Sunday workshop with asylum-seekers

Daylight savings started today, so we lost an hour, but now have sunlight long into the evening. It’s lovely out – I went running in the park about an hour ago and it is filled with families, people playing with frisbees and soccer balls, lying on the grass…

It was my only bit of sun today because I spent most of the day indoors doing a workshop with families at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Not that I’m complaining – there is plenty more sun on its way, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is a wonderful, supportive place for new arrivals to gather and get support. It was a pleasure and privilege to go and work there for an afternoon.

This kind of workshop – where the participant numbers are unpredictable, where it is a bit of a drop-in environment – is not the kind I usually do. Most of my work is in spaces and with groups that are quite specific and pre-determined. For the kind of composition projects I do, that is what works best.

However, there is a big need for these more flexible, less structured workshops and I took this one on to see what I would do with the time, and how it would suit me.

We had a lot of fun. For most of the time there was just one family – a Sri Lankan family of three siblings and their mother – and a bunch of adult volunteers. The kids were outnumbered! Towards the end of the session another family arrived.

We started with some games, as the group seemed quite shy and a little inhibited, particularly with their voices. I taught them my perennial favourite, Pass the Clap/Ssh/Bing/Bong, and was gratified to see the two youngest getting more assertive with their sounds and who they passed them to. We also played Read The Circle, in the version I have been doing with the Lower Primary students at the Language School where the focus is on high and low pitches.

Then we got out the angklung. I have a one-octave set that my parents brought home for me after a trip to Bali. I haven’t used it much, but I think I will this term. We tried various things. First we put them in order, from lowest to highest (figuring it out aurally). Then we tried out some tunes (Happy Birthday and Twinkle, Twinkle work well), with me calling out the numbers (1-8) that needed to play.

Then we organised them into 3 chords – C major, F major and G major. I proposed a guitar-strum rhythm to imitate, and set up an accompaniment of C | | |  F | | |  C | | | |  G | | | |. To help them get a stronger sense of what we were aiming for, I played the progression to them on the guitar. Once we had got it established, we turned it into an accompaniment for The Lion Sleeps Tonight. We learned the song, then sang and played.

It worked pretty well. People looked tired though, as it was big concentration. We took a break after this.

Then we did some songwriting.

I used to do a lot of songwriting in workshops. I would bring along my guitar, and not mind the fact that I play so clumsily and have such limited chord knowledge at my disposal. Or that my strums are inherently daggy, and reminiscent of church folk group in the eighties (the only way I could get through the interminable boredom of weekly mass). I love working with words and text, and the way that songs can emerge so quickly, and so freely. However, in more recent years, particularly since I have been working with Orchestra, I have done less and less songwriting in workshops – that is, songwriting with guitar. I guess I still do quite a lot at the Language School. I think I have become more self-conscious of my limited guitar playing skills.

So, as part of a challenge to myself to try some different things in today’s workshop, I brought along the guitar, and we wrote a song. We developed the words but asking the children to draw pictures first. Out theme was ‘homes’ and they drew a picture of where they used to live, and a picture of where they live now. By asking them questions about things in the drawing, we can write down the words they say, and these words become the lyrics of the song.

The images the children drew of their home in Sri Lanka were filled with lush vegetation – mango trees, rambutan trees, coconut trees. Flowers and butterflies. A pet dog. This is the song we wrote, using the chords D, C, D, C, D, C, G, G:

The mango tree

And the coconut tree

And the rambutan tree

All around the house.

The red anthirriums [anthirriniums?]

And coloured butterflies,

And my dog Rexie

Walking all the way to

Achi and Siya, Achi and Siya, Achi and Siya

Walking all the way…

Achi and Siya are the names for Grandpa and Grandma in their language.

We then added some percussion parts, and some harmonies. And by then the workshop was over.

I was happy with the outcome. I do find it tricky to plan a workshop when I don’t know who will be there, or what they will feel like doing (you can be a bit more directive in a school than you can be in a casual workshop, I think!) but the upside is that it is a lowkey, spontaneous environment that is essentially very positive and supportive, where magical things can happen, or simply a pleasant afternoon of mkaing music together can pass.

I think the next challenge for me will be to strike a balance between ‘educational’ activities, and those that emphasise participation without necessarily educating. In fact, ideally, both are always present. But I wondered in the games I did today, and the work with the angklung, if it was a bit too like school for the children. Hmmm. Something to think about.

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