Making human connections through music – day 3 at the refugee centre
My third visit to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] was different yet again. When John and I arrived we were struck by how quiet the place seemed. “Yeah, it’s pretty dead around here,” the activities officer agreed, and went to see who he could round up. The MITA residents are nocturnal creatures – our music session starts at 2.30pm on a Saturday, which is around the time many of them are just getting up for the day. When you don’t get to bed before 6.30am, 2.30pm is an early start!
We started with a small group, and the numbers stayed small for the rest of the afternoon. First to arrive were Hussein, the Iranian singer from the previous two visits, his friend Ashraf who had written out all the Farsi lyrics in English spellings for me on my first visit, and another young man from Afghanistan that I hadn’t met before named Mohamad. Another Afghani man, Ali, a regular member of the group, also wandered over. The three of them grabbed drums and we started with ‘Soltane Ghalba’, the soulful, lyrical love song in 3/4 that I’d found on iTunes and downloaded for these sessions. John played along with the CD, learning the chords on the guitar, and I worked with our newest recruit, Mohamad, teaching him how to play the melody on the glockenspiel. It’s quite a long melody but as it is a sequence of four phrases, it’s not hard to memorise and is very satisfying to play.
As in previous weeks, we moved quickly from song to song, usually before each one had finished. The pace at the beginning was very much set by Hussein. Our second song was Saghi emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete. We sang this one through several times, stopping every now and then to remind our singer to keep an ear out for the accompaniment and not rush ahead. The structure of ‘chorus–instrumental–verse–chorus’ became more consistent. Ashraf and Hussein proved to be a strong drumming team. Ali, working with the side drum and tambour as a makeshift drumkit, maintained a steady pulse throughout, and seemed much more comfortable within the ensemble than he had in previous weeks. He smiled constantly – he was happy to play simple rhythms and just participate, varying mainly the volume and strength with which he hit the drums, rather than the rhythm.
However, I was unsure how long the rest of us would be able to cope with the extreme volume coming from Hussein’s playing, which was particularly vigorous and intense that afternoon. There can be lots of reasons why people play excessively loudly – they may have hearing damage, for example (not uncommon among refugees or people who may have had ear infections remain untreated for long periods), but it can also be a kind of blocking mechanism that resists connections with other people. I wanted to see if we could introduce some dynamic variation.
As always, trying to explain new ideas is tricky, even in a situation where everyone speaks English – stopping the music in order to talk can disrupt the energy that everyone is putting in, it can be interpreted as a ‘correction’ and imply that they have been ‘doing it wrong’, and the new idea may simply not be wanted by the rest of the group.
“Let’s listen to the glockespiel,” I suggested. “Mohamad is playing some interesting things, but it is very quiet.” I asked Mohamad to play on his own. Then I joined him on the clarinet, playing an accompaniment I’d devised. I turned to the rest of the group. “Can you find a very quiet way of playing your instrument so that we can still hear the glockenspiel? Maybe just with fingers…. Or you may even like to choose a different instrument.”
Ashraf, who speaks quite good English, explained this to the rest of the group. Hussein looked unconvinced, but drummed his fingertips on the skin of his drum and looked at me for a reaction. Thumbs up from me. Ali watched the others first to see what they were doing, and then elected to pick up a pair of claves to play during the quiet sections. I suggested to the group that each time I struck a note on the Indian bells (a long, resonant ‘ping’ of a sound), it would cue a change of section.
So we started like this, in quiet mode. The glockenspiel, clarinet and guitar played pentatonic riffs, and the drummers maintained a steady, pattering accompaniment. Ashraf decided to play the treble recorder, and began improvising some low trills, working in tandem with my low, repetitive clarinet riffs. Then I cued the change. I switched to the djembe, Mohamad switched from the glock to the power-tambourine, Hussein took the lead on the darabukkah and Ashraf went completely to town, shredding on the treble recorder – it sounded amazing!
For me, it became tempting to see how ‘in the moment’ each of these improvisations could get. It felt as if our quiet sections were pulling each of us closer together, intently listening and looking and tuning in. In contrast, the loud sections were intense and raw. I stretched the length of each section a little more each time.
At the end of these improvisations we lost a few people. It’s happened each week now, that the two-and-a-half hour sessions tend to fall quite naturally into two halves, with each half characterised by very different people and very different musical energy.
On this visit, only two young men stayed with us for the remainder of the session. They were both at the younger end of the MITA age range, I’d say, and had quite an earnest, studious air. One, Javid, had a recorder of his own that he brought from his room. We decided to work on Bia ke borem ba mazar, the second song from the YouTube clips I found. “It is a very old song,” I heard the Afghani woman interpreter/guard tell one of her colleagues as she stood behind the group, listening to us get the song started. The boys told me more:
“It is an old song, but there has been a remix more recently, so it is very popular again. The name means, ‘Let’s go to Mazar’. ‘Mazar’ is the name of a town, very beautiful place.”
We transposed the song from the F minor of the original into A minor so that it was easier to play on the glockenspiel and recorder. First I taught Arun the melody on the glockenspiel – again, another melodic sequence. The second boy, Javid, had pretty reasonable tone on the recorder, but very little knowledge of the fingerings. I showed him how to play B, A and G, and we got him to play the second half of the phrase, as a kind of ‘answer’. He had an interesting habit of moving his fingers off and on the holes when he needed to repeat a note – I think this was a way of rearticulating the pitch, so I suggested he try using his tongue, making the sound ‘DU’ into the recorder – “but just with your tongue, not with your voice”.
After about forty minutes of incredibly focused work, the two boys had the three phrases of the song learned. There is one more phrase to add, but we can hopefully add that next week.
Around that time, one of the boys’ friends walked past us, waving and calling “Good morning!” to John and I. “He is just getting up from sleeping,” Javid and Arun informed us. “Do you want tea? He is making tea for breakfast.” We both said yes to tea, and shortly after were presented with steaming cups of tea with frothy milk, mine complete with what I suspect was a generous spoonful of sugar. Perfect hot drink for that time in the afternoon!
We finished the music session teaching the boys some guitar skills. John suggested we teach a progression of two chords – E minor and an A minor variant chord – to one person, and a note-picking riff that the other could play on the second guitar or mandolin. After a while, they wanted to swap roles, so John set about teaching the second guy the guitar chords, until I suggested, “Get Arun to teach him!” John looked at me, and grinned, straight away realising how much simpler that would be. “Good call!” he said.
I told Arun and Javid that they could continue working with these chords and riffs next week – “Perhaps we can play to people in the visitor centre?” I suggested. “Next week is the last week we are coming for a while.”
“No, really?” said Javid, dismayed. “So short time! We won’t have learned anything!” Or maybe he said, “We won’t have learned enough”. Either way, he is right. Four weeks is very short. In this environment, so filled with lethargy and boredom, it takes time to build up the energy to go along to new activities, I suspect. It probably takes some weeks before you feel able to factor them in as a regular part of your week.
By then it was time to pack up the instruments, but I did this slowly, giving the guys time to keep playing the instruments as they were clearly enjoying this very focused learning time so much.
An even younger guy wandered up right at the end of the session. Perhaps he hadn’t known the music was going on – he was clearly curious about what was in the tub of instruments, and on my smiling nod of encouragement he carefully extracted an instrument, examining it in detail, not wanting to disturb the guitarists but keen to explore. I loved watching the hugely curious, but highly respectful way he took things out of the box, trying not to disturb the other instruments that were placed around his object of interest. I hope he joins us next week.
Next week is the last session we have booked. There has been some discussion about working some songs up and performing them in the visitor centre. However, I’m not sure that is the right thing for our little group – it could be an unnecessary pressure. But it would be good for us to find a way of ending the sessions with an outcome of some kind. After that, it will be a few Saturdays before I’m able to go back again – if they decide to continue with the program.