles and a convention in Scotland. My recorder had failed, so I relied entirely on my written notes. The notes were written out in full by hand in the hazy, quiet light of morning, and included my own reflections and the details of the conversation that happened just hours before. It was the last day of the camp and I had a follow-up interview with him later to clarify some points and to enquire about his more current interests in the neurobiology of music.

In the late afternoon of my arrival I found Nigel mingling and chatting with a few young people in the workshop area. He had just arrived from California that same day, and pointed out that we both looked like jet-lagged zombies – and he had a point. I had just flown from Vancouver, Canada via London before flying south to Sarajevo to join the summer music camp. So the combined effect of our jet lag added a surrealist tone to our conversation. But already I had made eye contact with many of these happy-faced children with whom I, or others on the music therapy team, had worked over the four years, and the atmosphere was alive with anticipation. But I found I was competing with his meetings with the local Mayor, Federation leaders, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representatives, and the English Ambassador that were strewn between workshops with the children, seminars with his students, rehearsals and daily sports activities. It was several days later, and close to midnight, when he was finally free. Even so, he looked cheerful and relaxed and began the interview by saying "this" (camp) was his therapy – where he truly felt he could be himself.

When he reflects back to the dangerous and profound life-transforming moments during the armed conflict, Osborne remembers the war in Bosnia as a watermark for him because he discovered what really mattered to him and what he did best – “enlivening children through song.” Having a background in teaching special needs children, he knew how to engage a child to participate and found his niche in making a difference where it mattered most. Using music in this extraordinary circumstance was a project of love for Nigel – compared to the despair that defined his political activism against the war. Since 1991 he was involved in the Scottish Action for Bosnia which focused on engaging the U.S. to stop the war. In those years he had some flexible time as an instructor at the University of Edinburgh, but he was determined to help put an end to the war in BiH and the inhumane injustices that were perpetrated by all parties.

He says that “a deep sense of despair that things were not right” defined his political involvement in those years. And his passionate declaration that he “must do something” to end the atrocities is in striking resonance to Freire’s outlook on civic courage.

“I have a right to be angry, to show it and to use it as a motivational foundation for my struggle, just as I have a right to love and to express my love to the world and to use it as a motivational foundation for my struggle because I live in history at a time of possibility and not of determinism.” (Freire, 1998, p. 71)

Freire condemns those who believe that “nothing that can be done” (p. 79). He believes that humanity is unfinished and “requires our full participation and not evading one’s responsibility, hiding behind lukewarm cynical shibboleths that justify … inaction” (p. 79). To this point, Osborne remembers being in Poland during the Solidarity riots and his subsequent return to the UK at the time of Irish Bloody Sunday and his anger that “nobody stands up to stop it.” Osborne admits to anger in the face of injustice, and says of it that it is impossible for him to stand by and do nothing. I sense the dark mood behind his words and surmise that Osborne may be in touch with the memory of that anger and the accompanying sense of injustice whenever the children, the vulnerable, or the marginalized are innocent victims. “So,” he continues, “when war broke out in BiH, I got actively involved and entered Sarajevo at a very difficult and dangerous time.”

Dissanyake (2000), whose thesis is that art behaviours are genetically encoded in our genes to enhance survival through social activities, cites an interview given by Nigel for “The Independent” in 1994 which not only makes evident his social and moral stance on the Balkan wars, but also the media interest that follows his social activist adventures. Dissanyake further conjectures that the single act of civil courage by Vedran Smailovic, who played his cello in the open market in Sarajevo after the breadline massacre in May 1992, was most likely the start of the civil resistance movement in BiH. Osborne concurs that this was a seminal period.

It seems to me that something very strong has come from my colleagues in Bosnia. While the world stood by and watched a holocaust on television, and while Western art floundered in a colossal imaginative recession, the artists of Sarajevo were the frontline of European civilisation, creating a new inclusive art, refined in hell-fire, tough enough to deal with anything and absolutely necessary. Interview with Nigel Osborne, 1994 (Dissanyake, 2000, pp. 192-194)

