News Column

Peabody woman helps others heal with music

September 23, 2013


Sept. 23--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.

Wacks grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and studied at Northeastern and Harvard. She's served in such diverse places as the Fernald School in Massachusetts and the University of Alaska at Valdez before arriving in Peabody 16 years ago. Wacks is married with two grown stepchildren. Her credentials include a state license in mental health counseling and a talent for the French horn and piano.

"To be a music therapist, you need to be a musician first," she said.

The case for music therapy has been well established. "Having been a music therapist for 30 years, I've seen the field develop and grow," Wacks said.

Former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords offers a compelling example. Shot in January 2011, she suffered brain damage but has made a startling recovery. "It was through music therapy she got her abilities back," Wacks said.

Asked to work with people in war-torn areas, Wacks jumped at the idea. "I love to travel. I love to make music with people. I love to see the many ways music can be used to help."

She made her first trip to Kenya in 2007. Later, she returned to Africa with a group of Berklee students who worked with orphans.

Recently, Wacks traveled to Colombia where rebel guerrillas and paramilitary fighters are emerging from the jungle at the end of a guerrilla war.

"Everyone's been impacted by the conflict," she said.

With her Berklee crew, she helped establish a model for therapy to be used by Colombia's Agency for Reintegration.

She hopes they have the same success that she saw in Uganda with Michael, the former child soldier.

"Something about the music brought him to a place of safety." She's kept in touch with all her African friends through the Internet and feels Michael has progressed, even finding a job. He works with a dance troupe, making music.

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at


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