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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Sounds of nostalgia: Celebrating World Refugee Day with music

On World Refugee Day, we take note of the musical traditions of some refugee groups and asylum seekers currently residing in Delhi.

delhi Updated: Jun 19, 2019 16:24 IST
Etti Bali
Etti Bali
Hindustan Times
Groups of Afghan and Somali refugees.
Groups of Afghan and Somali refugees.(Photo: Raajessh Kahsyap/HT)
         

Home. A place where you are born, a place where you go back to. A place that will always be your refuge, a sanctuary. But for many, home is just a memory. A distant dream fraught with wars and civil unrest. The country’s Capital is home to many refugees and asylum seekers, who had to flee their nations in excruciating circumstances. And in a foreign land, a thing that keeps them connected to their home is music. While music feeds the soul, it also has the power to heal. Music has helped them find their voice. On World Refugee Day (June 20), we meet some of these refugee groups living in the Capital, who hum tunes of their home and take us on a journey through their musical notes. In Herati music of Afghanistan or the Dhaanto of Somalia, there is a hint of nostalgia. Maybe this is what yearning sounds like.

When Music Is The Voice Of God

The music of the Myanmar Chins consists mostly of praise and worship music, finding its roots in Christianity
The music of the Myanmar Chins consists mostly of praise and worship music, finding its roots in Christianity ( Photo: Raajessh Kahsyap/HT )

According to a report in Human Rights Watch, an international NGO headquartered in New York, more than 100,000 Chin refugees are living in India. For them, going back home is not an option. Some of these refugees and asylum seekers are registered with UNHCR. When we met a group of teenagers at a walkathon facilitated by UNHCR at Lodhi Garden, their mood was sombre, but the mention of music brought a glimmer of hope in their eyes. Most of them participated in choir singing in churches, and were fond of K-pop bands and rock music. For 19-year-old Moon, who came to Delhi in 2012, music is a way to stay connected to his faith. “I worship music as I am a Christian. I would sing in choirs in churches back home. I would sing praise and worship songs as I hear God’s voice in it,” he says. Some evenings, he and his friends get together for jam sessions, where he plays the guitar. “I like Coldplay and Avicii,” he says with a smile.Naukim, aged 14, is the youngest of the lot and has been living here for the last seven year. She remembers the music of her home. “We have drums made of animal skin that our elders would play at family gatherings. Bells also form an important part of our music,” she says. As the conversation veers toward pop songs, the four of them start figuring out which songs to sing.

Where Folk Tunes Meet Bollywood

A group of Somali refugee girls singing Aankh Maarey, a popular Bollywood song.
A group of Somali refugee girls singing Aankh Maarey, a popular Bollywood song. ( Photo: Raajessh Kahsyap/HT )

As per reports by UNHCR, around 740 registered Somali refugees live in India. Following over two decades of civil war in Somalia, these refugees have sought shelter here. A bunch of teenagers, aged 14-19, met us at the walkathon facilitated by UNHCR at Lodhi Garden. Their energy was unmatchable, and their spirits soared further at the mention of music. What was interesting was that they were fluent in Hindi, and were breaking into Bollywood songs, in between singing folk tunes. “Somali music is mostly jazz and rap with influence from around the world. During festivals, the elders would sing and play instruments. Family gatherings back home are incomplete without music,” says 19-year old Mubarak.

A group of Somali teenagers rapping freestyle.
A group of Somali teenagers rapping freestyle. ( Photo: Raajessh Kashyap/HT )

The most popular instrument is the Oud, a stringed instrument, dubbed as the grandfather of the guitar. The younger generation that was brought up here, even though in touch with their musical roots, are very much in love with Western and Hindi music. From Taki Taki (by DJ Snake) to Aankh Maarey, the choice of songs was clearly popular. But they do talk about their folk music. “Our dance and music is called Dhaanto and is performed at family gatherings and festivals,” says Hanan Ali, a 16-year old from Ethiopia.

When Music Has The Power To Change Lives

Members of Salaam Band playing folk and popular Bollywood tunes.
Members of Salaam Band playing folk and popular Bollywood tunes. ( Photo: Raajessh Kahsyap/HT )

Probably among the most profiled refugee groups in India, the Afghans welcome you with a warm smile and a cup of green tea. Their music brings a rush of familiarity. Strewn with Urdu words, the melodies are simple and comforting — much like a home where one feels safe. 40-year old Haider Hadis, who used to be a percussionist in a band in Kabul, is keeping the tradition alive. He has opened a studio where children of Afghan refugees come and learn music. They also have a few original compositions to their name. “They are all away from home, but are very fond of music. Setting up this studio cost me around INR 5 lakh, but it has been very rewarding to see these kids do so well,” he says. Among the students is Shahir Heravi, a singer and guitarist with the band. He came to India from Herat in 2013 with his family. “Folk music differs from region to region, and to where I belong, it’s called Herati music,” says the 21-year old, adding, “It is very important to keep the traditional music alive, but a lot of people forget that. Back home, every celebration had music. People would hire singers to perform at parties.” As they jam at the studio in Dayanand Colony, they sing a mix of folk and Bollywood music.

Haider Hadis is a refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan, who teaches music to children of Afghan refugees.
Haider Hadis is a refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan, who teaches music to children of Afghan refugees. ( Photo: Raajessh Kahsyap/HT )

Mohammed Ibrahim Anwari is a 19-year old who came here in 2011, has fond memories of singing for his friends in Kabul. “Even now when my friends call me and ask what I am doing, I always say I sing. Music helped me through two years of school in Delhi and I made a lot of friends because of it,” he says. Ibrahim remembers the exact date of his arrival in India. “It was October 15 and I cried for three months because I had to leave everything behind. I’d take the first flight back, but there’s no peace in my country. I miss home but I live it through music. It has been life changing,” he adds. One tradition that Ibrahim and Shahir share is that of singing at home with their family members. “My mother loves Bollywood songs, and at times, she sings with me,” shares Shahir. “My dad would sing really old Afghan folk songs so that we remember where we come from. He helps us stay connected to our roots through our country’s music,” says Ibrahim.

Interact with Etti Bali @TheBalinian