Music has long been considered “the universal language of mankind.” Even before 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted it as such, music—the origins of which are widely unknown but date back much further than any of the five Fireside Poets—has forever connected people, place and time.
Maybe it was during that unforgettable trip with friends, a night with a new lover, or that one festival set where everyone in the crowd was traveling on the same cosmic plane, coasting. Music is magic. It binds us. And as music has continually developed and grown over the centuries, so has its use as a platform to connect people with a cause.
HIV, on the other hand, has a much shorter lifespan. The earliest known case of human infection was detected only 56 short years ago in 1959 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is believed to have originated in a subspecies of chimpanzees native to west equatorial Africa. Twenty-four years later, scientists discovered the predominant strain of the virus that causes AIDS. Since that time, HIV/AIDS has become one of the world’s most serious health and development challenges, infecting approximately 78 million people and killing 39 million since the epidemic’s beginning. Today, just north of 36 million people are currently living with the disease.
On December 1, people from around the globe came together to celebrate World AIDS Day, an annual event developed by the World Health Organization in 1988 to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS.
Less than two weeks prior, a good friend of mine, Shane, visited during a short holiday stateside from his home in Uganda, Africa, where he has been living and working since May. I first met Shane last fall during a weekend mountain biking trip to Telluride. At the time, he was living in Denver. A few months later I got word that he quit his job, packed up and left his sports marketing job to move to Africa to work with the Global Livingston Institute, a nonprofit that works not to “fix” Africa, but cultivate innovative, community-based solutions and a global understanding of poverty in partnership with the people of East Africa. Just before Shane returned home, he was part of a larger effort to organize and host a free, one-day music festival in Kabale, Uganda, designed to raise awareness for HIV through music and HIV testing.
In a time when North American music festivals have overhauled the concert business and garnered negative press for the revamped drug culture that coincides with it, this was a refreshing thing to hear. The festival, the HIV Awareness Music Project, took place on October 17 in partnership with GLI, Reach-a-Hand Uganda, WHIV New Orleans, with funding from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and organization from the U.S. Mission to Uganda.
Among the performers were 60 local Catholic school children performing traditional Ugandan music and dance; various Ugandan reggaeton, hip-hop and folk musicians; artists from New Orleans, Nashville and Denver, including Johnny 5—lead singer of the Flobots; and Ugandan pop star Sheebah Karungi. Three days beforehand, the artists gathered on a nearby remote island to collaborate, write and perform—recording six new tracks that speak to the positive message and importance of HIV testing and awareness.
In one day the event drew 8,000 attendees and more than 1,200 people tested for HIV. Now the nonprofit is putting together a proposal for a three-day, multi-city tour throughout Uganda to extend the reach of the project. But as Shane, who is so close to the project, stressed: the constant focus is “knowing your status.” Music is simply the vehicle.
Today Uganda is 10th in the world by country ranking, with 1.6 million people living with HIV/AIDS and 140,000 new infections each year. He noted that reducing new infections is all about testing, and wherever there is testing, access to care for those who test positive is hugely important. During the festival, health partners offered immediate counseling and initial medications to those who tested positive, and a full treatment plan and close monitoring was and continues to be an available resource.
Of course, this is only one festival, on one day, taking place in one city. There are millions of people in countless locales around the globe trying to tackle this deadly virus with limited or no resources. But being a publication with a staff that loves to follow and cover music and tell a good story, I thought this story of music bringing people together for the overall health and betterment of a country was one worth sharing—especially with World AIDS Day recently taking beautiful shape once again.
As Shane later followed up, he said: “A positive test for HIV is not a death sentence, treatment is available, and those that test positive can live a healthy and happy life.” The key is knowing.