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Beating the bounds through music

07 October 2016

At the start of Prisons Week, Pat Ashworth talks to the director of Music in Detention, a charity that works with detainees in immigration removal centres

All together now: painting by Zbigniev Cedro in response to an MID workshop at Haslar IRC, where he was detained

All together now: painting by Zbigniev Cedro in response to an MID workshop at Haslar IRC, where he was detained

DETENTION is said to be harder than prison, because detainees have no idea when they will be getting out. “In prison, you count the days down: in detention, you count the days up,” the director of the charity Music in Detention, John Speyer, says. His charity works in immigration removal centres (IRCs) such as Yarl’s Wood and Harmondsworth, set up by the Home Office to hold migrants while asylum claims are processed, identities established, or deportation arranged.

The majority of the 30,000 people detained each year are men, and they come from all over the world. All manner of experience is here: some will have been trafficked, some may have served prison sentences, some may have entered the country without a visa. Dislocation and insecurity is common to all their histories, and they suffer fresh ordeals when confined, amid the uncertainty of what is going to happen to them, and when.

Detention is a profound challenge to identity, and removes agency and autonomy, Mr Speyer suggests. “They have no control over their environment and what happens to them. It makes them feel rubbish. Decisions about their life become totally impossible; in fact, everything about their lives is on hold, all undermined by the fact of being in detention.”

Stress, anxiety, depression, and frustration are normal, as an independent review on the welfare of detainees, commissioned by the Home Office earlier this year, confirmed; so anything that would help — on a purely human level — to relieve some of this was bound to be important.

Music in Detention (MID) was born in 2005 out of a desire to use a family memorial fund in a way that the deceased member would have appreciated. At a time of rapid expansion of IRCs, a collection of people involved in the arts, or who were working with migrants or refugees, came together with a conviction that music could help immigration detainees.

Some of the founding members of MID had family connections to Chile, and the experience of Chilean prisoners during the Pinochet regime; some came from Jewish families, and had memories of the Holocaust.

A pilot project was set up; the Paul Hamlyn Foundation came on board; and, in 2007, Mr Speyer became the charity’s first director. As a Jew and a long-time amateur music-maker, he had always been involved with human rights and refugee issues. “Our work with detainees is creative work, designed to give people creative and participatory experiences,” he emphasises. “We don’t do concerts; we help participants make the music they want to make. And, in social terms, we look at it as supporting the well-being of detainees: giving them courage, helping them to feel stronger, strengthening identity and autonomy.”


EVALUATION has shown just how powerful a factor music can be in emotional well-being. Artists from diverse cultures, many of whom have been working with MID for several years, and all of whom are leaders in their fields, come into the detention centres and — sometimes literally — drum up a crowd. Unlike the more structured routines of prisons, where groups are expected to sign up in advance for courses or sessions, the process here is both fluid and organic. The artists never know in advance who is going to be there, nor from which of the 120 communities represented in IRCs they might come.

“Our artists are musically fantastically versatile in terms of being able to do different things and respond quickly. There is a plethora of different interests and musical styles — Arabic music, bhangra music, and so on have all got different rhythmic patterns, and the more of those you can slip into, the more adept you are going to be if you turn up to a workshop and find a bunch of people from, say, Iraq and Pakistan in the room,” Mr Seyer says.

“You might walk in and find nobody there at the start of the session. Pretty soon, the room starts to fill with a random collection of people who don’t necessarily know each other.

“They’re all under stress, and they don’t know who to trust, and they don’t want to trouble other people with their worries. And so you are forming a group out of a bunch of individuals that keeps changing, because people are free to come and go during the sessions. It’s evolving and growing and shrinking all the way through. Forming a group identity is what you need to give them the confidence to co-operate and make music.”


THE artists start “just by doing”, playing music often to an empty room and thus attracting a crowd. Styles such as hip hop and rap are universal. “We seldom introduce ourselves at the beginning; we just do stuff, and then, when people are becoming involved, we might pause and say who we are, and what we want to do,” Mr Speyer says.

Artists generally work in pairs: someone from West Africa, for instance, can be paired with someone from India. “The two working together can be very powerful in terms of demonstrating to detainees that this is not a workshop for any one group. Wherever you are from, it’s fine.”

So, workshops can be led by Arunjan, who specialises in lyric writing and is a lead performer with several bands; George, who teaches West African percussion; or Jo, who founded the Luton Gospel Choir, and has started a choir in Yarl’s Wood IRC. “Singing is a cathartic activity, and has many health and healing properties,” she says. “In a place like Yarl’s Wood, making music is more necessary than ever to help detainees cope with the insecurity and stress of detention.”

