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Blog by MID volunteer Alicia: Gym-jam sessions

Blog by MID volunteer Alicia: Gym-jam sessions

30th June 2016

At the end of May 2016 I was given the opportunity to go to Music In Detention’s (MID’s) first trial of a music exchange project between detainees being held in different immigration removal centres (IRCs). The two IRCs involved in this project were Harmondsworth near Heathrow, and Campsfield House just outside of Oxford. MID’s exchange projects usually put members of communities living near IRCs in touch with detainees allowing the groups to send music and messages to one another. This latest project was a unique opportunity to allow detainees to speak to one another, and share musical talent without ever meeting in person. The project involved four workshops held over a two-week period.

Week one

The first session at Harmondsworth was great, led by Music In Detention artists Ollie Seager and Kenny Mangena. The last time I was in Harmondsworth I learnt how to play bass guitar. This session was attended by four people; two from Vietnam, one from Albania and one from Nigeria. The song that was being produced was on the topic of ‘Welcome’, the theme of Refugee Week 2016. We all thought this was ironic, as many detainees may not feel very welcome due their exclusion from society, but continued with the theme. All four men had some sort of musical talent. One was really skilled on the guitar, the other on the keyboard, one on the drum kit, and the other with basically all the percussion! We recorded a great track, despite there being a fire drill sounding throughout the whole of the second half of the session. The best part of this exchange was that the detainees got to record messages of hope for the detainees in Campsfield House. We took these tracks and the messages over to Campsfield House.

The session in Harmondsworth was mellow compared to the session we were about to have with the guys in Campsfield House. Either the cricket was on, or there was a film being watched, so we were led to the second best place for a music workshop; the gym. Whilst Ollie set up, me and Kenny started to drum. I decided to drum in more of a South Asian style, because I feel the bass is louder. The drumming did the trick, and in no time the gym was full of people from everywhere. There were people from India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Somalia and more. It was such a surreal meeting, with a few guys in the back lifting weights, 5 people in the middle drumming, and 40 people watching and dancing. In this session, so many people wanted to sing, and to see the smiles on peoples’ faces and the dance moves that were coming out, was truly beautiful. One man from Kurdistan sang Kurdish songs with so much passion, the beads of sweat on his forehead were like tears hiding from the eyes. I was reminded of the courage and resilience of the Kurdish people; whose culture is so strong and important to them. Ollie said this would have been the first time many of them would have heard songs from their culture in a long while.

Being part of the gym-jam session was such an amazing feeling. I felt as though “this is why I love performing”. It’s an opportunity to lift people out of their circumstances spiritually. I can’t change their situation, but I can change the way people feel within themselves, and that to me is the best thing about these workshops. Not for the first time I realised that the joy that I was feeling watching them express themselves and have fun, was not my own, it was theirs. I recently read a Christian devotion which reflects my feelings about this very well, it reads:

“I am creating something new in you; a bubbling spirit of Joy that spills over into others’ lives. Do not mistake this Joy for your own or try to take credit for it in any way. Instead, watch in delight as My Spirit flows through you to bless others.”

To me, this illustrates perfectly the gift that Music In Detention gives to detainees. Without knowing a person’s circumstances, they act to help people feel happier and relieve their mind of stress for a time. To be a witness to that, and a contributor to that, is a joyous and rewarding feeling.

Week two

It was becoming routine now that every time MID came for a music workshop, the staff on the gate would not be expecting our visit. Communication within IRCs doesn’t always work too well, and despite careful planning, messages don’t always reach the right people at the right time. So, we’d wait for ages to get in. This time we were told it would be too difficult to get the detainees to the session due to a staff shortage, and it being the morning. Mornings in IRC’s can be particularly difficult as some detainees find it very difficult to get so sleep. One can imagine that if you feel stressed or uncertain about your future, as much as you might want to sleep, your mind has other ideas. We were advised to take our workshop into Colnbrook which is the IRC right next to Harmondsworth. The idea was that more detainees would be able to attend the workshop, as there is more freedom of movement there compared to stricter security arrangements at Harmondsworth. So, we lugged all the instruments over to Colnbrook.

I have to say, I’m not entirely sure ‘freedom of movement’ is the best phrase to use. Colnbrook was like a maze, or one of those games where to get to the next level you have to unlock it, literally. After going through about ten doors, I made the mistake of thinking one of the doors at the top of the stairs was open. I tried opening the door, and the accompanying guard said, “Oh, no. No door in this place is unlocked”. As I write this I want to laugh at my naivety. I remember it was at this point I got that familiar pang of gratitude mixed with frustration. I felt grateful to have my freedom, to not live in a place where no door is open, to be able to see my friends and family, and attend activities when I choose to.

In this session, I sang for the first time in front of people. I kept thinking of when one of my colleagues, said she had to sing in one of the centres and she had never been so embarrassed. I’m not going to lie it was nerve-wracking, but apparently I have a “diamond voice”, and I like to think so too. I’m happy that I sang though, because I’ve heard it is nice to have a female voice in the centres. I decided to sing a reggae song ‘Shot by Love’, mostly because it’s the only song I knew the words too. The detainees loved it, and one of them was like, “Jamaica?!”, which was nice. I love to bring a piece of my small island with me wherever I go, and I feel reggae music is so calm and edifying.

It was a blessing in disguise to end up in Colnbrook. There we were honoured to meet a detainee called Greg with a passion for song writing. Greg was in the music room when I first arrived and informed us that he was actually a poet. He gave us reels of lyrics that he had written. The lyrics were snapshots of his life before detention, and he was very clear about his views of David Cameron. He is a testimony that your circumstances do not have to destroy your personality. Isn’t it fascinating that so much talent can exist between neighbours, yet the two will never meet? Could we not say the same thing for our communities in general?

After the session at Colnbrook, we made our way over to Campsfield House where we began the last session. This time we were in the big screen room, and we were joined by around 30 men. The Kurdish man came back to sing more of his songs, and there were men from India who sang and drummed and danced. It was again a lovely experience, and I also sang a little more. This exchange was full of memorable moments, and I cannot wait to hear the tracks they have produced!

Listen to the track produced as a result of the project here:

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