Refugees’ Stories Through Song: No Borders Music

Image credit: Terres Des Hommes
Graham Strahle
| April 23, 2019

The plight of displaced persons from war-torn regions of the world is something that concerns many people, but all too frequently it fails to register wider public attention. Their circumstances that refugees face as they attempt to resettle in new countries tend to go unseen and unheard.

Elijah Gentle, a Melbourne-based advocate for displaced people, believes that music is an ideal vehicle for raising awareness and has established a project that documents the experiences of refugees in Eastern Europe through their own songs.

The name of this project is No Borders Music, and in it Gentle has recorded the music-making he encountered in refugee camps that he visited in Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Lebanon. His aim it to combine these recordings with instrumentation prepared back in Australia, and thereby create a cross-cultural synthesis that embraces hip-hop, traditional Arabic music, Sufi, and East-West fusions.

Along with an audio album that will be released later this year, a documentary filmed by a Danish film maker is being made. A GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to cover costs is underway – see here.

Gentle says his eyes were opened to the situations facing homeless refugees and migrants after backpacking around Europe and ending up working at an NGO refugee camp in Belgrade, Serbia. Here he tells of what he witnessed at that camp, the musical activities he initiated there, and his project’s aims.

What situations did you encounter that motivated you to start this project?

I started conducting music workshops in the camp and noticed some of the incredible talent. Some of these musicians were well known in their home countries and the frustration was very apparent – to be stuck in limbo in a camp in Eastern Europe for years, after making the long and dangerous journey only to be rejected by Europe with their illegal and violent pushbacks by border police. Returning home would mean jail or death, moving forward seems impossible to many. So they live in limbo, everyday dealing with the traumas of persecution, hoping something will change in the policies so they can go forward and get on with their lives. Drugs, alcohol, self-harm and racial tensions which sometimes erupt as riots are common in the camp. Corruption in government and large aid organisations mean that many resources for refugees often don’t reach their mandate.

Through hosting casual jam sessions and just bringing musical instruments to the camp it allowed a safe space for people to express themselves musically, often jumping around and dancing like crazy! This birthed the idea of ‘No Borders Music’, a platform for refugees to voice their experiences musically, allowing the rest of the world to listen.

I returned home to Australia, worked solidly for four months and gained enough money to buy some recording equipment and return to Eastern Europe with the idea of recording the music of refugees in camps, squats and unofficial settlements.

How did you collect together these strands of hip-hop, traditional Arabic, Sufi and East/West fusions?

I teamed up with a friend from America who I met volunteering in Serbia. We bought a little Yugoslav era car for 250 euros and drove down the ‘Balkan Route’, the migration path used by refugees from the Middle East to get to Europe. We volunteered with local grassroots NGO’s, handing out blankets, hygiene items and cooking food. I translated for medical teams treating refugees and we conducted music workshops, all the while seeking out musicians who were interested in the project. Our movements attracted attention from a Danish film maker who joined us to film a documentary on the project to be released in conjunction with the music album.

We travelled through Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and then flew to Lebanon. I set up my recording equipment in any place suitable and recorded some really special music. Sometimes, just a person and their instrument, sometimes a whole group and in many sessions we would record a scratch track of the composition and get a good take of the vocals with the idea to re-record the instrumentation here in Australia. It is through this technique that I can produce their songs, merging genres and collating different takes to create a whole new piece of music. I am in touch with all of the musicians I recorded and ask their opinion on the productions frequently.

What do you hope to achieve, and how are plans to release the album?

Currently we are still in the production process. I am working with a friend and producer in a studio in Melbourne. We hope to create an album of about ten tracks or so to be released online later in the year. We will hire a publicist to help with marketing and promotion and will host a launch event with live music and a viewing of the documentary. The aim of the project is to create a platform for displaced people to voice their music, allowing a wider audience to listen via online services. Any profits from sales or donations will go to the refugees involved in the project.

For more about No Borders Music, follow their Facebook page.

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