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September 23, 2013

Peabody woman helps others heal with music

PEABODY — When he was 10 years old, Michael was kidnapped by Joseph Kony, the Ugandan mystic and former altar boy wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

For the better part of 10 years, Michael was forced to campaign with Kony’s army, terrorizing and murdering Ugandans. He lived in the jungle, with no fixed base, no way to reach his family. He was handed a gun and trained for war at an age when most kids are training for sports.

“He killed people,” said Karen Wacks. “So, he had such a level of trauma.” When he emerged from the jungle at 20, his family no longer wanted him. “They called him a killer.”

For Michael, finding a way back to decent society would be his biggest battle.

Wacks, 60, went overseas on multiple trips, first to East Africa and then Columbia with a team from Musicians for World Harmony. The group offers a unique tool for helping people like child soldiers: music, which seems appropriate to Wacks, a Peabody resident and professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music.

The power of music is undeniable, Wacks said. It’s useful in pain management; dentists have long employed it to relax patients.

“Music taps into long-term memory and brings people back to the here and now,” she said.

The therapy is not simply a matter of sitting and listening. “It’s interactive,” Wacks said.

For Michael and other Ugandans, the music is strongly African: rhythms, drums and chanting.

“You put on certain music, and it’s going to have an impact,” she said.

In turn, Michael found relief singing the songs of his fellow child soldiers.

“Music can bring such a level of comfort,” Wacks said.

Wacks pointed out that American music has been strongly influenced by the same sounds, brought from Africa during the slave trade. “And the music in Africa is at the root of music therapy in this country.” There are differences in cultures, she acknowledged, but her music is meant to restore universal values, love, family and security.

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