There is the multi-percussionist Camilo; the Indian singer, songwriter, and musician Sonia, and many, many more. One artist described it as “an opportunity to lift people out of their circumstances, spiritually. I can’t change their situation, but I can change the way people feel within themselves.”


IN THE period 2013-16, MID has involved 5500 detainees and 1180 community participants in 417 sessions, and has produced 11 CDs of new music. Most interesting of all, perhaps — and especially valuable in the febrile atmosphere that surrounds immigration — are the exchange projects that MID has set up with groups in communities close to a detention centre. The groups with whom they work are those who are themselves experiencing great difficulties in their lives: those in deprived communities who have experienced exclusion, have mental-health problems, may be homeless or in difficulty, in care, or at risk of offending.

“We look for groups who are familiar with the idea that life is a struggle, and with the experience of stigma, which is profound and which affects the individual so strongly,“ Mr Speyer says. “Our artists go back and forth between the two groups, and they become messengers: the two groups write lyrics, and then play and record the material and send it to each other.

“Each group listens to what the other has sent, and then responds in some way. They might take a song and add an instrumental track under it, or send back a new song, or they might write letters and ask questions and come back in another form.

“It’s a creative process; so it’s whatever the groups want to do. What’s happening is that they are building up a body of songs and music, collaborating, producing something together. It’s still yours, but someone has changed it so that it is theirs as well; you are building a shared state of ownership. People come from different places, but their life experience goes into the lyrics, which are often profound and thoughtful and reflective.”


TRUST and solidarity are built as the artists move between the groups. People who have had struggles in their lives have a capacity to understand each other, to see the common ground, and provide mutual support, Mr Speyer suggests.

“Giving support to somebody else is an extraordinarily powerful thing — not just for the person receiving it, but for the person giving it. It’s feeling useful, having a role. And, in the context of all the fretfulness we have in the public realm these days about immigration, it’s a powerful thing to find that the people who are often assumed to be the most hostile to immigrants — those who struggle themselves, or don’t have easy lives — are the ones who can empathise most with those who are down on their luck.”

It is a counterbalance, he suggests: a way of changing how people think about the issues, but one that is “not about sitting them down and telling them what they should think, or making them feel sorry for someone. By giving people who have never met, but who live down the road from each other, the chance to communicate, and then letting them do whatever they do, they are working something out for themselves.”

One example is the exchange between Campsfield House IRC, Oxford, where MID has worked since 2008, and Base 33, a youth centre in neighbouring Witney which supports vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. Musical messages transported between the two groups led to the discovery that freestyling and rap were popular music styles with both groups.

A shared love of hip hop highlighted feelings of commonality — “It makes us think they’re they’re just like us,” one of the young people at Base 33 said — and one track that the two groups produced mixed hip hop with traditional Arabic and Kurdish folk tunes.

Detainees sent messages of support to the young people, telling them to hold their heads up when faced with adversity. Similarly, the young people expressed empathy and solidarity for the detainees, and expressed that in song lyrics, creating a brand new CD.


THE charity, which depends on donations, works in a policy area that is open to controversy, and in a climate of fear and hostility to immigrants that has been given additional scope and life by Brexit.

“We steer clear of policy,” Mr Speyer emphasises. “We work at the human level, and give people a human opportunity to talk and think about something that causes a lot of stress and a lot of fear; and use a creative experience to give people who are having tough lives a chance to help themselves, and find their inner strength.

“It’s really important for the effectiveness of our work — and our ability to keep doing it — that we remain independent of the system and are seen to be [that]. We have a neutral policy stance, but we have an ethical drive which puts detainees at the centre of our work. We make sure that what detainees want to express is what we help them to express.”

The charity has survived transfers of contract in several of the centres: vindication that it does good work, and makes a difference to detainees. “If we can make them feel better in themselves, it makes for better relations between everyone in these strange, closed communities,” he concludes.


OCCASIONALLY, there is news of a former contact to gladden the heart. A man from Gambia, who was last year detained for nine months and involved in a community exchange project with homeless people in Dover, is now out of detention and living in London while he awaits the outcome of an asylum application.

During a short prison spell before detention, he had gone on to anti-depressants. Remarkably, in detention he came off them. “He told us he found a way to become less isolated, which is a strong part of resilience,” Mr Speyer says. “The music project gave him a chance to express himself. He became a leader in the group, wrote a song, got people to help him with it. It sounds like the experience was part of improving his own health.

“Our contact with people is quite short: a few hours, really. But, because music is both a social and emotional activity, you get to the heart of things. There’s no small talk. People just get down to what’s happening in my life, what’s happening in your life. The alliance of words and music in songs make it a very expressive form, and that’s why music affects you. It’s a very intense experience, with an effect that is quick and profound.”


To hear music from all Music in Detention CDs, visit the website www.musicindetention.org.uk.

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