Michael Schmidt, Safe Havens Rapporteur
The wistful voice of the voluptuous, polished cello of Veronika Voetmann merges with the mournful tones of Anela Bakraqi’s black and dusty piano and the honeyed ache of Alma Olssen’s violin, and the notes swarm in the cadences of Bahraini composer Ahmed Al Ghanem’s flute like leftover autumn leaves in a winter wind.
Inspired by his mentor, the late Majeed Marhoon, a saxophonist who took the drastic path during Bahrain’s liberation struggle of bombing the car of a British intelligence officer in 1966, spending twenty-two years in jail as a result, Ahmed’s neo-classical compositions present a bridge between Western chromatic-scale and Arabic micro-scale music.
Similarly, the annual Safe Havens summit of the ecosystem of organisations that protect persecuted creatives around the world convened under the orientalist gilt domes of the Moriska Paviljongen in Malmö, Sweden, to build bridges between artists’ needs and the pragmatic realisation of their human, cultural and artistic rights. The following are interviews conducted with some of the summit’s key speakers and artists.
WE ARE NOT WOMEN – WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS MAKING MUSIC: Emilia Amper (nyckelharpe, Sweden), Nadin Al Khalidi (bass and oued, Iraq) and Liliana Zavala (percussion, Argentina), members of the Forbidden Orchestra, with Farzane Zamen, Iranian singer-songwriter based in Glasgow
Michael: Fantastic to see you perform, very enervating and moving! A lot of percussion, right? There’s a tradition in West Africa where there are sacred drums that are not played and the idea is that they resonate with the beat of neighbouring drums – but they’re never touched. Women, now, playing instruments, drums in particular, that they are not allowed to play, tell me about refeminising the drum, taking maybe that silent drum that was allowed to resonate in the corner and wasn’t allowed to be touched, and doing what you [Liliana] did, grabbing it and playing it, breaking that taboo.
Liliana: Yeah, I’m breaking a taboo, but actually you can’t play at the ceremony, that you talk about, I don’t know in South Africa, but in Cuba, the woman can’t play on the ceremony, you can’t play batá. There is two kind of batá drums: the holy, with another kind of tension – the mechanics is not metal – and the other batá with metal you can play, but never in the ceremony. The woman can’t, today you can’t play in the ceremony, even now.
Michael: But the drum has been masculinised.
Liliana: But we are not using those drums in our band.
Michael: I understand that, but I am just using that as a metaphor.
Emilia: If I would try to answer your question – maybe we don’t really understand – but I guess it’s because we don’t see ourselves as women, we see ourselves as human beings and it’s really human rights to just make music, so for us it’s not like “oh, it’s so special: I’m a woman and I’m making music.” I’m a human being, I’m an artist, I just make music – and then society kind of hits you in the face “ah because you are a woman” and I am like “What?” Oh yeah I have to remember that I am a woman,” and I am stopped, discriminated and treated badly in many ways, again and again and you are kind of surprised every time because we are just human beings just making music because we love it and it comes from our hearts and it’s our life. So we don’t see it as refeminising: we are just human beings making music and then, step by step, being a woman in society today you kind of learn this; it’s really depressing, it really puts you down when you suddenly see more and more of the structures and it’s ugh, and this tired and depressing feeling that it is to be met with sexist feeling and stuff. The tiring feeling is kind of fought with this meeting, this playing in this band; it fills you with energy again and it is so strong for us to just meet here because we know without speaking so much because we immediately know that we share that feeling that we just want to make art, we just want to make music, we just want to be human beings and express ourselves, but we all share the kind of ugh!
Michael: But you were indicating that actually this was a huge loss for humanity – that half of the music, we never hear.
Emilia: Yeah, it’s horrible. We need to do it because it’s human rights and because we lose so much art. It’s not because we have to let this woman because she’s a woman: it’s because we lose so much art and everybody should be free; it’s a human right.
Michael: You have themes that are quite lonesome or plaintive, sad – but the general impression I get from your performance is a recapturing of joy.
Emilia: It’s the “re” that I am reacting to, like refeminising or recapturing. We want to make music that is strong for us and also strong for the audience, so it’s really strong-sad, it’s really strong-beautiful, it’s really strong-powerful, joy, percussion, energy, it’s strong in all different ways! It says something, but life is so rich and life has so many different feelings and we have so many different feelings and experiences and we don’t want to do just one thing.
