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This Guy Is Teaching Syrian Refugees in Greece How to Make Electronic Music

We meet Gavin and his refugee collaborators in the camps in Ritsona to find out how making music with Ableton is making life a little better.

Alan traveled from his home in Syria to Greece partly strapped to the side of a horse with his sister Gyan, and partly by boat.  Alan and his sister both have muscular dystrophy and are confined to wheelchairs, making this already difficult journey even more arduous. "First I arrived at Chios island on the 12th of March. After that they told us, OK, you have to empty that camp, we will take you to Athens. And from the port they took us directly here," Alan tells me. We're in Ritsona refugee camp, sitting outside his "room": a blanket covered, semi-fallen down concrete block in an old army building that stands aside from the city of tents where hundreds more Syrian refugees live. Alan has lived here for six months with his mother, brother, and two of his sisters. His father and third sister are in Germany.

"I'm learning the German language because my father is in Germany," says the 30 year old enthusiastically. "Maybe soon I will be in Germany so I have to learn the language because I want to work as a translator. I speak four languages: Kurdish, English, Arabic... And I will learn German!" Alan laughs at the joke, and I laugh too, forgetting momentarily that along with all the refugees in Ritsona, while they're registered in Greece, there's no telling how long it will be until they're resettled.

Alan and his sister Gyan at Ritsona refugee camp. Photo by Tommy Chavannes / Lighthouse Relief. 

Alan was a teacher in Syria, and spends some of his time in camp teaching English. We met when I was volunteering with Lighthouse Relief in Ritsona, introduced by an independent volunteer, Gavin Timlin, who works largely on camp construction. Gavin runs a music production teaching company in Ireland called CreateSound.ie, which acts as a mobile service that visits education centers with all the necessary equipment and software needed to create electronic music. When Gav told me he'd been teaching Alan to make music (and a few other interested refugees in the camp), I wanted to find out more.

Truthfully, there's no way to make a refugee camp nice. No amount of music, no number of hopeful moments can change the fact that people are living in tents under conditions that should cause the global community to shrink with shame and swell with anger, but that rarely manages to do either. And yet, Alan's music—with its hopeful moments and heartbreaking beauty, a blend of his Kurdish roots and hypnotic electronica—is critical. Perhaps it's how the world might be reminded that the residents of these camps are people first. It's also how they remind themselves, when that same world is hell-bent on taking their humanity away. I spoke to Alan and Gav about the amazing music they make together and what life and music are like for people in forgotten refugee camps.

Noisey: What does being able to make music with Gavin here in camp mean for you Alan?
Alan: I want to do music with Gavin because with my music I can send my feelings to other people: how I feel, what I want. Only by music.

What do you want?
Alan: I want to be happy. I want to live like all people around the world. Stay away from problems. A normal life, like everyone. That's my aim.

Here in the camp, do you see music influencing people?
Alan: In our camp there are some musicians. Sometimes when they play music I go to them, and I listen to what they are playing. For example, we have Adnan, he is playing a Kurdish traditional instrument and sometimes I sit with him and listen to him. How he makes notes and how he plays music, just to spend time, and have more experience.

What do you think your music and other things that are created in camp, can teach people who have never been to a refugee camp, or who might not know a lot about the crisis?
Gavin: At a basic level for me it kind of humanizes things a bit. There's a distance between what people think about the residents and camp and hearing some music made by a person just makes it more personal. It doesn't have to have a specific message in the music but people can enjoy music made by someone in a camp, and that's valuable, without sounding too cliché, in terms of building bridges. It's early days, but there is potential that if Alan learned more, to collaborate with other musicians and build some relationships as well. He could make a backing track and interact with other musicians where he wouldn't have before. Which is obviously up to Alan.

Alan: I would do it.

Gavin: You're also going to Germany which is the home of electronic music! There's a community of music making there so it could be a good thing to do to meet new people in Germany, if you're interested.

Alan: Yeah but you promised me when I'm in Germany you would come and visit!

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Gavin: I'll hold true to that don't you worry. Especially if you make a nice lunch.

