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When the caged bird sings: making music in our darkest moments

Andrea Warner

Following Maya Angelou’s death, revisiting her vast collection of poems seemed like the right thing to do. To know her poems was to lose yourself in her history, her people’s history, to witness tragedy and pain but also perseverance, triumph, pride and the creativity that can emerge from the chaos.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Angelou was writing about slavery and emancipation, but she also gave the world the language to consider why something beautiful can come from the worst circumstances. And though she used music as a metaphor, it’s a very real experience for numerous bands and artists around the world.

CBC Music spoke with Ruben Koroma from Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo and former child soldier-turned-rapper Emmanuel Jal about how music saved them by allowing a bit of light into the darkest reaches of their own harrowing journeys.

A new life

Over the phone, Ruben Koroma’s voice is warm, like floating in the ocean at the end of a hot, sunny day. It’s the feeling of hope and possibility and joy, the same sensations one experiences when listening to the music of his band, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

On the surface it seems implausible: how could people displaced by a violent and tragic war, yanked away from almost everything and everyone they had ever known, forge a band in a refugee camp?

“A refugee situation, it’s really not a good situation,” Koroma says. “You have been forced to quit your land and a lot of things that you lost, like your normal contacts, your loved ones, and even your diet that you’re used to, your culture around you, you have to miss all those things. Music really helped most of the refugees reform their lives.”

The numbers are staggering to the point of incomprehensible, but according to the most recently available World Refugee report, more than 13.5 million people worldwide are refugees or seeking asylum. The 50 most populous refugee camps in the world house almost two million of those people, and there are more than 700 refugee camps currently in existence. Like the All Stars, a number of bands have emerged from refugee camps and rebel communities (the Nazal Jazz band, Tinariwen), and there are numerous stories about turning to music as a coping mechanism and means of survival, such as that of the Syrian refugee camp, Zaatari, as depicted in the short Oxfam video below.

“When war separated me, the guys that were playing music together, I was alone in the refugee camp with my wife,” Koroma remembers. “I missed playing with my friends. When I started playing music myself in the camp, singing with my wife, I found pleasure in it and most of the fellow refugees, my neighbours, they really liked it. They came around us any time we’d sing. It’s like they needed it, and it helped them to overcome most of the stress that we had during that time. People you hardly see, they cannot laugh so easily, but you play music and have some funny kind of lyrics and then I see it, they always laugh.”

Fire cannot put out fire

Yungchen Lhamo, an acclaimed Tibetan singer and refugee who now makes her home in New York, was born in a labour camp in Lhasa in Chinese-occupied Tibet. From the age of five, she was forced to work in a factory, and though Tibetan singing had been banned in 1959 as part of the Cultural Revolution, Lhamo’s grandmother began teaching her devotional songs.

In a 2012 interview with CBC Music, Lhamo recalled initially rejecting the notion that she was a singer and instead prayed to become a man who could grow up quickly and become a leader, escaping the difficult circumstances of her childhood.

“They asked what I wanted to do and I said if I cannot be a practitioner and learn this philosophy, I want to do something to help people and do things for other people,” Lhamo said. “[My grandmother] said, ‘If you really, really mean it, you don’t pray to become man. It’s such a sin of a prayer. You are woman, which is very special.’ She explained some Buddhism things, so I understood and changed my prayer, but I had to promise her to sing. I always said, ‘I don’t want to. Everybody can sing.’ She said, ‘You have a gift. So you sing.’”

In 1989, with her young son strapped to her back, Lhamo set out on foot, making a 1,000-mile pilgrimage across the Himalayas to India. There she set about visiting numerous Tibetan refugee camps, singing her devotional hymns and performing for the Dalai Lama. Lhamo began to pair prayers with melodies she’d written, and a recording was passed along to Peter Gabriel’s famed world music hub, Real World Records. Now she lives in New York and performs around the world, sharing her devotional hymns and working as an activist.

Like Koroma, Lhamo’s music focuses on contentment, joy and peace. Despite the hardship she and her family endured, she finds solace in forgiveness.

“In a way, my childhood is very, very difficult and I cannot put into words,” Lhamo said. “Much of the world have no idea of that time. The one good thing is my father, mother and grandmother all very much believe in being loving and compassionate to others, you never hate others. This has kept me in a good place. For me, I see they have been through so much, so much, and for no reason or meaning, and yet they’re very compassionate. I was very lucky in that sense.”

Koroma talks about a similar motivation for All Stars, that they made a decision to focus on peace and happiness.

“Yes, we really made that decision because we just thought fire could not put out fire,” he says. “If there is fire, you should find water to quench the fire. That’s what we’re bringing in. A lot of ways that people sing songs that will bring trouble, that will bring strife, that will bring unrest, that will bring mischief. We want to divide ourselves from that and stand, and fall, for world peace.”

Music, Koroma says, is the great equalizer for communication and for effecting real change.

“Not everybody reads a newspaper and not everybody watches the television, but most of the people listen to music,” Koroma says. “If you have an important message to pass, if you do it through music, many people will listen to it I think. If you have these messages, to talk to people and think about peace, you could do it through music. People can hear it, they can hear the lyrics, and it can help to change their lives, to change their perceptions. That’s why I always say, if the music singers or songwriters they write positive messages in their songs, that will help to bring peace in the world.”

What matters is music

Those beliefs resonate with Emmanuel Jal as well. The former child soldier found his voice in the slums of Nairobi after fleeing South Sudan, an experience he’s written about in his bestselling autobiography, War Child: A Child Soldier’s Story. Jal turned to music almost accidentally, but it quickly became his salvation. Now, he says, his goal is simple.

“I used the music to tell a story, and that created for me a platform and as I continued to learn the art, I continued to get more attention and people like what I’m doing,” Jal says, over Skype from where he’s recording in L.A. “I use my music now to support causes I believe in…. Something that I have now, is a desire to speak about my people and try to help in a way. Any human being who doesn’t listen to music will go mad in their time, because music is a therapy, music is the language of your soul, the language of your body. It understands, it communicates differently. And so when I started doing it, I was first doing it for myself. I found it was like a painkiller, and later on I could actually use it to communicate to others.”

Jal is now a permanent resident of Canada, but his background, and the things he’s seen and done, surface in his music in ways that are alternately sobering and inspiring, even for the artist himself. But he continues to find new courage in the most horrific of memories.

“‘Forced to Sin,’ which is all my story when I was tempted to eat my comrade, when I rap that song it takes me through a journey and it empowers me and tells me, ‘You are here,’” Jal says. “It inspires me and tells me the future’s great, don’t give up, you have come this far.”

With All Stars celebrating their 10th anniversary, Koroma is also considering ways in which the band can use their music to deepen the conversation in their own community. The All Stars are working to raise the funds to build a community centre and museum in Freetown. It will be a performance space, house the band’s older recordings and costumes and instruments, but also be a place where children can come and play and the community can gather, drawn together by the music.

“Music is like a comforter; it takes my mind out of all the problems that I have and it sends me to another world,” Koroma says. “During that time I think, I will have no worries, my mind is safe, I’m happy. When I’m playing music I feel very good about myself. I feel confident in me, because music really gives hope to the lives of people. Whatever day-to-day problems we’re facing, if music is being played and you like it, you seem to forget all those problems and maybe shake your head or your feet in response to the music. I always say that music really helps develop the mind, gives you self confidence.... What matters is music.”

Come hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner