Archive for the ‘immigration detention’ Tag

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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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.

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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.