Sounds of Change: How an Amsterdam Musician Brings the Power of Music to Marginalized Communities

By Emily Vierthaler

Collage by Anna Sazonov

When he was twelve years old, Lucas Dols dreamed of working for Doctors Without Borders. He felt drawn to the impact he could make through healing people; the travel, and the sense of connection that would result from such a lifestyle.

Years later, his journey has taken him from his hometown of Hilversum to Jordan, and from Serbia, India, Ukraine, Lebanon, Rwanda, Iraq, and the West Bank of Palestine back to the Netherlands. He has worked with marginalized groups across the Middle East and Eastern Europe, training more than 120 community leaders to foster social and psychological health in their communities.

This he did not accomplish by working as a doctor, however.

Dols instead pursued the route of music to make his impact. He is the founder and one of six  core trainers of Sounds of Change, an Amsterdam-based nonprofit organization. Sounds of Change trains leaders in conflict-torn and marginalized communities to use music as a tool to strengthen group bonds and promote personal development. Since its inception in 2017, the organization has conducted over 40 training sessions for groups of trainees who work with children and youth on a daily basis.

“Sometimes we think that music is only for musicians, but it’s something we all share.”

Lucas Dols, Sounds Of Change Founder

Musical training projects are currently active in Lebanon, Jordan, Kurdish Iraq, Egypt, and the West Bank. To fund these efforts, Dols and the other core trainers offer musical workshops to businesses in the Netherlands. Dols’ goal is for “everyone in the world to have a way to express themselves without words and to use their creativity”.

“Sometimes we think that music is only for musicians,” Dols says, “but it’s something we all share. I want to make it more accessible to everyone, also in business and society, not just as something that’s reserved for professionals.”

Dols originally hails from this world of professional music. He studied double bass and guitar at the Conservatory of Amsterdam after choosing between medical school and music at age 18. It marked the start of a successful musical career: he was a member of the jazz and pop band Room Eleven, whose debut album went platinum in 2007, as well as a jazz band called Tin Men and the Telephone. He performed alongside jazz artists such as Benjamin Herman, Yuri Honing, Anton Goudsmit and Hans Dulfer.

At 20, his musical career was blossoming. However, Dols sensed that something was still missing. “How can I integrate my need to be more meaningful into what I am doing with music?” he questioned himself.

When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the frustration mounted.

“If I was a doctor now, I could move to Syria and be meaningful to people, but I’m just a musician,” Dols thought at the time.

In 2012 a friend invited him to work with music in Jordan’s most crowded refugee camp, also the largest camp in the world for people fleeing from Syria. At the time Za’atari housed 140,000 people.

Dols observed that the children of Za’atari were traumatized and showed signs of loneliness and depression. By giving them workshops involving singing, playing instruments, and collectively composing music, he witnessed firsthand the therapeutic and transformative potential of music.

“That’s why I ended up combining my skills in music with the old passion of becoming a doctor,” Dols says. “I don’t want to call myself a music doctor, but we’re using music in a very conscious way to enable change.”

“It is very important to help vulnerable groups express themselves without words.”

Lucas Dols, Sounds of Change Founder

Dols is right: Studies on music therapy show that engaging with music helps people to minimize PTSD symptoms, regulate and process trapped emotions, reduce the physiological symptoms of stress, and connect with others. 

“We live in a rational world where we mainly use words the whole day. It is very important to help vulnerable groups express themselves without words. An artistic outlet can help to communicate and release tensions for people who have experienced traumatic events,” Dols says.

He adds, “a lot of therapists use words, but there is so much info expressed through the body.”

Since its inception Sounds of Change has had a unique approach to working with communities facing trauma and marginalization. The core trainers look for local partners such as schools, community centers, or NGOs that already have an impact on their respective communities. The core trainers then train the volunteers and employees who work with young people on a daily basis. The objective is to add musical skills to an already-powerful repertoire, and to incorporate additional facilitation skills to work with groups in a more unifying way. Such skills include communication and leadership techniques like Nonviolent Communication and Art of Hosting, and practices like check-ins to establish a safe space for sharing.

The goal is to empower community leaders with tools to strengthen their own communities on the ground. “It’s people from the communities who are best equipped to do the work; they speak the language and know the culture; they are the role models and changemakers for children and other youth,” says Sounds of Change on its website.

In workshops, Dols takes a hands-on approach, directly working with examples of real-life situations. “I help facilitators to be able to ask and answer important questions, to improvise, and to prepare for a workshop in a way that is over-prepared and under-structured [so it can be adjusted],” Dols explains. “During the training, I demonstrate the skills that I am teaching them, and then give them the skills to do the same.”

By the end of the training, facilitators will be able to give musical workshops to the young people they work with. One hundred twenty of them have completed the training thus far.

“What I learned about myself is how to use the deep down memories inside of me – the sad ones – in a good way.”

Raghad, Sounds OF change Facilitator

Facilitator Raghad, from Amman, Jordan, remarks, “ Once you start to play music […] you will start to embrace your vulnerable parts. And once that happens, you will feel love and [understanding] within you and towards other people […] which will lead to a place in which people live in peace.”

Facilitator Rawan, from Irbid, Jordan, says, “what I learned about myself is how to use the deep down memories inside of me – the sad ones – in a good way. To create something beautiful from it and get rid of it.”

During a training, 22-year-old Rawan composed a song to share her journey of becoming a singer – and subsequently a community leader –  within her conservative community.

Sounds of Change artistic director Maite van der Merel remarks on how she saw Rawan transform, “It started with a sad and painful memory and she turned it into a story that ends with her as an empowered young woman on stage. She told the tale, turned it into music, and is now living the story. For me, she is a wonderful example of a positive change maker in her community.”

When it comes to using the resources around oneself to create impact, Dols has a message for young people in Dutch society today. He encourages them to re-evaluate their decision-making processes regarding the directions they take in life. He explains that many start from a specific picture, for example, “I want to be a lawyer”. Then they reverse-engineer and choose studies to get there. This viewpoint is quite limiting, says Dols: Instead our personal needs and passions should be the starting point for such a journey.

He gives the example of why he wanted to become a doctor: to meet people, be meaningful, travel, and have adventures. Those same needs were behind his decision to become a musician.

“If you think from your personal needs and passions what you want to do and achieve, there are so many more possibilities than if you think only of a certain study or role you want to incorporate. What needs drive me in my life? In what world do I want to live? What can I do to create that world?”

Dols emphasizes the importance of young people digging through these core questions. During his time in the Conservatory, he learned hard skills, but no one asked him what he actually wanted to do with music: the “why” behind his motivation to study music.
“When I was studying, I was annoyed that someone never asked me that question, but I also never asked anyone to ask me that. It is a two-way responsibility: you have to ask power figures to [challenge] you in that way. Because it’s your learning process.”

“The smiles that we drew on the faces of the children today are much more powerful and beautiful than all the bullet sounds they heard in the war.”

Tarek, Sounds of Change Trainee

The learning process is an infinite game. So too is the evolution of Sounds of Change and its adaptation to new situations, most recently the coronavirus pandemic.

“The vision and operation of the organization has changed a lot since last year, due to corona,” Dols says, “but the core remains the same: to make the power of music accessible to people.”

Such work enables healthy expression of personal stories, strengthens community bonds, and ultimately helps to set children up for a lifetime of healthy emotional regulation and support.

Tarek, a Sounds of Change trainee in Lebanon, concludes, “the smiles that we drew on the faces of the children today are much more powerful and beautiful than all the bullet sounds they heard in the war.”

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