Osborne emphatically describes himself as a “realistic optimist, having undefeatable optimism, and measured scepticism – realistically expecting the worst and hoping for the best with a very special kind of ‘super’ consciousness.” My ears pricked up at this, but instead of asking him to elaborate, I linked it to my readings of Freire and my own intuitive understanding of what Nigel meant. He had repeated this, like a mantra, several times in the interview, which emphasized for me, 1) how this catalytic passion that can seed an entire social movement, was also closely aligned with Freire (1998) who believed that it is contradictory to think that one who is “upset by injustice, who is hurt by discrimination, who struggles against impunity, and who refuses cynical and immobilizing fatalism should not be full of critical hope.” (p. 70); and 2) that Nigel openly describes his possession of a special kind of super consciousness as significant because his reference to this might relate to a kind of mojo magic that earned him special status of affection and gratitude in many areas of BiH. He would wink conspiratorially at this notion. But I, too, had noticed his uncanny timing and his ability to ‘conceptualize’ and manifest positive outcomes at the most needed moment – thereby suspending disbelief to a different universe. For example in the most unlikely of times, he had promised a truckload of music books and instruments for the devastated music department in the Academy of Music in Sarajevo just following the war[3]. When it arrived chock-full of the desired material, the sceptical, taciturn Dean of Music became a staunch ally for life. So in an era bereft of hope, Osborne’s superconsciousness and access to human and material resources, allowed for doable solutions that offered hope and relief.

So in the wee hours of the night, after he had clocked in an astounding 16 hours of workshops, rehearsals, seminars, and night time singing with the children, Nigel, takes me back to those years just after the Dayton Peace Accord was signed[4] and when Warchild, a newly formed charity had commissioned the building of a cultural centre in East Mostar. He remembers that when Warchild invited him to design music programs for the centre in 1997, he “jumped at the chance to have a ‘blue card’ to put a structure around the improvised activities he had been doing during the war, and he invited Ian Ritchie to function as the Arts Manager for the project. While Osborne’s primary focus was to train the “Schools’ Team” in Mostar and the “Blind School’s Team” in Sarajevo, Ritchie coordinated the logistics and the implementation process for music therapy and its placement in what was to be officially called “The Pavarotti Music Centre” (PMC). He brought in instructors of music therapy as consultants to design and outfit the entire south wing of the PMC with two sound proof therapy studios, an observation room, a parents’ waiting area, a children’s transition play room, and offices for the program. Of the three programs, the music therapy program had a higher cost/client ratio because of the need for international therapists. This eventually became problematic because outside funders were sceptical of its ability to be sustainable over time. Indeed, John MacAuslan[5], the Warchild field manager for Bosnia and Herzegovina, noted that Warchild (UK) had great difficulty in attracting funding to support our program because it was dependent upon international experts, and therefore, was not a sustainable practice in the local economy. Interestingly, Osborne reports that prior to the opening of the PMC, Leslie Bunt and Pauline Etkin[6] created a training curriculum “to the last detail” for music therapy “and included academic links between the Music Academy in Sarajevo and training institutions in the UK.” The academic training would have legally established the profession within the country and resulted in a recognized sustainable professional practice. At different times and locations, Osborne has related his construction of the programs as follows:

We saw the work in the shape of a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was clinical music therapy. Beneath was something equally important, starting at the base of the pyramid – spreading out very wide – was a general outreach work to children in the region. We were training local young people to do the work. What we were looking for was the maximum benefit we could bring to children through artistic activities in terms of a distraction in the difficulties around them, in terms of joy, self-fulfilment, self-confidence, creativity, a sense of community, a sense of identity.[7] Robert Golden Pictures (2010)

The music therapy program was run by trained music therapists from the UK, and the School’s Team was a specialized project run by a group of local youths he had hand-picked over the course of time – some of whom had been ex soldiers, and/or interred in war camps. They formed the core of the base of the pyramid – “that”, which he envisioned, “would spread out very wide” in the community providing workshops and trainings in schools. At this point in his reflections, he remembers vividly, and with great affection, the aliveness of that period of time, and the sensory images of these youths whom he took to Italy on a healing retreat. “I will never forget these ex-soldiers romping like children around in the sea with all their clothes on … and Mujo[8], now a poet and writer, sitting alone by the water just taking it in - the quiet and peace …” These images sustained Osborne in his later, more challenging periods when this group of young people became more independent and distanced themselves from his mentorship. After many years of separation, he emphasizes that his journey with this group was an extraordinarily intense, very profound, personal adventure – a regrouping period he used to hone his approach of "enlivening children with song." The separation period was painful for him, but Osborne, a gifted storyteller and benevolent mentor, does not dwell on the past, and prefers, instead to recount the symbol of hope story when the group was younger and still in his influence. This story is retold here to illuminate the gentile and generous side of Osborne, the Renaissance man, who, above all else, was also a symbol of hope for those he mentored. Upon the special request of this group, he was able to commission the Electric Light Orchestra to perform in Mostar, and a feature of the concert that evening was the group’s lighting of a paper balloon that was theoretically supposed to blaze its light heavenward. However, on almost all previous occasions it had ended up in a haze of smoke and fire on the ground. At the featured moment on this spectacular night, it wobbled its way upward, and after faltering for a heart-throbbing minute, finally floated majestically upward and into the darkness. Osborne recounts this metaphor of hope with great pleasure. It is a measure of his optimism that he recalls these positive and poignant memories.

