Voice Project co-founder Hunter Heaney recording schoolchildren in Koro Abili
It would seem by now, that most of the world is well-aware of the LRA—Lord’s Resistance Army—the much-feared fighters led by blood-thirsty despot Joseph Kony, who has been terrorizing war-torn northern Uganda (and beyond) for over two decades. Kony’s diabolical practice of abducting children from their families and often forcing them to commit atrocities—killing or raping friends and family members—have left many of the former soldiers who have managed to escape from him feeling unable to return to their tribes for fear of reprisals.
Among the Ugandan women, an extraordinary peace movement formed. Armed only with music—so-called “dwog paco” or “come home” songs—their goal was to let the LRA soldiers know that they are forgiven and that they should return home. The Voice Project was inspired when Hunter Heaney was volunteering at an IDP camp in Agoro, a small village in northern Uganda where he heard the “dwog paco” songs and learned of how they were spread, often just by word of mouth, like musical chain letters.
When Heaney returned home to the US, he enlisted his friends, filmmaker Anna Gabriel (daughter of Peter Gabriel) and musician/producer Chris Holmes (Ashtar Command) who co-founded The Voice Project with him. The trio tapped into their contacts, convincing friends and musicians from across the globe to cover another artist’s song in “cover chains” like they are playing “tag”—the point being, that when you went to their website to hear Peter Gabriel cover Tom Waits, you would become aware of the situation in the Congo. Perhaps you’d want to share the songs on Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps you’d want to buy the Home Recordings album on iTunes—featuring Peter Gabriel, Billy Bragg, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Andrew Bird, Dawes, Joe Purdy, R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills, Angélique Kidjo and many others—and support a very worthy cause.
Owing to the rather unfortunate circumstances involving the Invisible Children organization and the Kony 2012 video, you are probably wondering if the money is going to produce cult-like music videos. I personally know the people involved and I can tell you for sure that this is not the case.
Where the money will go is towards helping The Voice Project (working in tandem with the United Nations) to build and maintain FM radio stations that will play the “dwog paco” songs around the clock allowing the message of forgiveness to penetrate deep into the jungle. There has been a dramatic increase in defections from the LRA recently and most of of the former combatants escaping from Kony cite the FM radio broadcasts and “come home” messages in the Luo language from family members and other defectors like themselves as their principle reason for coming out of the bush and returning to their homes.
Hunter Heany, via email from Uganda explained:
When we first heard these “come home” songs in 2008 and worked to start spreading the word on this, how effectively music was at bringing these kids home, how music was actually helping to end this war and had already brought home thousands of children and combatants, that this was something we could help amplify on the ground as well as learn from as an international community, there were plenty of people who just dismissed it. They didn’t take it seriously or just treated it as a quaint, localized story.
Getting funding was almost impossible, we got turned down by every single foundation we applied to, but the people who got it, understandably enough, were the music people. They are the ones who helped us spread the word on this and carry that message around the world. I think deep down we all know that music can change lives, it’s one of the most deeply effective and formative means of human communication, and musicians who have built their lives around that truth were our first natural supporters.
The rest of international community is catching on now, and that is incredibly exciting.
For the first time in in a quarter century, the region has a chance at real peace. By helping the Ugandan women’s peace movement amplify their message of forgiveness, The Voice Project has played an important role in all of this.
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Below, a short film, narrated by Peter Gabriel, that explains what the Voice Project does:
Peter Gabriel covers Tom Waits’ “In the Neighborhood’: