Music in immigration detention, day 4

I’ve now given my fourth and final workshop at the immigration detention centre. John (guitarist and music volunteer) and I returned to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation on Saturday afternoon equipped with a range of  guitar, drums and other percussion, and together with the young men there we worked our way through our repertoire of music from Iran and Afghanistan, with some spontaneous improvisations along the way.

Once again, the workshop set its own pace in a very organic way. It had a sense of ease and familiarity to it, I felt, perhaps as a result of the warm relationships that we’ve been building over these last few weeks. We were greeted by Hussein, the singer, and Arun, the young man who’d started learning some guitar chords in the previous workshop. For the first time, no-one moved to take the drums, or pull percussion out of the crates. Today, the mood was more reflective, and when the music began in its usual emergent, un-led way, it was with everyone playing guitar. We showed Hussein the two chords (E minor and A sus 2) that we’d worked with the previous week, and the four of us strummed in rhythm together, getting a rich full sound from the guitars.

A new person wandered in – Mustafa, another young man from Afghanistan. He left again almost immediately but returned minutes later with his own guitar. It had a broken string but John found a way to fix that, and then got him started on the chords.

I think it was Hussein breaking into song that might have moved us away from the chords and onto some percussion. I think he might have started with a song that we didn’t already know but that invited some energetic drumming. From that first casual improvisation we began to move through the material we already knew from previous weeks.

Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete

Soltane Ghalbhe?” I suggested to Hussein. He looked back at me, and countered with “Saghe”.

Soltane,” I said again, thinking that perhaps my pronunciation was wrong and he hadn’t understood me. “Saghe,” he repeated, with a persuasive smile and perhaps some steely determination. Who was I to argue with such enthusiasm? So we launched into Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete.

We needed to change the key this week – we’d been playing it in the same key as the CD but it was too high for Hussein. Easy for John on guitar to adjust of course! But it moved it into an awkward key signature for me and when we got to the instrumental break I realised that I hadn’t quite assimilated the new key properly. I broke off and Hussein looked at me in bemusement. “What, what?” he asked, gesturing at me and at his friends in mock dismay.

This halt in proceedings meant another song got started, and I worried we wouldn’t get to do Saghe with everyone (I confess, it is a favourite of mine as it took quite a bit of learning). Still, this new song sounded fun. When I sat back down again I asked Hussein, “Can we sing the new song again?”, hoping I could learn it.  He gave me the quizzical look that I now know he always gives me when I suggest doing something again. “What would we want to do that for?” it seems to ask. Every now and then he humours me with these strange requests but that day wasn’t one of those times. Never mind. I tried out the clarinet solo for Saghe in the new key, the new song got discarded, and we were ready to get going.

John started the song with a short rhythmic intro, and then Hussein began singing, with the clarinet also playing the tune. The rest of the guys (including John) joined in on the chorus ‘response’ and we sounded pretty good, pretty tight! It still moves at a fantastic pace and it’s tricky to keep the 6/8 feeling going, but overall we were a much more aware ensemble this week.

Soltane Galbhe

From there, we moved to Soltane Ghalbhe (King of Hearts).

I didn’t really like this song when I first hunted it down on YouTube. On my first couple of listens it sounded like one of the overblown, full-orchestra, grandiose versions of folk songs that were so popular in Bosnia at the time I worked there. However, since we started singing it each week at MITA, I’ve developed a great fondness for it. The melody has a sense of yearning or heartache in its phrases, and it feels like it has a powerful emotional resonance for the guys, who always sing it in full voice. John played the guitar, Arun provided an additional E minor chord drone, and I played the melody on the glockenspiel, accompanying the singers.

There was a point where I think the singers felt the song had ended, but I kept it going on the clarinet, playing the melody once more. As I experienced in my first week at MITA, in very expressive, emotion-filled musical moments such as this, the clarinet has a way of pulling the focus of the group inwards in quite an intense way. The room becomes stiller, and they give their attention to the instrument and the sound.

Soltane Ghalbha has a verse (played 2 times) followed by a chorus, higher in pitch and with a sense of emotion and yearning. The singers joined in again when I reached this point and together we played/sang through to the end of the song. I caught Hussein’s eye at one point, his face was serious as he sang, and it was clear to me that this song, at this moment, had a huge sense of poignancy for them. There was silence after it ended, and then they all breathed out, or slightly nodded or shook their heads, making connection with each other in response to the song, no words exchanged.

Bia ke borem ba Mazar

The remainder of the workshop was focused on Bia ke borem ba Mazar, that I now know is about a well-known pilgrimage city in Afghanistan, home to a very beautiful mosque.You can see it in this video:

With four guitars at our disposal (two of John’s, one of mine, and one belonging to Mustafa) we decided to teach the guys how to play the chords for this song.

We taught the chords one at a time, and labelled each as ‘chord 1’, ‘chord 2’, ‘chord 3, and ‘chord 4’. Arun was a quick learner, as was Hussein. They got used to watching our fingers to check the chord shape, and then checking in on each other’s fingers in order to stay together. They picked up on the way I was numbering the strings of the guitar as a way of explaining each of the chords (eg. A minor, our ‘chord 1’, uses strings 2, 4 and 3) and began to repeat these strings of numbers to themselves as a way of remembering the different fingerings. One of the MITA staff members lent us a marker and we drew up some big chord diagrams and labelled these too.

Meanwhile, Mustafa was keen to learn the glockenspiel part. We worked through the first three phrases (which are a melodic sequence) slowly. Once he’d got these memorised we added the fourth phrase. This took more than an hour of work on his part, I’d say, and it was extraordinary to see how focused he was. He gave himself barely a break, and played it over and over again, phrase by phrase.

Once the guitarists had the four chords ready, we started to put the two lines together. We would pause on the penultimate note of each phrase to give the guitarists time to change to the next chord, and gradually these pauses became shorter until the chord changes were happening more or less in time.

I played the clarinet along with Mustafa, providing a guide. By now too, we’d been joined by a number of other guys (the ones we usually see towards the end of the session – I think of them as the ‘late-risers’), and they were happy to sing along. Our group garnered quite a bit of attention from people wandering through the building, including interpreters and other MITA staff – I think we sounded pretty impressive by that stage.

Numbers began to dwindle in the last half-hour. Hussein and Arun stood up, shook our hands and wandered off – they had computer time booked, I think, and didn’t want to lose it. Some more guys came to join us.

One was the authoritative young man who’d informed us of the price of keyboards in Pakistani marketplaces, back in week 2. He is an interesting person, with such a hunger for intellectual stimulation, I think. He picked up the descant recorder that I’d brought along (hoping to see Javid, the recorder player from the previous week) and began to play. He clearly had experience with wind instruments as he played with a strong tone, and moved his fingers in intricate repetitive patterns, sliding his fingers to create quarter-tones and fluttering them on and off the holes to create a kind of vibrato effect. I improvised along with him for a while, mimicking his phrases, and adding echo-lines.

After a while, he stopped, took the recorder from his mouth and said sadly, “But, this instrument is no good. It’s not a good sound.” I agreed with him – this was a plastic recorder, and definitely had its limitations! Still, he did more with it than many. I could imagine him playing a wooden instrument.

Later he went to the kitchen to make tea – “Pakistani-style tea!” he told me proudly. I watched as he filled two cups 2/3 full of milk, and put it in the microwave to boil, then put three tea-bags in a third cup, filled it with boiling water in the urn and added this to the microwave too. When everything was boiled and brewing, he poured the tea into the cups of milk, which was now frothy and thoroughly boiled, added sugar, gave one to me and carried the second one out to give to John.

Our session ended on time today, because everyone left! As I said, it had its own organic shape to it, from start to finish. We never suggested doing the concert in the Visitor Centre. There was no activity officer working with us today to facilitate it, but in any case, it didn’t feel necessary. I loved the focused, studious learning energy that we tapped into in this session. The frantic, almost competitive noise and energy of earlier sessions was transformed into something calmer, more focused and collaborative.

This was the last of my booked workshops at MITA. Hopefully they will decide to continue them – it feels to me like it is too early to stop. The guys are only just getting used to the fact that we come along every Saturday afternoon, and what they can expect from, and ask of, the workshops. Maybe in time, the range of what we do will broaden, to include more improvisation, perhaps some songwriting, as well as the performances of music from their countries. I think it has been a good experience for everyone so far. It certainly has been for me and John.

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