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Refugee: Folk Songs For People Who Are Dying To Be Here

MOAS/Photo by Jason Florio

“The dirt beneath a migrant’s feet is worth the least of all” sings folk artist Robin Adams in his song “The Devil’s War and God’s Blue Sea”. The song is his musical contribution to the compilation album Refugee that he has curated.

Released on Brainfog at the beginning of June, Refugee gathers talents such as Linda Thompson, Alasdair Roberts, Rachel Sermanni, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Richard Dawson, indeed Refugee is a collection of 15 artists in total, all of whom have donated a previously unreleased original song, a number of which have been written especially for the project.

Proceeds go to Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) – a Malta-based organisation operating search and rescue missions for people in distress in the Aegean, Andaman, and Mediterranean Seas. Up to 05 June 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that an estimated 206,400 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea. Deaths so far in the first half of 2016 are 2,809. That’s nearly 1000 more than the same period in 2015.

It was facts such as these that spurred Adams into action, and gathering such an impeccable track list for Refugee has been a mammoth task. “I contacted a hell of a lot of artists” he told me, “all of whom I admire in some way. I’d say the artists who ended up on the album are really the ones who chose the project, not necessarily the other way around.”

The first single released from the album is Bonnie Prince Billy’s “Most People.” For Adams it was the song’s opening line that helped him decide that this track, out of all of them, would best introduce the album. “I chose his song because I felt it was a beautiful introductory statement. ‘Most people are gone, desecrated in a blur.’ Musically it didn’t have the feel of an album opener but as a song to catchpeople’s attention there was no more obvious choice. (Bonnie Prince Billy) has a unique gift for saying something incredibly powerful in abstract terms and still not losing any emotional potency.”

Scottish folk Musician Alasdair Roberts contributed the song “Scarce of Fishing.” The song wasn’t specifically written for the project, Roberts told me, however “it touches on themes of loss, departure and exile, (and) this seemed to make it an apt contribution to the Refugee album.”

The fascinating and poignant background to the song takes in both Scottish and Irish traditions. “The title is a translation of the Gaelic Spìocaireachd Iasgaich. This is also the name of a piobiareachd tune* … which was apparently written to mark the failure of fishing on the west coast of Scotland” Roberts went on to explain.

“The tune of the song has a big sean-nos influence too (old style unaccompanied traditional Irish singing), so combined with the Highland pipe music influence, it’s topographically located somewhat on the Celtic fringe (as I suppose is much of my work). There’s the sense of people having to leave behind a land which, for whatever reason, is no longer sustainably habitable.  The version on the Refugee album is a home recording but the song will also feature in a studio version on an upcoming Drag City LP release next year.”

For Roberts it was a no-brainer becoming involved with Refugee. “First of all, the proceeds are going directly to a good cause, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station” he pointed out. “Secondly, a more aesthetic concern- it’s a really strong line-up of artists that Robin has managed to bring together!”

Robin Adams’ own contribution, “The Devil’s War and God’s Blue Sea”, has the man himself on guitar, accompanied solely by cellist Pete Harvey. The song came from his own need to process calamities such as this crisis. “These thoughts are in my head when I’m exposed to news of tragedy like this” he explained. “And for me those sort of thoughts need to find a way back out. To be regurgitated with a purpose. I’m suspicious of the news and of the mainstream media because I feel it almost breeds a strange unnatural form of inertia in people. You become numb to things that should really shock you.”

I asked him about that powerful opening line, “The dirt beneath a migrant’s feet is worth the least of all” and about the story behind the song. “That line is just my way of pointing out the significance too many people attach to wherever you happened to be born and the corresponding conditions you were born into.”

“It’s an obvious thing” he went on. “People feel like they relate to those closer to home or who come from a similar environment. There are people who seem to deem their tears more worthy for someone with less distance between them. When I say distance I mean more than spacial distance. I hope the song speaks for itself.”

Despite dealing with his own long-term illness, the behemoth task of putting Refugee together wasn’t the first response Adams has made to the crisis. “I’ve had a serious physical illness for 4 years and that prevented me from being more hands on and active” he explained. “I put together this record because it was the only thing I could do to help other than donate money directly ... The refugee crisis is so much bigger than Syria alone.”

And this is a whole other element to involving artists in an album such as Refugee, way beyond their capacity to attract much needed funds. There is the whole element of how artists respond to events, respond to what is happening to the world and the humans around them. It is a question that I have asked several artists in previous unrelated interviews. Sometimes the question was about the background to a specific song. Other times the question was more about the whole concept of writing music with a social message.

Responses have been myriad. Ryan Bingham told me “I feel it’s natural for art to be a reflection of your environment in whatever shape or form that might be” when I asked him about songs of his such as “Rising Of The Ghetto.” When I asked the anti-folk, spoken word musician Hamell on Trial if he thought there is too much protest music, he responded “I don’t see a lot of ‘protest’ music around, even in the folk community. It doesn’t sell and nobody wants to jeopardize their already meagre salaries.”

Amy Boone of the Delines and Damnations explained “I think all music has a social message, sometimes unintentionally or indirectly. Some music reflects the power of the music industry and all its strange machinations, and that’s when we say “Yuck.”

I asked Alasdair Roberts and Robin Adams whether they see a role for musicians and artists in situations such as the refugee crisis. Their answers unsurprisingly overlapped, however they did offer two fascinatingly different angles to the same question. “Yes, of course” Roberts responded. “It can often appear a very subtle role – as subtle as art and music can be itself – but it seems important to me for everyone to make whatever kind of positive contribution they can in circumstances such as these.  If you think the only thing you are really capable of doing with any proficiency is singing a song rather than, say, something more direct and hands-on then that, too, can constitute a valid role, I think.  In fact, a friend of mine approached me recently about possibly taking part in a gig in a big theatre in the camp at Calais but for a combination of reasons it didn’t work out in the end… though that’s not to say that it won’t happen in future.”

And for the album curator Robin Adams the meeting of creativity and charity were core to the project. “I think a songwriter’s thing has always been to tell stories through their music” he explained. “Stories are an extremely powerful form of creative expression. Charity and creativity are strongly linked and always will be, because for the most part we are altruistic creatures with a need to express what we feel. If we feel sadness for others in pain, we express that, and that in itself can be an act of charity. I wouldn’t say there is a role as such. Just individuals with a platform choosing to use their voice to help others, or not.”

It isn’t just through music that fellow artists are responding to the crisis however. Adams went on to list songwriters “gathering clothes, blankets and general supplies and bringing them out to the camps”, as well as donating caravans, and travelling to Lesvos to help out.

He mentioned singer songwriter Pol Stevenson who “has been working in the Refugee Community Kitchen, based in the Help Refugees Warehouse (in Calais). They’re about 10/15mins from the camp and they prepare food there every day. They’re sitting at 1,800 meals per day.”

That’s 1,800 meals per day, for the people who reached Calais, those who have survived the journey to Europe.

To buy Refugee please visit the Bandcamp page.

*“Scarce of Fishing” is a translation of the Gaelic Spìocaireachd Iasgaich, which is also the name of a piobiareachd (pibroch – music for Scottish bagpipes) tune.

First published in Alan Harrison's Rocking Magpie