Songs of revolution, joy and home

It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the immigrant experience that you spend a lot of your time noticing other immigrants. Sometimes it’s just a flicker on the street, or it could be heading to the local watering hole for an expat get-together. Or you may even find yourself at a concert, watching performers from around the world singing of love, politics, joy, revolution and home in a mix of languages. All the things that make us lift up our feet and head out the door, and someday find a place to take off our shoes and put our feet up.

My fella and I had spent the afternoon walking around slightly dazed in the sun, savouring ice-creams and the warmth that I still can’t take for granted. When we had finished a snack at a Greek restaurant I got a message about a free ticket to a concert. Without really knowing what the concert would be, other than that it would feature Syrian and Iranian music, I said yes. Which is how I found myself in the Stora Teatern in the centre of town on a Saturday evening, as the compere introduced us to a night of music that would show us how many world class musicians there are driving taxis or living anonymously in Sweden, and the music they have to share with us. And how much joy we can return to them.

The concert was billed as a showcase of artists who have found a home, even a temporary one, in Sweden. It seemed that often they found their way here after running away from something – as with all expats and immigrants there is a reason we leave. Two had been tortured and another had grown up in a country where love songs had been forbidden for generations, and where he secretly sang forbidden songs. There was sadness in the songs, and joy but the strongest emotion that ran through all of the songs, and through the audience as the night went on, was defiance.

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

The first performer was a tall, elegant man from Kurdistan, who sang folk songs in a deeply resonant voice. Of all of the artists Naser Razzazi was the most charismatic. He had the audience in the palm of his hand each time he stepped on stage, and what sticks in my mind now, almost a week later, was his neat white mustache, tall frame and complete confidence.

Habib Mousa was another man with a presence, who sang about love and dreams, and spoke about his old homeland of Assyria. He was quietly spoken, with a powerful voice.

The next man is known as the Elvis Presley of Eritrea, who brought rock and swing to his country and then to us. Osman Abdulrahim grooved, grinned, sang and spoke briefly about the war and dictatorship he had escaped, and told the daughter of Dawit Isaak that he hoped her father could be returned to his family soon.

Elvis of Eritrea

Elvis of Eritrea

Throughout all these performances, people coming on stage to cheers and then departing for the next guest only to return a bit later, a band had played behind and around them. Drummers, a bassist and guitarist, keyboard player and a very enthusiastic violinist accompanied all of the performers. The next performer brought his own instrument, perhaps the one he’d brought to Tahrir Square 4 years ago. Ramy Essam is one of the most well known faces of the Arab Spring, who played rock music among the crowds as the revolution swept through Egypt. He’s currently living in Malmö, having been granted safe city residence, and while there he continues to write songs about the revolution. When asked how he is enjoying Sweden, he said he liked it very much, but would always want to return to his homeland and continue the fight.

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Finally there was a young woman originally from Iran, who grew up in Sweden and seems to me to combine the two cultures. Safoura Safavi sings in a mix of Farsi, Swedish and English, her music a mix of punk, reggae and soul and very infectious. She bounced around the stage and the audience bounced along with her, even more so when her sister joined her for a duet. She sang about pretension, life in Iran and in Sweden and was joined by the rest of the performers for a final song in Farsi that brought the audience to our feet. After they had left and the calls for an encore were answered she stepped back on stage and sang a song about Sweden, as blue and yellow lights shone on the stage.

Safoura from Sweden

Safoura from Sweden

The music had taken us all around the world, through war, revolution, oppression and hope, and then in the end it brought us home.

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Sending music into the night

I get the impression that my antipodean friends and family believe that a Swedish winter consists entirely of cold, darkness, dreariness and staring mournfully out of the window in between chugging down beer and eating potatoes to drive away the misery. I want to make it clear, here and now, that this is not entirely true.
Yes, the vitamin D deficiency gets us down sometimes and comfort food is tempting (oh wedges and mash, what would I do without you?), but those of us who choose to live up here find ways to cope and sometimes even drive away the darkness.

Way back in November, all of four months ago now, we were invited to a concert across town in Majorna. We were unclear as to what sort of music there would be, but trusted the inviter’s taste enough to assume it would be interesting. After passing rooms full of billiards, young men smoking on the street and closed nail-art shops we found an obscure door and were within seconds enveloped in warmth and the smell of incense. The concert had already started, so after hanging up our thick layers of jackets, beanies, scarves and mittens we shuffled and apologised our way to the corner where our friends had already taken up position.

The band

The band

On the stage was a band of six men, a guitarist, two drummers, a cellist, a saxophonist and a bassist who treated us to cross-cultural melodies that I couldn’t begin to guess at the origin of. They seemed to twine from the east to west, and probably north and south too, and had all of the feet in the house tapping along. A lady from India then joined them, singing traditional songs in a style I’d never heard before being joined by an Iranian woman whose presence took up the whole venue. She was amazing, and managed to provoke the room into breaking into a veritable orgy of dancing. Fellow audience members who had seemed typically reserved and quiet were bursting all over the stage, a long line and then circle of dancers twisting around along with the music. Or in the case of some people, along with the music in their heads which seemed to have a different tune. Being Australian, and therefore reserved in a different way, we sat and watched and sipped our wine, as I at least tried to ignore the itch in my feet.

Once started the dancing can't stop

Once started the dancing can’t stop

We followed the concert with a few drinks at a local pub, claiming paintings of vintage aircraft, dancing, guessing the names of songs and staying until closing time.

When the year had turned and we’d returned and mostly recovered from the excitement of Jul and visitors, another celebration arrived. This time is was a housewarming at the home of a good friend of mine. We turned up late, due to getting a little bit lost, and arrived to find an apartment full of Swedes, warmth and talking. We bobbed around between rooms, chatting and listening, and finally found a space in the living room to enjoy our dinner. I had seen on the invitation that guests were invited to bring their instruments, as the girlfriend of my friend is very heavily involved in music, and it seemed as though most of the others who had come to the party were as well.
As the night drew on we became the slightly stunned but gleeful audience of a sudden orchestra of violinists. A guitar and banjo joined in at various times, plus little people dancing among the legs and chairs, but for the most part violins were coaxed into life, belting out folk music and dances. They all seemed to be speaking a language I couldn’t understand, switching between styles and songs with cues I couldn’t hear or see. At the high point, there were 7 violins playing at one time, and I’d guess about 9 in total passed in and out of the apartment. Though I can play music to an extent, these people had the ability to play in the other sense of the word, in the same way that I sometimes like to do with words – throwing them around to make patterns and for sheer enjoyment.
We left late, or early, with the music following us down the street.

Keeping away the cold

Keeping away the cold

So my advice, if you want to take it, is if you are feeling cold and miserable on a winter’s night, follow an invitation for a night of talking and music. Even if you don’t bring your own violin, you can sit amid the music and forget the cold.