A group of young refugees has worked with The Garage to make a music video inspired by the sense of freedom they have felt since settling in Norwich.
The group came together at New Routes Integration, an organisation which supports migrant and refugee individuals and communities in Norfolk. Five young people made up the core of the group, attending weekly music sessions at the New Routes centre just off St Augustine’s Street in Norwich from April to September 2016. The sessions were delivered by Paul Thompson and Mikey Matala, music tutors from The Garage’s outreach team, with the aim of writing and recording a song together.
Ayoub Osman, Alrashid Abdullah, Babkir Tahir, Nageem Ibrahim and Mamadou Susoho, aged between 16 and 25, as well as 27-year-old Moussa Ibrahim, had recently arrived in Norwich from South Sudan, North Sudan and Eritrea having experienced traumatic situations in their home countries. Roshan Dykes, youth and volunteer coordinator at New Routes, said that they had survived dangerous journeys to get here, crossing the Mediterranean Sea and travelling through Europe before eventually finding their way to Norwich.
Only one of the group spoke English – Moussa, from Sudan. A few years older than the others, he joined the group as a volunteer, helping with translating and organising sessions. Moussa was the only one with any musical background – none of the others played instruments before this project. He played a key role in the project, inspiring and motivating the younger members of the group.
Around eight other young people – refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from the EU – were occasional participants, dropping in to play instruments, take part in filming or just hang out.
At the beginning of the project Moussa translated from English to Arabic, the common language understood in the different countries. Tutor Paul Thompson said: “The language barrier was a massive challenge as no one apart from Moussa spoke any English at all. We got by using hand gestures, demonstrating actions, using eye contact and offering as little spoken instructions as possible.”
Towards the end of the project communication became much easier. The young people attended English lessons alongside their music sessions and made quick progress with their language skills. Roshan said: “They learned lots of vocabulary around music and music production. Paul did a great job in encouraging them to write lyrics in English, which complimented their English lessons really nicely.”
Moussa played an instrument called a rubaba which he built himself out of found objects. It’s usually played in a traditional Sudanese time signature which is almost impossible for someone with Western ears to count along to. The rubaba was a key component of the song, Moussa keen to bring some of his culture to the mix.
The songwriting process started with rudimentary rhythm exercises, participants clapping out beats with their hands and learning to count in English as they explored and composed. Through the exercises a backing beat was created, then transposed from hand claps to computer using Logic software.
Paul said it took a while for Moussa to lock in with the 4/4 timing but Moussa jammed along to the track, fusing his Sudanese music with the hip hop style beat until everyone was happy and then his part was recorded.
Paul showed the group how a bass line could be fitted in with the music and Portuguese Carla Quaresma, who dropped by one afternoon and was learning guitar, was invited to add a guitar part.
The next stage was writing the lyrics which were completed over two sessions; a collaborative effort with everyone sitting round a table, talking about their lives and their culture. “We always allowed time for that,” said Paul. “It’s important that they had time to chat, to bond as a group, to support each other.”
Paul said: “Moussa wanted to tell his story about travelling from Sudan to the UK, a place where he believed people could live in freedom. So we broadened this out to include words and phrases which resonated with the rest of the group and their individual stories.”
Lyric writing sessions were conducted partly in English and partly with Moussa translating to and from Arabic. Paul said: “Lyrics such as ‘the deep blue sea’ and ‘one big family’ originated in Arabic but were translated into English for the song. They had a strong sense that it should be about one love, peace, freedom.” They called the song Far Away.
Next they added the vocals to the track, gathering round a microphone at New Routes, singing together for the chorus. Finally the track was mixed and edited by Paul.
The group decided that the best way to share their song would be through a music video, so they set about planning scenes and locations. They started in the long grass at Wensum Park – a nod to the grasslands in Africa – before moving to the urban backdrop of Anglia Square, then back to nature by the River Wensum and Mousehold Heath.
Paul and Mikey Matala, a DJ and film tutor, showed the group how to record sounds. Some of the sounds on the video were recorded ‘live’ and can be heard on top of the music track, such as the water drops. The group became a film crew, taking on the roles of camera operators, sound engineers and runners as well as performers.
Paul said: “They were a motivated, tight team, working efficiently together to get everything done. Every shoot we were up against the light because we couldn’t start until 4pm, but everyone was keen to make it happen.”
Making the video presented another unexpected challenge – it turns out lip syncing in a different language is not at all easy. The group was prepared to work at this. They recorded the lyrics on their phones and sang along to them between sessions until they got it right.
Finally, Paul and Mikey worked on the film editing, bringing in rough drafts for the group to give feedback and direction. It was the young people’s idea to include the cathedral spire at the end. The Norwich landmark was seen a symbol of the city where they felt safe, were treated with respect and had made their home.
Roshan said that as well as producing a beautiful audio track and film, one of the best outcomes of the project was the cross-cultural friendships that were formed through working together creatively as a team. “Young people who had just arrived here got to know other young people and adults from many different countries who had been here longer. It’s been really good for building relationships and making friends.”
The project was funded by Youth Music, the national charity which invests in music-making projects for children and young people experiencing challenging circumstances.