Perhaps it was the few ml of scotch that loosened up the conversation, but I felt there were significant reflections giving fire to our dialogue that fleshed out what I had come to believe through our past collaborations. His faith in these young people was extraordinary and he emphasized how proud he was of those who continued to thrive in the music – and take it beyond themselves to others in the community. I was witnessing, not for the first time, the many different levels of commitment this man had for the vulnerable – especially children – and anyone who is physically, cognitively or emotionally disadvantaged. I had been with Nigel when he took up arms to protect students from unwelcome and inappropriate advances by locals, and when, in quiet outrage, he changed the venue of his summer camp because the managers were exploiting the children for their own material advantage. There are many witnessed examples of a deep social conscience for right action. But he looks deep into himself without illusion:

I wondered if I was fulfilling a need of my own – a selfish motivation – was I giving meaning to my own life, or was I making a difference when I see an injustice? But it hit me that I had found a purpose in being able to do something in an area I had expertise and experience in.

It appears that he experienced a resonant authenticity through combining his love of music and his drive for social justice. “In other words, it was becoming clear that it is impossible to humanly exist without assuming the right and the duty to opt, to decide, to struggle, to be political.” (Freire, 1998, p. 53).

Nigel Osborne is an educator and a social activist who rarely sees obstacles as a barrier for doing what he feels is right. In the end, the three programs he spawned did sputter out, one by one, after his connections were broken. The canvas was not empty when we came as helpers into this deeply complicated country. So the most engaging of all is the backdrop of the culture within which this historical/ethnographic portrait reveals and indulges itself in its multi-textual mosaic of idealism and the unfinished destiny of a music therapy project. The paradox of an unfulfilled legacy is that it leaves behind a bitter hope that – like a willful river - the journey will continue on its own adventure, fuelled by the same faith and values that spawned the original vision, but perhaps on different roads and rivers and with different passengers aboard. How do we, as a group of professionals, view this turbulent journey that inspired so many of us who travelled along its path? For some it was a small period of their time – no more, no less. For others it was a transformational watermark in their personal and professional lives as music therapists and social activists. Is the journey unfinished – waiting like a sleeping lion for the sun to rise and a new day to give it life and a fresh start - or did it come to its natural ending back in 2007? Can we learn from the lessons this journey taught us? Will Nigel Osborne come back, as he vowed to do, to recreate the original vision, or will someone, or something new take its place?


[1] (retrieved June 23, 2011).

[2] The official ending of Warchild’s support was the fall of 2007 which coincided with the complete handover of their 49% share of the PMC to the City of Mostar – and also with my leaving the program. However, residual funds allowed the program to continue into the spring of 2008.

[3] Anecdotal story told by Osborne regarding the origins of his positive relationship to the Dean of The Music Academy in Sarajevo.

[4] November, 1995.

[5] MacAuslan became my upline manager after Warchild (UK) resumed administrative responsibility to fund our field operations in 2005.

[6] Leslie Bunt, currently Professor in Music Therapy at the University of the West of England, Bristol and Pauline Etkin, currently Chief Executive of the Nordoff- Robbins Music Therapy Centre, London, were eminently qualified to create a training curriculum.

[7] The case study offers a critique of this construct with possible solutions, and a framework for future possibilities.

[8] Not his real name.


Dissanayake, E. (2000). Art and Intimacy: How the arts began. United States: University of Washington Press.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Incorporated.

Robert Golden Pictures. (Producer) (2010). The gift of culture [DVD]. Available from

Lightfoot, S.L. & Davis, J.H. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Music Therapy World Congress, Oxford (2002). Conference proceedings (p. xxii). Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

Bergen Open Access Publishing