A Letter from Calais

Last week Rachel Beckles Willson (Royal Holloway) travelled to Calais. The visit was an extension of her work with refugees in London (a non-musical concern); but it connected with her earlier research on musical missions to Palestine, as well as her current research on the oud. We asked her to write a note of her experiences to share on the BFE page.



From Rachel:

I went to Calais mainly to further my understanding of the refugee situation in Europe, but I arranged to meet up with other visitors including Ed Emery, who coordinates the SOAS Arabic Band and who recently recruited for his work in Calais through BFE. So I took my oud, an instrument that is played in many of the countries the migrants have travelled from – albeit with different music in different ways. I travelled with another oud player, Francesco Iannuzzelli; we also had a darbuka. We took our instruments into three spaces: a small camp of around 100 Syrian nationals near the centre of Calais, the space in front of the Calais Town Hall, and the so-called ‘Jungle’ outside Calais, where an estimated 4000 people are living mainly in tents. I put together 8 points about what we did, also reflecting on what ethnomusicologists might offer in such camps.

1. Some people smiled and reached out for the instruments on sight. Some were immediately able to play the oud and were joined by others singing; some may never have held an oud but tried it out. The darbuka attracted the same attention and could dramatically transform the atmosphere, triggering dancing and singing; extraordinary energy emerged at such moments. Several people asked us to give them or sell them the instruments: had we had more we could have left them there or – for a longer investment – set up a lending arrangement in situ.

2. The experience of live music was sometimes visibly cheering, particularly when the music was recognisable. Some requested particular songs, whether by singing them to us or by streaming them on their phones for us to learn on the spot. The same process could also trigger grief, however: memories of worlds left behind were extremely painful. Musicians may be able to contribute to the establishment of new memories: moments of sharing and exchange that could be built on further. Some took photographs and videos of us on their phones and some wanted to be videoed together with us: they were creating new private / sharable archives.

3. We joined two demonstrations by migrants held on the steps of Calais Town Hall. Providing music at these moments was a statement of solidarity from Europe that is largely absent in Calais. It made one demonstration noisier, because the darbuka not only provided extra sound, but made the chanting group more energetic. It seems to have been this that led the police to move the demonstrators off the Town Hall steps and into the square in front. This was patently an anxious territorial move. In other words, the demo was not merely a background noise: it had an impact (even if a tiny one). Greater planning and coordination could lead to music being sufficiently disruptive to cause other change. In Spring 2015 a concert organised by the SOAS Arabic Band allowed Sudanese migrants to develop the music they knew right there in a Calais venue: effectively they took over the space (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUgNQQ_BVU4).

4. The music making led to conversations in which there was an opportunity to help. Many people envisage a move to the UK as a move to safety. I warned them that the UK is uniquely draconian in the EU because it operates a system of ‘indefinite detention’. Those categorised as ‘illegal’ – or merely awaiting categorization – are incarcerated in a UK-wide network of Immigration Removal Centres without any time limit. (I will not forget the hollowed-out shock on the faces of the people to whom I explained this.) So the next step is to link migrants to sources of expert advice. I met two lawyers from the UK who were setting up an advisory team to support migrants seeking asylum, so such linking is possible on the ground.

5. Being able to play or sing some popular melodies from places the people have travelled from is an initial key to making contact, to generating interest and enthusiasm. Musicians with sufficient expertise may help people remember, develop or even learn music / dance traditions from the regions they come from. The more varied and flexible one’s expertise, the more one can support. At the same time, if this expertise includes knowledge of languages, one can do much more than help affirm group identity. Migrants need help in communicating across groups on all levels: there are challenges from basic day-to-day arrangements right up to learning legal rights. Language bridging is crucial.

6. I met people who were born in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sudan. With more instruments and more time people in the camp can find ways of making music together across differences. (There is really very little to do.) Musicians and instruments spending time sensitively in communal areas (such as food queues) allow things to happen. Music may trigger mixing across the groups; it can also trigger immense activity from one particular group, which comes to dominate. We experienced both. Ideally, this would be a gateway to something else: connecting people to language resources, including lessons.

7. There are multiple ways of getting the voices of the migrants out in ways that may help Europe come to terms with the current situation. The examples I know are impressive, touching, and challenging. Follow these links:

Music from the migrant population of Calais https://soundcloud.com/djshamam

Mapping Syria from Calais https://youtu.be/DUAkP5nz4_c

Concert / jam with Sudanese in Calais https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUgNQQ_BVU4

With some thought and energy, these could be expanded. The question is perhaps how best to transform such resources into ideas that can be spread more widely and thus shift public opinion. Ed Emery is very keen to expand a musical presence in Calais and would love to hear from people wanting to be involved. Write to him on ed.emeryatthefreeuniversity.net

8. Finally, there is the obvious academic task of documenting the situation and reflecting on our own role within it for the benefit of other thinkers. Playing music is one thing, but playing music with this in mind is something else. Edward W. Said argued that intellectuals should seek out ‘the intellectual meaning of a situation’, by which he meant they should recognise what is happening as ‘part of an unfolding history whose broad contours includes one’s own nation as an actor’. ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ was for him about weighing up options and making decisions about what needed saying, and then ‘intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change’. Finding the spaces, and the musics and languages in which to be effective is challenging for all of us.