On a cold December day at the windswept Belgian port of Antwerp, an unusual cargo container arrived to be loaded onto a freighter bound for the Israeli port of Ashdod. Carefully stowed inside the container were the results of a year's hard work by the Belgian charity, Music Fund: more than 300 donated musical instruments, all in pristine condition, including 18 clarinets, 43 guitars, 69 violins, a trombone, a double bass, and three grand pianos, all to be distributed to needy music schools in the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Music Fund, headed by president Lukas Pairon, was formed in 2005 to provide practical support to young musicians and music schools in conflict zones and developing countries. It was born of a collaboration between Ictus, a Belgian contemporary-music ensemble, and the nongovernmental organization Oxfam Solidarity.
Ictus musicians had already traveled regularly to Israel and the Palestinian territories since 2002, giving workshops and master classes at schools throughout the region. The plan to deliver further practical aid in the form of musical instruments began as a onetime project initiated by Ictus in 2005, when 300 instruments were collected, repaired, and trucked to the Palestinian territories.
"It proved so successful, though," says Mr. Pairon, "that we decided to continue, to turn it into a permanent, full-time operation. Also, it was so much fun to organize that we didn't feel like stopping. It's a small region, and you quickly get around, hearing about worthy organizations and enlarging partnerships."
It wasn't long before Music Fund expanded beyond the Middle East: A similar shipment of musical instruments soon went out to music schools in Mozambique, and plans are afoot to begin activities in Kinshasa, Congo (former Zaire), this year.
For the many budding musicians in the Palestinian territories, life is far from easy. Not only are music stores in short supply, but most students can't afford to buy instruments, explains Marie Albert, administrator of the Al Kamandjati music school in Ramallah, a recipient of instruments from Music Fund. "That's why Music Fund helps us so much," she says, "With these donations, we're able to give children instruments to take home and practice on, instead of just having one lesson a week at the center."
Furthermore, says Pairon, advanced students often become too skilled for poor-quality instruments, preventing them from reaching their full potential. Music Fund can provide better instruments to promising pupils. "Also, there is little or no music and arts education in the public school system in Palestine," Ms. Albert says, "Everyone needs cultural activities, but perhaps even a little bit more so here, where living conditions are so difficult. Through music, children gain a hobby and a purpose and can meet other children from different backgrounds, exchange ideas, and learn about each other as well as about music. Music here gives them a chance to have a break from their difficult daily lives."
One of the hundreds of such children helped by Music Fund is 14-year-old Mahmoud Karzom from Ramallah. "I've been learning violin for three years at Al Kamandjati," he says, "and they gave me a violin to take home to practice on, which really helps because it means I can play every day. If I didn't have that, my playing would improve much more slowly."
Indeed, Mahmoud's talent for music soon resulted in his being selected to join the school's performing tour to Germany. "It was very exciting," he says, "to be able to leave Ramallah for the first time. I love to play with other people, to perform, and just to play all alone, by myself. My parents are proud of me, too."
Mahmoud, whose favorite composer is Bach, is keen to continue his musical education with the school. "Music makes me relaxed," he beams, "I feel completely different, and really happy, when I'm playing violin." Scores of other children in the West Bank and Gaza are currently getting a similar chance to cultivate a love for music through Music Fund's partnership with local music school charities, an opportunity they would almost certainly miss out on otherwise.
Most of Music Fund's instruments are donated by individuals, but others come from universities or instrument dealers. Of the three grand pianos, perhaps the most imposing cargo traveling from Europe, one came from a private donor, and the other two from the Université Libre de Brussels. "Collecting them, though," says Pairon, "is the easy part. The most complicated and time-consuming part is actually ensuring that the instruments are in excellent condition. We have a little army of highly skilled repairers who work on a voluntary basis, making sure that ... each piece is in faultless working order."
Indeed, the grand pianos found their way to Music Fund when they proved too expensive for the university to repair. Before they were shipped, the instruments were completely overhauled, free of charge, by a master piano repairer.
Many other Music Fund instruments are treasured possessions, says Patron. Their owners don't part with them lightly. "They may have been played by someone's children, or by that person themselves, or by a loved one who died. These instruments have been part of people's lives, and are filled with memories."
Music Fund assigns each instrument a code, so donors can track them. "In the donor's imagination," says Pairon, "he or she then begins to travel with the instrument. It's wonderful to tell them about the school to which their instrument has been sent. It creates a bridge between people in affluent northern Europe and far away, in the Middle East, Mozambique, or the Congo."
But it's not all smooth sailing for the Music Fund once the instruments finally make it onto the high seas. While this latest shipment arrived safely in Israel in late December, getting the cargo released from customs early this month was a three-day ordeal. It set back their already tight schedule. Pairon says he expects he'll never know why the shipment was delayed.
On the overcast morning of Jan. 5, Pairon and piano expert Pol de Winter began the long-awaited, mammoth task of delivering all 311 instruments to their new homes. Starting at 6:30 a.m., braving inclement weather and military checkpoints, the team rushed to deliver musical instruments first in Nablus, then in Ramallah, and finally in the Israeli town of Nazareth, doing the work they'd planned to do in four days in just 24 hours.
"But perhaps it actually worked out for the best," says Pairon stoically, "that we didn't do the drop-off the day before, in Ramallah, as we had planned."
On Jan. 4, large-scale Israeli military raids led to clashes that left four Palestinians dead, 20 injured, and the city in turmoil. But because of the delay, Pairon and his companions avoided the chaos. Instead, they went to a concert by visiting Ictus musicians in Nablus.
It was "so unbelievably in contrast with the ugliness and nervousness of the bureaucrats at Ashdod harbor," Pairon says, "and with the violence of the Israeli tanks rolling into Ramallah.... To hear Bach, Couperin, and Telemann in the midst of all this ugliness ... was a real gift."
Each of the three meticulously restored grand pianos, having traveled more than 2,000 miles, now rests in one of Music Fund's partner schools in the West Bank.
The first one, says Marie Albert, is in use at Al Kamadjati. The school serves 150 pupils between the ages of 5 and 15 at the center itself, and 250 more in programs in surrounding refugee camps and villages. "Next week, we are also starting lessons in Jenin," says Ms. Albert. "Music Fund really helps to make this possible."
The second piano was donated to Nablus the Culture, a music and cultural center in Nablus. The third went to the Barenboim-Said Foundation, which organizes a range of musical activities throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories. In another initiative by Music Fund, several Palestinians are being trained to repair and maintain instruments in order to help keep the pianos and other instruments in use for years to come.
Despite Music Fund's best efforts, the need for musical instruments is still acute in both the Palestinian territories and Israel. Music Fund recently held talks with schools in Sderot, a community living under constant threat of missiles launched from Gaza. They hope to aid Sderot on future visits. On the opposite side of the fence, the children of Gaza are also desperately hoping for musical instruments.
"The conditions for teaching music in Gaza can't even be compared to the West Bank schools," says Pairon.
On its New Year's visit, the Music Fund team was prevented from entering the turbulent Gaza Strip. They hope the donated instruments will be successfully passed along by one of the partner schools in the West Bank to the newly opened Qattan Center for the Child in Gaza.
"Even though it's difficult, it's very important to get instruments into Gaza – or Mozambique, or the Congo – to try to help these children make something of their daily lives," says Pairon, "I'm insisting that, no matter what happens, we don't give up on any of them."