Homesickness: Refugees and the Balm That Is Music

While the world waits to see what happens next in the United States’s effort to secure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons surplus, over two million Syrians have fled their home country. A recent photo-essay posted on The Atlantic’s website shows the faces of those suffering through what the World Health Organization has called “the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis on earth”.

Sadly, Syrians are not the first (or likely last) people to be forced to leave behind everything they know to escape the horrors of war. Homeless, jobless, and anchorless, refugees have to remake their lives with whatever tools are available to them. One of the tools many refugees have used to move on has been music. By reaffirming refugees’ cultural identity while simultaneously offering inroads into their new home, music has helped a number of displaced peoples carve out a place of their own.

Late 19th-century Russia was a dangerous place to be a Jew. After the assassination of Alexander II, Jews found themselves facing restricted civil liberties under Alexander III (who was determined to not meet the same fate as his father) and social isolation from a public distrustful of outsiders. The year 1881 marked the beginning of a series of Pogroms — violent, riot-like attacks that had the tacit support of the tsarist administration.

In 1882, Alexander III instituted the May Laws, which severely limited Russian Jews’ ability to move, trade, and ultimately, thrive. These temporary measures, ostensibly drafted to promote a return to stability, would remain on the books for the next 30 years. It was during these three decades of terror and oppression that large numbers of Russian Jews began emigrating to the Americas.

While many Yiddish speaking Russians settled in New York, a number of Russian Jews found their way to Buenos Aires, giving Argentina the largest Jewish population in Latin America. It was here—in the melding of African, Iberian, and Eastern European influences—that the tango was born. As the popularity of the music, and its accompanying dance, spread through the region and across social classes, Jewish musicians with names like Linetzky and Bernstein found themselves in high demand.

To get a sense of the contributions of Jews to the tango, listen to these two renditions of “Papirosen”. Set to the tune of what was a joyful Yiddish dance, Herman Yablokoff ‘s lyrics are a plea from a young orphan who has no parents, no home, and no money—a plea that resonates with refugees across ages and borders.

Here Argentinean singer Zully Goldfarb’s sets “Papirosen” as a tango:

One of the more peculiar stories of refugee musicians is found in Ethiopia. In 1924, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited a monastery in Jerusalem. There he was introduced to 40 Armenian orphans who had escaped the ongoing genocide in Turkey. The emperor adopted the 40 children, brought them to Addis Ababa, and arranged for them to have musical training. Under the direction of Kevork Nalbandian, the Arba Lijoch (40 orphans) would form Ethiopia’s first national orchestra. This brass band become a source of national pride for Ethiopians, with the Armenian born Nalbandian composing the oldest independent African country’s national anthem.

The Arba Lijoch were not the first Armenians to come to Ethiopia, and both countries had strong roots in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but the high profile of the National Orchestra helped popularize the integration of Eastern European and Middle Eastern elements into Ethiopian music, giving the nation’s music a sound quite distinct from its neighbors’. The royal brass tradition dominated Ethiopia in 1935, when the nation was attacked by the Fascist Regime of Benito Mussolini.

Italian weaponry, which included modern aircrafts, heavy artillery, and mustard gas, proved far superior to anything the Ethiopian army possessed, and on May of 1936, the only African nation to have never been colonized found itself under Italian control. In a prescient speech to the League of Nations, later that year, deposed emperor Haile Selassie warned, “It was us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

The end of World War II brought about the liberation of Ethiopia, ushering in the golden age of Ethiopian popular music. Strongly rooted Ethio-brass bands found inspiration in American jazz and R&B, as well as the Cuban rhumba and cha-cha records which took the African continent by storm in the ’50s and ’60s. The result was something uniquely Ethiopian: poignant, eastern-tinged melodies floating over opaque, funky grooves, dotted with tight brass hits.

A Marxist revolution in 1974 put an end to Addis Ababa’s thriving night scene, essentially wiping out Ethiopian popular music. But the last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in the music—due in part to the release of producer Francis Falceto massive Éthiopiques collection and James Jarmusch’s film Broken Flowers, which featured a heavy dose of Ethio-jazz served up by legendary producer Mulatu Astatke.

At the same time, a new generation of Ethiopian musicians like Dub Colossus weave together a broad array of influences to create new music with a distinctly Ethiopian sound, a sound which bears the indelible mark of the Armenians who found refuge in Ethiopia.

While music and dance can help a displaced people integrate into their new home, they can also help create bonds within the community of the displaced, creating new sounds in a new land that point to home. This is what happened in the ’80s when sheik refugees living in the United Kingdom created a genre of music that has come to define South Asian popular music in the West: bhangra.

The roots of bhangra are found in Punjabi culture. Straddling the India-Pakistan border, the Punjab region of South Asia is known for its rich history, pungent food, and religious heterogeneity. While the region’s multitude of cultures and religions make it aesthetically fertile, clashes frequently arise, and the region has a long history of religious, sectarian, and ethnic violence. Beginning with the partitioning of India at the end of colonial rule, which split the region between India and Pakistan, minority Sikhs began been moving, either East into present day India or off the continent to United Kingdom.

In 1984, a group of Sikh separatists took up residence in the Golden Temple, turning what is considered the holiest of Sikh shrines into an armory. In response, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched a full-scale military operation to remove the rebels. The siege came to an end after five days, leaving significant damage to the temple and anywhere from 500 to 5,000 civilians dead. On 31 October 1984, two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi shot her in retaliation. The assassination of Gandhi set off a series of a series of anti-Sikh riots which left thousands dead, prompting many Sikhs to leave India.

Blending the folk traditions of their old home with the instruments and popular music of their new home, the children of those fleeing nearly four decades of strife in the Punjab region began carving out a new identity in the streets of London and Birmingham. Eventually, bhangra song and dance found its way out of the shadows of British culture and into the mainstream of English society, as evidenced by the knighting of bhangra legend Malkit Singh in 2008. Bhangra created dialog: between the past and present, the homeland and the diaspora, and eventually, the Indo-English and English communities.

Sadly, there’s little indication that people and states of the world will find everlasting peace. If there is one thing the people world can be certain of, it’s that ongoing conflict will continue to force people to leave everything they have for an uncertain future in a strange land. We can only hope that music and culture will continue to to console and bind those displaced by turmoil and war— a hope heard in the piano of Ehahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, an Ethiopian nun who fled to Jerusalem in 1984 in order to escape the religious oppression of the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.