Music in immigration detention
Yesterday I led my first workshop with the young men at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation [MITA] – a secure facility for people being held in immigration detention. The Melbourne site is accommodating a large number of young men only, many of them unaccompanied minors. They are in their mid- to late teens, I would say.
I’ve been invited to lead a series of 4 workshops with them. For this first session, I kept things pretty open. I knew very little about the group, or about the space, so wanted to be able to respond as we went along, rather than have a firm and highly structured plan. I also didn’t know what to expect from the cohort. The little I have read about MITA describes a highly stressful place, with young men who are potentially depressed, highly anxious, disengaged, maybe angry…. so I was working with a lot of unknowns.
MITA is situated in an outer suburb – about 45 minutes drive from my home. It is in an Army Barracks – a huge site with lots of different buildings and lots of cyclone fencing. You can drive straight into the site, but need to park and sign in at reception when you get to the Immigration Accommodation centre. After signing in, I was directed to drive further into the site, so that I could unload all my instruments as close to the workshop venue as possible.
I brought a big range of instruments with me – a djembe, a darabukkah, a conga, a big tub of mixed percussion, a glockenspiel, an autoharp, some temple blocks – probably three trips to and from the car! We worked in the Recreation Room, a large, carpeted space with table–tennis tables at one end. Young guys were hanging around, and as we brought instruments in, one or two began to play, tapping randomly.
The Activities Program officer (who’d set up the music workshops) brought some chairs into the space and we arranged these in a semi-circle, facing the collection of instruments and with our backs to the table-tennis tables. About eight guys wandered over to take part.
At first I took my lead from them. They picked up different instruments, tried them out, swapped with another person, watched my demonstrations, pulled more instruments out of the tub, and generally explored. One guy picked up the guitar, and focused hard on his fingers on the strings, as if trying to remember patterns learned long ago.
From these very loose beginnings, some structure emerged. One guy began to play a rhythm and I played along with him, copying his rhythm. Others joined in, playing drums and other instruments, and we were jamming. I tried a few cues – “One, two, three, four, STOP!” – and we’d all stop, and then on the next cue – “One, two, three, GO” – we’d start up again. A Vietnamese man on the glockenspiel was picking out melodies, using the rhythm from the drums but creating sequences. During the next STOP I introduced the idea of a SOLO to them. When we stopped, I’d point to one person to play a solo. The glockenspiel player did the first of these solos, but many others took their moment in the spotlight too.
I noticed the guitarist picking out a meek little riff in A minor. “Play it again!” I urged him. I don’t think he understood what I was saying. “Repeat!” I tried. “Again!” “Yes!” “More!”. The other guys understood and soon the guitarist did too. I wanted to see if we could start to add some melodic riffs to our playing.
Then the man on maracas started to sing along with the guitar. I turned my attention to him. “A song! Sing! Is it a Vietnamese song?”
He laughed. “Yes, yes, Vietnamese song!” and began singing again. However, he only seemed to sing a fragment of a phrase, and then stopped.
I got my clarinet out. For me, the fastest way to learn a melody is to figure it out on the clarinet. They all watched as I took the instrument out. I found the starting pitch of the song. “Sing it again,” I urged him. He sang, and I followed, and then I realised why they were laughing. Vietnamese song indeed! This was Lambada!
“Okay, great!” I said. “Let’s jam on Lambada!” I played, and the drummers drummed, the man on the maracas sang and the man on the glockenspiel played the melody too. Lambada must surely count as a truly international song these days.
That was our first jam. Next, I led them in a rendition of This Old Hammer, a great bluesy song that can be sung as an echo song and has very few lyrics to learn. Again, my man on the glock had the melody almost immediately. Even when I changed the key so that the autoharp could accompany it.
As time progressed, different people wandered away from the group, and others wandered up to join us. The demographic changed from majority Vietnamese to majority Afghani and Iranian (speaking Farsi). A new guy picked up the guitar and began to play each of the open strings one by one, very slowly. I went to show him a chord but he brushed me away, content to continue as he was.
There was a poignancy to the notes as he played them. I joined in on the clarinet, matching each of the pitches but holding the notes longer, and tapering the sound away at the end of each. I felt the energy in the room drop, as people began to stop what they were doing and listen to our improvised duet. Sometimes I matched the guitarist’s notes, other times I harmonised them. All the while, it remained a quiet, spacious, intimate improvisation. Watching the guitarist, I couldn’t tell if he had registered my involvement or not. He didn’t look up at me, or respond in any particular way to what I was doing, but he continued to play, up until the moment that he looked up, smiled and laughed at nothing in particular, moved onto something else and released his music (and listeners) into the air.
These guys knew each other’s language and knew many of the same songs. They sang in full voices, sometimes playing random accompaniments on the different instruments, but often content to just sing. I also played for them. “Your instrument is a sad instrument,” one solemn-faced young man told me. “It gives us a sad feeling.” I thought I knew what he meant. “I think the clarinet has a sound of remembering,” I told him. It was my way of saying nostalgic. He nodded. “Yes, it reminds us.” I played them Krunk, the song from Armenia about a bird being sent out into the world to call all the Armenians of the diaspora to return to their homeland. It’s a song about the pain of displacement. They fell quiet as they listened.
At the end of the song, the solemn-faced boy said, “It is like a song we have, a song from Iran.” He began to sing in an expressive, soulful voice, and the melodic phrases did indeed bear many similarities to Krunk.
I asked them to teach me some of the songs. One man was appointed scribe and wrote the words out, using English letters but Farsi sounds. I proposed an idea for the following week:
“Let’s choose 2 or 3 songs to work on – maybe songs from your country, songs from Australia” (“Yes, yes, songs from Australia,” they all agreed), “and we can present them to people in the Visitor Centre on my last day, in 4 weeks time.”
They liked this idea very much, so we now have a plan. I will bring my portable recorder next week (I’ll need to get special authorisation for this, but hopefully that will be granted) and record them singing their songs. Then I can learn them properly at home. (They tend to interrupt themselves and each other too frequently for me to be able to learn the songs properly during the workshops). My scribe also wrote down the names and artists of two songs, so that I can try and find them on the internet. I haven’t done this yet – it is a task for this week.
As for the Australian song, “Something about the Aboriginal people,” was the request from the group. I’ll have a think about what that could be during the week too.
It was a lovely afternoon. It followed a very organic pattern of playing, then chatting, then playing or singing some more. At one point, around 4pm, I asked if they were tired. “No!” they said, but one added, “Are you tired?”
“A little bit,” I admitted. So he made me a cup of tea, taking care to ask what kind of tea I would like, and if I wanted milk or sugar. So I felt welcomed in many ways that afternoon, and hope that the opportunity to play music together and sing was something that gave them lots of pleasure and comfort too. Music lets us connect to the whole parts of ourselves – not the outsider, not the refugee, not person waiting to find out his fate, not the teacher, not the student… just to whoever it is we are at our core. When life is filled with uncertainty, stress and fear, this is an important connection to maintain.