Alan: Yes, you can just tell my mum, "Mum, I need food!"

What do you want people to think when they listen to your music?
Alan: I want people who listen to my music to feel happy. And always I want to put more beats in my music because I want people who listen to my music to just want to dance. I love this idea. I could make sad music, but I don't want this kind of music. There's enough of this in our life.

So how did you and Gavin meet?
Alan: He was working here beside my room. He was making the fence for the women's washing place and I know his uncle, Mr. Ian [who was also working in the camp], and he introduced himself and said "I am just new here."

And how did the music conversation start?
Alan: He told me about the music, and said "Are you interested in music?" and I said "Yes, I want to play instrument but I cannot and I don't know how to play music." And he said, "OK, I will try to help you". We sat in the tent for the first time and he taught me how to make small music, how to mix loops together, samples.


Did you have any interest in music before you came here?
Alan: No. I didn't do any music before. My first project was with Gavin.

Gavin: I suppose that was a thing that attracted Alan, which is the nice thing about electronic music making, sometimes you don't necessarily have to be efficient with an instrument. You can use the programs and use samples and make loops so it's a good way in. I think Alan liked the idea of being able to make music without necessarily knowing an instrument.

Alan: I appreciate everything Gavin did for me because he taught me a lot and helped me a lot to share my music—my first song!

Gavin: It was nice, me and Alan working together, because music can kind of transcend language and culture a bit, so we both liked the music and liked the sound, so it was a kind of a common interest that we could share and work on together. And Alan, even though he doesn't have the music experience, would talk about ideas, describing the music, and he was spot on a lot of the time. If we tried something out, and the timing wasn't right, he'd pick it up straight away. I think Alan has a natural ability for it anyway, and it showed.

There are a lot of cultural influences in the song itself—Alan, what did you bring from your culture to the music?
Alan: I agree with you, because in my culture, in Kurdish culture, we have a lot of music and a lot of Kurdish instruments. Now I'm making a new project.

What is it?
Alan: It's a surprise!

Gavin: I just want to add that when I started doing some workshops with Alan there was definitely a preference towards some more Eastern sounds. To bring in some Middle Eastern guitar and drums—there's definitely a preference for hand drumming. When Alan started out he wanted to make a song with a bit more drive so he ended up bringing in a beat he had found on the Western side—a four-four house beat—so I quite liked the way Alan worked with his song because it has Eastern influences, but it has parts of Western electronic as well, so it's a bit of a fusion.

How is making music without Gavin here?
Alan: Without Gavin it's very difficult.

Gavin: It's early days but I like the idea of staying in touch with Alan into the future so we can work together and share ideas and learn a little bit more when he gets stuck. Inevitably you're going to get stuck. But that's the nice thing about music making—it's a shared interest outside of talking about asylum and migration and stuff like that. We're doing it first and foremost because we're interested in music but it's a bonus that we can build a bit of a relationship too.

Alan: I promise you I'm trying to share music here in Ritsona. I told one of my friends about this program and he's very interested but he doesn't have a laptop now.

Gavin: That is a limitation, that not all the people in camp have a laptop. I can get more licenses for Abelton.

Gavin and Alan's brother Ivan.

So you'd say you've formed a friendship? 
Gavin: I would say so but I don't know what Alan would say!

Alan: Yes, of course, my friend

Gavin: He's a great guy and I'd love to stay in contact anyway.

Are you friends on Facebook? 
Gavin: I don't think we are Alan. [Laughs.]

Alan: You should add me! But we are friends on WhatsApp.

And your sister and brother also made some music?
Alan: They tried to! [Laughs.]

Did they enjoy it as much as you?
Alan: 
Maybe, I'm not sure. For me I enjoy these programs of music, especially with Gavin.

Whose song is the best?
Alan: 
Maybe my sister's.

Gavin: Ahhh you're being humble now Alan. You kept telling me your song was the best!

Alan: I was always telling Gavin my song was better!

Kat George is a writer currently living in Greece. Follow her on Twitter.