Rohingya Refugees
Photo: Marilena Umuhoza Delli / Worldisc

‘Once We Had a Home’ Uplifts Rohingya Refugee Voices

Home records vocal expressions of pain, love, and life at Kutupalong, bringing Rohingya refugee experiences into its audiences’ aural consciousnesses.

Once We Had a Home
Rohingya Refugees
Toy Gun Murder
26 April 2024

In 1982, members of the Rohingya ethnic group, located primarily in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, lost their rights to natal citizenship en masse with the ratification of a law that pointedly refused to recognize their claims to indigenous status. Instead, the 1982 Citizenship Law bolstered the Burmese government’s ongoing narrative of the Rohingya as colonial-era interlopers from Bangladesh, paving the way for nothing short of genocide. Acts of ethnic cleansing reached a fever pitch in 2017, sending more than a million stateless Rohingya into exile. Many fled to Kutupalong in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp, which houses almost a million people.

Because most residents are not allowed to come and go from Kutupalong at will, producer Ian Brennan headed there to record the album Once We Had a Home. The latest in his varied repertoire, which tends toward showcasing the underserved and underheard, Home records vocal expressions of pain, love, and life at Kutupalong, bringing Rohingya refugee experiences into its audiences’ aural consciousnesses.

Self-explanatory titles and minimal performer information frame the songs here. Mohammad A., 35, opens the album with “My Body Aches for Home”, a thematically appropriate introduction with a solo voice clear over vague background clatter. Subsequent tracks have more vivid names, like “The Soldiers Burned Our Mosque (They Stole Our Souls)”, in which heavy reverb and ominous background hums are added to an emotional spoken word anecdote to underscore the obvious pain of speaker Shona M., 47; and “Let’s Go Fight the Burmese (They Raped Our Women)”, a more resigned and resolute group song accompanied by gentle mandolin and led by Mohammad R., 55.

Love songs pull Once We Had a Home out of one-dimensional trauma porn territory, with the rough choral unison of a cappella “I Am Falling in Love (She Looks Beautiful in Black)” offering a moment of tempered warmth and the more intense strains of solo voice and mandolin piece “I Want to Marry, Amira, from the Camp (If I Cannot, I Will Hang Myself)” bringing passion to the mix. Bells and makeshift percussion join strings and the voice of Mohamad Y., 35, on ecstatic “She Comes to Me in Dreams”, the album’s fullest song and its most energetic. The record ends with “My Family Prays for Us to Come Home (Here We Have No Life at All)”, a solo voice track from 32-year-old Abdul H., sparsely accompanied by mandolin to parallel the opening.

The music here is affectively resonant, Brennan making sure listeners understand the stakes of Rohingya artistry regardless of language barriers. As with all his projects in the same vein, the intent here is clear as a more dynamic and nuanced picture of Rohingya refugee life emerges from the variances in Brennan’s slightly post-produced field recordings. On Once We Had a Home, we hear the voices and the words of people who have faced horrific trauma and continue to experience unspeakable pain and persecution in poorly supplied and regulated camps. We also hear pieces of their sociality, their musical means of staying connected and getting through daily travails. To listen is to acknowledge the humanity of people who have long been denied it.

RATING 8 / 10