Singing in the Shadow of AIDS
About Jonah Eller-Isaacs

After spending his childhood in Oakland, California, Jonah Eller-Isaacs graduated from Vassar College in 2001 with a degree in Political Science. His thesis completed under Professor Andrew Davison concentrated on how the manipulation of political language by American foreign policymakers led to a denial of political realities in the Middle East - specifically the threat presented by the then-obscure radical organization al-Qaeda. He also completed a sequence in Music and Culture, focusing on representational analysis of film scores and international music.

Upon graduation, Eller-Isaacs returned to California where, while teaching preschool, he started investigating musical responses to HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2003, he founded The Music is Life Project and a year later traveled to Africa to continue his research. He currently works as a writer and public speaker in St Paul, Minnesota.

Interview on The Current - 12/01/05
Audio About the Project

About the Music is Life Project

In the spring of 2003, I was teaching preschool and deeply involved in the simultaneous toilet training of ten children. When a friend returned from Malawi with stories about musical health education there, I began research that led to the founding of The Music is Life Project, an independently financed and organized investigation into the role of music in the fight against HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. After a year of private donor fundraising, a Recording Arts internship at Minnesota Public Radio and countless hours spent planning and communicating with organizations in Africa, I left in May of 2004 and spent six months traveling alone through Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. While living almost exclusively with local families, I recorded music in remote villages and sprawling slums and held microphones at the lips of orphans, choirs composed entirely of people living with HIV and freestyle hip hop MCs. My journey through an area with some of the world's highest HIV infection rates was transformative, bringing me face to face with the impact of international injustice, greed and racism. At times it was a harrowing experience - the theft of nearly all of my recording equipment and field notes was maddening, but the constant presence of death and disease was far more grueling. Yet time and again, I found inspiring stories of dedication, hope, and strength in the face of this destructive virus. Upon my return, I began producing the radio documentary "Singing in the Shadow of AIDS," and I continued to travel, spending months on the road sharing this amazing story with high schools, congregations, Planned Parenthoods, medical schools and anyone else who would listen. After a multimedia presentation at Skyline High School in Oakland, California, one high school student issued high praise for the lecture by calling me " by far the coolest person ever." If you'd like to hear more about bringing The Music is Life Project to your organization, please email