Nadin: It’s interesting that we navigate after sadness, it’s interesting that’s how you felt about it because these themes we are singing about and approaching, it’s actually about reality. So when I talk about my music school in the beginning, and [being a] refugee, and I don’t know what, and moving to Egypt and coming back, da-da-da-da, there were great moments too in these journeys even if they were horrible while being a refugee. But there is the beauty of finally finding a refuge which is in Sweden, for myself, eighteen years ago, and the freedom to grab a guitar and just play. My boyfriend when I was eighteen years old, he was arrested on stage because he sang Maggie’s Farm, a Bob Dylan song: I don’t want to work for Maggie’s father, for Maggie’s brother, no more. And there was this secret police and they came and they took away his guitar and the arrested him and I saw that happening and that was, is still the love of my life. I wasn’t sad, I was “oh, my boyfriend is a hero!” Coming here and the surprise that Swedish musicians are interested in Arabic music more than me; I had no interest in Arabic music at all. And then seeing Sousou as well, meanwhile I’m studying the language and trying to integrate into society and seeing her on stage and I was like “oh would I ever stand on stage like her?” And then seeing Emilia after a while and meeting her and you get the prize for best musician of the year in folk music and I was like “would I ever talk to her?” And the year after, I got the prize and we were sitting talking and so it’s more about the journey. It’s not sad stories and science fiction – and many people can relate to these stories regardless if they are sad or happy.
Michael: Regardless or the language either, I would say?
Nadin: Of course. And Lili’s meeting with the teacher who didn’t allow her to play – and then eventually they were touring together. I mean there is lots of positive stuff; we can’t just navigate after the drama and the trauma – the story of my mom and the grave – there are no tears in this story because I never cried.
Emilia: I would say they are more realistic, stories from real life and themes. I think it’s beautiful when you have this luggage with you, luggage, package or whatever, why not sing about it, why not play music about it? We are just human beings and we play themes about things that touch us; they are very inclusive, everybody can relate.
Nadin: We are sharing from ourselves.
Emilia: Exactly, so why look for other themes that don’t exist. Hmmm [drums on the table] what is it that this song should be about?
Nadin: We have a lot to sing about, we have a lot to talk about, to compose about, so I would say let’s not navigate after sadness because it is not about sadness – because as you said, we are happy playing even if every time when I hold the bass, I hope something will happen and I will just vanish because it’s not my first instrument, then I’m afraid that I cannot navigate on the instrument; that’s the sad part about my role in this band because I want to develop more on the bass. But I don’t think we should navigate after sadness. And when Emilia is talking about the lost songs, about refugees, or racism, or fascism or everything that’s happening in the world right now, this is not sad, it’s reality – but it’s a sad reality, but that’s our everyday life.
Emilia: One thing we could explain about the orchestra is that it is an oasis – and it’s supposed to be an oasis where we can do all the things that we dream about but that we are hindered to do, usually, because of structures or anything, because of ourselves, or people that we meet, society or whatever. This should be the oasis of freedom, musically and artistically, so if we dream about something, this is the place where we should do it, where we throw ourselves out in something and we are here to catch each other in this space.
Michael: I was interested to hear how both Sousou and Lily encountered gatekeepers – but how through their persistence, they managed to convince these gatekeepers to open the gates and actually instruct them and teach them ways that were essentially forbidden originally. You encountered men who were designed to lock you out of learning instruments, both you and Sousou, but through your persistence in both cases you convinced them to teach.
Liliana: I don’t convince, it was [drumming on table] I want to learn, me! But I never think I am a woman who wants to play music, you know? I just want to play music like another person, another man. I never think like this. But I fell in love with the drums with this drum or the conga or another drum – but this drum is forbidden. Sometimes it was very difficult to learn, to find somebody who wanted to do it in Cuba. A lot of the time I had to stay and just a man can play and me I have to just sit and watch – and then they say you can come and you can play. But I never think about what I have here when I am on the stage; I am just a musician.
Michael: You all sing as well, which is really intriguing. Just perhaps could each of you in term tell me what is to you – in any of the languages you know – the most beautiful phrase or word?
Nadin: There are so many beautiful… I cannot have one specific word in Arabic – and it’s definitely not habibi! [baby! All laugh]
Liliana: If I was to have one word in Spanish, it’s libertad, it’s freedom. I love this word.
Michael: حرية [Hurriyah] in Arabic, right?
Farzane: I can say a classic poem, Iranian poem which is نابرده رنج، گنج میسر نمیشود, meaning if you want to reach a goal without pain in the way, you can’t reach that goal. It’s a very famous phrase, very meaningful. I felt it as a woman; I know that we try to say “ok, we are human beings; it doesn’t matter if we are woman or man” but we need to struggle more, we need to fight more. For me just being a musician is not as easy as it is for a man; it’s so much more difficult for me. It’s like climbing a very intense mountain; it wasn’t easy, so this poem for me: نابرده رنج، گنج میسر نمیشود.
Nadin: I would say that what you said while we were outside taking some fresh air is the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a while: strike while the iron is hot! [Laughs] You get the metaphor? [makes as if ironing clothes – stryka meaning to iron in Swedish – provoking laughter]. There are many beautiful words in many languages. I know when I sing in another band, one of the lyrics that I wrote about my home town, Baghdad, where I was born, you know every time I think Baghdaaaaad, I have to urgh, do like this in order not to cry. So Baghdad is a word that I get a heartbeat from.