Music in immigration detention, part 2

I made my second visit out to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] recently, leading music workshops with the young men there. Once again it was a session with lots of music and energy, that demonstrated  the way that music offers these young men a way to explore their skills and their sense of identity through music. It also generated some interesting questions about ways of working with structure and form (in terms of music, and in terms of workshop content) in this challenging environment.

My first visit was 3 weeks ago, with the following two sessions postponed due to illness (mine) and a lock-down (at MITA, due to a public protest). I was joined for this second visit by a volunteer, John. John is a guitarist and mandolin player (though an economist by trade). The MITA Activities Officer also took part in the session.

During the week I’d been thinking about establishing a bit more structure in the workshops. Would the group benefit from, and respond well to, a warm-up activity of some kind? I planned a simple task that would teach us all each other’s names and kept this in mind as a starting point. However, the first guys to arrive began playing instruments as soon as they entered the space and once they’d started, it wasn’t easy to stop them. The level of English is generally very low, and without an interpreter, it is more effective to go with the flow of their energy than to try and impose a different activity to what they have started themselves.

Responding to different levels of skill

In our first group, we had two guys from Afghanistan, an Indonesian boy and a young man from Kuwait. The guy from Kuwait clearly had quite a lot of musical skills and background.

“Do re me fa so la si” he sang to me. “Do you know this? I know it – do re mi fa so la si do.” Then, after a pause, he went on, “do re mi, re mi fa, mi fa so, fa so la,” and continued singing up and down the scale in this pattern.

He was also quite a skilled drummer on the darabukkah, with a great range of sounds, techniques and rhythms. By contrast, the two Afghani boys needed a lot of guidance. I set them up with a simple djembe pattern and played along with them, while John soloed on the mandolin.

Meanwhile, the young Indonesian man was strumming the guitar, singing slow, heartfelt songs that interrupted themselves midway with yet another slow, heartfelt song. He soon took himself and the guitar off to the other side of the room. I think he was happy just to play and sing by himself. He wasn’t that interested in connecting with other people through his music. It looked like this was his first access to a guitar in a while and he needed to feast on it, without any interference.

The Kuwaiti man was getting impatient with his fellow musicians, frustrated that they couldn’t keep in time very reliably. I decided to experiment with the jam structure we’d started on my last visit, calling for stops and starts so that everyone could have the experience of hearing the ensemble stop in unison, and restart on cue. After a few of these I introduced another element – call-and-response. I played a short rhythm, and gestured for them to copy this. It took quite a while for this idea to sink in. At first, the guys would copy me (kind of), and then continue playing. I then described the structure as being like a question and answer – first one person asks the question, then everyone answers it (using the same rhythm).

This led to us asking questions with the drums, playing the rhythm from the syllables of “What is your name?” or “Can I have a cup of tea?”, and asking the group to think of other questions that they knew in English. The Kuwaiti man wasn’t impressed with this tactic – “Like for children!” he snorted – but he understood that it was a way of generating ideas, and joined in happily, despite his derision.

“Where is my visa?” was volunteered by one of the guys, which made everyone laugh. Black humour was definitely a feature of this workshop.

Documenting (visually representing) our music

I wanted to create a record of all the music that we played in this workshop. The attention spans of the guys are quite short, so very little gets repeated or refined. I decided to write very simple lists, with images, to record the different musical structures and ideas we were exploring.

“MUSIC 1” (named thus in order to use a word they would recognise) listed the names of all the people in that first jam, with a sketch of their face (a poor likeness – I am not renowned for my drawing skills) and of the instrument they were playing. I wrote in the words for our cues – “1-2-3-4-STOP!” and “1-2-3-GO!” and listed the order in which we did things.

Trying to explain ‘solo’

In this first jam, too, I encouraged Mahad (the Kuwaiti man) to play a darabukkah solo. He didn’t understand what I was asking. First I tried explaining the notion of ‘solo’ by saying, first me on the clarinet, then you on the drums, all new ideas. Then John tried talking about going to see live music, when one person goes out the front to play their solo and is clearly the focus of attention. Fortunately, a translator walked past at this time and the Activities Officer pulled him over to assist. He explained what we were asking to Mahad, Mahad responded with what seemed like a lot of humour, and then the interpreter turned to me and said, with a laugh and an expressive shrug, “Okay, he says he will do it!”

So, with our written-out structure in front of us, we played through Music 1.

“MUSIC 2” was Lambada, and once again as our ideas emerged I wrote out a structure for all to see. I started by playing the tune slowly, freely, on the clarinet, with John accompanying on the guitar – this became our Dramatic Intro. Then the guitar started up a groove, the drums kicked in, and the clarinet played the tune again.

The next section featured once again a drum solo by Mahad. Now he knew what to do when I pointed to him and called, “Solo!” For the third section, the clarinet and darabukkah played an improvised duet while the other drummers held the groove together with John.

Interestingly, as the session continued, Mahad’s drumming changed. He’d started off by being very extrovert – constantly inventing new patterns, gesturing to the other drummers to keep up, to keep the beat more reliably (they were indeed struggling to do this), and constantly changing his patterns, before any of us had the chance to respond to them. More, more, more… lots of demands for attention and not a great deal of patience for the others, it seemed.

However, as I started to write the structures down, Mahad’s playing changed and became more subdued. His patterns became simpler and more repetitive. They used ideas in common with the very straight patterns the other two guys were playing. Even when he was soloing, Mahad’s riffs became more repetitive. I’m not sure why this was. Perhaps he had the sense that this was what John and I really wanted, and he was trying to fit in, to tone down his musicianship in order to be more in line with the rest of the group. Perhaps he was getting tired (though he didn’t look any less engaged). Perhaps the ‘lists’ that made up our written-out structures made him feel like there was something else he was supposed to be doing and he was trying his hardest to guess what this ‘correct’ thing was. Perhaps the decision to simplify his playing was about ensemble – his musicianship was telling him that his role in the group could be more supportive, perhaps.

Sharing songs

Some more young men had joined us by now, including the singer from my last visit – the boy from Afghanistan who had known so many of the songs. I asked each person for their name as they arrived at the session, writing each down on a large sheet of paper.

The singer’s name was Hussein. I told him I’d brought a CD of the songs he’d been singing in the previous workshop and asked if he’d like to hear one. He agreed (I’m not sure how much he understood of the question, but he understood perfectly once I’d turned the CD player on).

As the twanging, slightly distorted notes of Saghi Emshab Mesle Harshab Ektiaram Dastete began, his face broke into a smile and he began to sing along, leaning back in his chair. John and I also played along with the CD, and many of the drummers joined in too. I loved observing how naturally they all fitted into the 6/8 swing of the bass line – the vocal line sets up a cross rhythm with this and John and I had spent quite a bit of time that morning getting familiar with this – however, it was no trouble for the guys.

A question of learning and refining

I’d hoped we might spend some time on this song, developing an ensemble version. There is a cool unison chorus that everyone could sing, places for glockenspiel lines and a second guitar, as well as the drums. However, the group moved on to another song as soon as this one was finished. In fact, the rest of the session was spent largely going from song to song that they all knew, each song discarded as soon it was finished (or as soon as the remembered lyrics ran out) for another “new song”, as Hussein called them.

This is something that is challenging for me. I want to give the groups I work with experiences of working together in a way that generates a substantial outcome, of developing something together as an ensemble. I want these young men to have the experience of hearing their performance improve and their skills develop. But the pace of the workshop content here is very much set by the group.

Similarly, in Timor I found lots of our percussion jams (particularly the initial ones) frustrating because the music seemed so static. The same rhythm, over and over again for ten minutes or more, sometimes. I was dying for some shades of light and dark, some changes to add interest and complexity. I had to accept that no-one else in the group was yearning for those changes. They loved it the way it was. In fact, as I got to know Timorese music, I heard how very repetitive and indeed, static, it can seem. This is their musical culture. It isn’t static at all, but it can seem that way to people who are used to music that shifts its way through sections and structures.

