Mitrovica Rock School: The Art of Listening and Responding

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Mitrovica Rock School: The Art of Listening and Responding

Wendy Hassler-Forest, Strategic Development Manager, Musicians Without Borders


Dutch trainer Eric Coenen coaching student Jelena. Photo Mitrovica Rock School.

Mitrovica, a miner’s town in Northern Kosovo, has been called Europe’s most divided city. Since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, the river that runs through the city has become a de facto border between the minority Serb community in the North and the majority Albanian community in the South.

When I moved to Mitrovica in 2009, the divide was complete: different languages and currencies, separate school systems and local governments, even different cellular country codes. It was dangerous for people from one side to visit the other, and ethnic fear, prejudice, and hatred were rife. On both sides of the city, unemployment was astronomically high, resources and services were few, and opportunities for young people virtually nonexistent. It didn’t help that nonprofit organizations active in the town—the only force working towards reconciliation—were perceived as self-serving at best, and agents of foreign agendas at worst.

But Mitrovica musicians told us about another history. They spoke of a proud pre-war rock music tradition and of ethnically mixed bands that had performed at weekly jam sessions and annual festivals. During the war, many musicians had been forced to sell their instruments. Bars that had organized gigs now played “turbo-folk,” a divisive commercial genre that had come to dominate during the rise of ethnic nationalism in the 1990s. Mitrovica musicians wanted their tradition back.

Musicians Without Borders saw an opportunity to leverage Mitrovica’s music tradition for positive social change. A rock music school would give the musicians who had lost their scene instruments, rehearsal rooms, and jobs as teachers. And it would invest in the next generation—those who were young children during the war and didn’t remember the town before it had been divided.

Former student Emir Hasani, now a teacher and director. Photo Mitrovica Rock School.

And it worked! Over the years, the Mitrovica Rock School brought together some 1,400 teens and young adults, who formed over 50 ethnically mixed bands. These days, mixed bands write their own songs and perform on both sides of Mitrovica. They are poster children—sometimes literally—for social change. Which prompts the question: can we replicate this? And the answer that I’ve landed on is: no, not the project, but yes the approach.

The Mitrovica Rock School project was conceived in response to needs voiced by local musicians and observed by visiting musicians. But while the goals and principles remained constant, success came gradually and only with improvisation. Approaches that didn’t work were abandoned, and accidental successes were incorporated. The project as it now exists is tailor-made for (and with) Mitrovica youth.

While the school is a specific fit for its own community, the Rock School’s adaptive philosophy and successful didactic strategies might be more widely applicable in post-conflict environments. Here are some of the approaches that have worked well.

  • Demand-driven learning & band coaching: Band coaching is used in the Netherlands for purely musical and creative aims, but because it promotes communication and active participation, it can provide a safe environment for participants from divided communities to work together and feel shared ownership of their band. (Click here to watch a short video about how Mitrovica Rock School uses band coaching as a tool for reconciliation.)
  • Co-creation: The songwriting process requires participants to agree on creative solutions together, providing a safe, contained setting to negotiate differences. The resulting songs and music videos are a source of shared pride, and part of the band’s collective identity.
  • Growth opportunities for youth: Student-traineeships provide a path for participants to grow from student to teacher or sound engineer. This mitigates the “brain drain” in a town with few opportunities for youth and provides the program with staff who are used to working inter-ethnically and who have grown up with the demand-driven approach to education.
  • Long-term approach: All the program’s milestones were the result of previous project phases. Each new generation of students builds on the achievements of the generation before. When the program began in 2008, participants could not come together in Kosovo, but had to travel abroad to meet. Now, participants meet weekly on both sides of Mitrovica, and have concerts in their hometown for ethnically mixed audiences. This would not have been possible without a sustained presence.
  • Recognizing what works and what doesn’t: The project has been a process of trial and error, and some strategies had to be abandoned because they just didn’t produce the results we had hoped. The initial strategy toward capacity building, for instance, had been to re-train experienced musicians to work as teachers according to the principles of demand-driven learning. For musicians trained within an extremely hierarchical educational system, this required an almost total transformation of their vision on education. Ultimately, while the more experienced musicians continued to raise the local prestige of the school, it was the student-trainees who embraced band coaching and demand-driven learning, and they are currently the primary band coaches in the school.

Mitrovica is still divided, though not as tense as it was when we started the school 13 years ago. I returned to the Netherlands in 2018 and continue to support the program from abroad. Mitrovica Rock School is now a Kosovo-registered organization run by a young woman from South Mitrovica and a young man from the North. The school has become a recognized and appreciated music center on both sides of Mitrovica, a safe space where politics are left at the door, ethnic identity is secondary to creative identity, and music is the meeting place.


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