Here at MITA, my challenge is to let the guys lead the workshop content at a pace that suits their own energy – at least for these initial workshops. By relinquishing my own aims and objectives, I create the space for myself to make other observations and discoveries, such as:

  • Hussein’s reluctance to repeat anything. Every song was always new, and he led each of them, gathering the group around him.
  • The group’s way of singing almost had a competitive edge to it. Each person would sing a bit louder than the next, in order to hear themselves, or demonstrate their knowledge of the song. Or get there first.
  • The fact that none of them had any interest in whether we (John and I) joined in their songs or not. They didn’t seem to mind if we did, but they didn’t make any particular space for it.
  • They didn’t like the version of Bia ke borem ba mazar that I’d put on the CD. At first I thought it was because they didn’t like the song, but they later sang it with great enthusiasm themselves, so perhaps they don’t like the version of the song that I had found. It has a woman singing  it – perhaps she is a bit of a daggy, old-style singer for them?
  • The improvisation/jam that they most enjoyed was on a song that they said was called “King of Hearts” – Soltane Ghalbha. We’ll definitely spend more time on that next week. One guy started improvising on the glockenspiel and he had an excellent ear. I showed him how to play the chorus melody, and he picked it up quickly.

Mahad stayed with the group for quite a few of the Afghani songs. He was, however, quite alarmed at the playing skills of some of the guys. Their random thumping of drums was too unskilled for him – he stared across to me several times, raising his eyebrows all the way up to his hairline, and shaking his head in mock disgust or amazement. Such commentary was offered in good humour, however, and reached its pinnacle when he stood up and said loudly to Hussein (who was playing the drum at the time), “Crazy – Music – Hospital – What???” and everyone laughed. For someone with only a tiny amount of English, this was a most eloquently expressed phrase, I thought.

Instruments and identity

Many of them asked us to bring different instruments with us.

“Do you have violin?” they asked, many times over. “Do you have flute? Can you bring flute so that I can learn it? Do you have piano? Can you bring piano?”

I explained to one of the guys, “No, I don’t have a violin. I don’t actually know how to play the violin, so I don’t have one. In Australia, that is often how it is. Only people who know how to play a violin are likely to have one in their home.”

“But you can buy them!” another young man said authoritatively. “You can buy keyboard, it is very cheap, in the market. Maybe thirty, forty dollars. In the market in Pakistan you can buy it like this.”

I shook my head sadly. “I don’t have a keyboard I can bring, I’m sorry.”

He looked at me and flung his hand out in a dismissive gesture of disgust. “Huh! You have nothing!” he said, albeit with humour in his eyes.

I found it interesting, these requests for instruments. I wondered what image they have of Australia in their minds. Perhaps it is one of such abundance that it is quite reasonable to imagine our homes are filled with riches like violins. Certainly, it is reasonable to ask – if you don’t ask, you won’t find out or get.

But also, they were asking for things that connected back to prior knowledge, prior learning and experiences, and therefore to the whole selves they used to be, before becoming displaced. I think that the instruments felt like a way of connecting with that part of themselves again.

Their lack of interest in the percussion also highlighted the possibility that they only had minimal interest in developing new music with each other at this stage. Percussion is great for immediate group music experiences – the instruments have a familiarity and suggestibility about them, and can be played immediately. However, for this group of young men, the skills that group learning and participation demand are not as well-honed as their survival skills.

Songs and identity

By the end of the session, quite a crowd had gathered, and no-one wanted us to leave. We weren’t in a great hurry, so stayed for a cup of tea and a chat so that the guys could continue playing and singing.

“Do they do this all the time?” I asked the Activities Officer. “Singing their songs together like this – they all know them, and they obviously get a kick out of them.”

“No,” she said, thinking about this. “No other time. We used to have a drum circle program but that was quite a structured program – they all had to do what the facilitator was working on. I’ve never heard them singing like this.”

So this is another aspect of the workshops to ponder. Something significant is going on here for these young men. It is to do with connecting with their culture, with each other, and little by little, sharing things with each other. I think we are still in the initial stages of what this could be. They are still sussing me out and still checking each other out. The fact that this kind of spontaneous group singing never happens at any other time is important. They might not be including us in it, but it is happening because we are there.

I feel like I got lots of new threads started this week – new strands to think about, ideas to follow up.


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