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Dovetail Orchestra: music is the food of love in Bristol

23 December 2022

A young orchestra is giving asylum-seekers and refugees a new activity. Report by Christine Miles

Graham Maugham

The front of St Ambrose’s, hosting musicians from the Dovetail Orchestra

The front of St Ambrose’s, hosting musicians from the Dovetail Orchestra

IN THE front of St Ambrose’s, Bristol, the neat rows of chairs have been usurped by a circle of musicians and their instruments: guitars, percussion, hand-beaten drums, keyboards, flute, and violins rise and fall together in a sacred act of creation.

“Let’s take it down,” says Dr Jonathan James, the founder of the Dovetail Orchestra for asylum-seekers and refugees in Bristol, and he signals a violinist to take up a solo section. The haunting notes echo with Arabic sounds.

Fran, the soloist, is from Wales. But her fellow musical alchemists hail from Iran, Afghanistan, various African nations, Turkey, and Syria. Giving structure to their sound is Dr James and two paid musicians, on bass and drums. Lead musicians Pippa Craggs, on flute, and Özcan Ates, on baglama guitar, complete Dovetail’s wider team.

“That’s enough to be a holding pattern for people to express themselves within,” Dr James says.

Every Tuesday afternoon, when the orchestra meets, he brings a well-known song and a set of chords to use as a starting place. Among them so far are “One Thousand and One Nights”, and Baraye, the freedom anthem for the Iranian movement. What happens next, “is like a bit of a dance,” he says.

“What we’re doing at the moment is coming up with generic sounds that are healing, that aren’t too specific to particular experience. . .

“We’re looking at the building blocks of the music and saying: what can we keep, and what can we build on and make new out of this? Whatever we end up with is a reflection of everybody’s musical identity in that space, that’s the ultimate objective. . . That could mean making sure there’s a section that has just Turkish baglama guitars, with a bit of free chant above, before we go back into the main tune, or it could be a breakout of African drumming, or something like that. My role is just to hold it together in something that is coherent.”

He might hear someone humming a song. “My job is to pounce on that, say: ‘Can you hum that again’; suggest something back; record it; go straight to the piano.”

That is how the orchestra developed its second piece, “Taghi’s Song”. “Taghi’s from Iran; so this is an Azeri song he sang that we’ve approximated and turned into our own,” Dr James explains.


THE Dovetail Orchestra has been meeting since September, and no previous musical experience is required of asylum-seekers or refugees who wish to join. “It is important that it’s an open-access programme. If new people come, they are put straight on to drums; so everybody who comes takes part, no matter how experienced or not they are. There are no observers in that sense, we’re all part of making music.”

Graham MaughamThe orchestra explores how to make Kumbaya — a participant’s suggestion — sound fresh again

So far, the musicians have created three pieces together, and performed their first concert at a Christmas party for users of the Beehive Centre — the community centre opposite St Ambrose’s, where the group goes afterwards for tea and cake.

“Each piece ends up being about eight minutes long. Each one involves freedom and improvisation along the way, so that we can get people to shine, really, in each one. There will always be improvisation on the day [of performance] as well, and that’s an important part of it, because we’re dealing with people who don’t follow notated music — or in the main, don’t — and are used to just going with the flow musically. . .

“I love that aspect, and I think it feels as if there’s authenticity in the moment; that whatever is being played or sung is really coming from the heart, and is an expression of self in that moment.”

Another element of the project is the provision of instruments for experienced musicians. “We’ve got quite a few forlorn instruments that I’m hoping will find their ideal match: people who have been separated from their beloved instruments in transit, and are able to get back on to the oboe, or trombone, or something.”

So far, they have matched two instruments: a harmonium (Indian squeeze-box instrument) and a tabla (Indian drums). “You can’t just teach [them] in the context of what we’re doing; so I imagined them just gathering dust,” Dr James says. But, last month, Omar, a man from Afghanistan, turned up at rehearsals. “His eyes lit up when he saw them, because he’s been playing tabla and a harmonium for four years,” Dr James says. “He’s just been making these beautiful, exotic sounds ever since; he’s a very happy man.”


REFUGEE charities in the city publicise the orchestra. Its aim is to foster creativity, confidence, and community. Still in its early days, the group is varying between six and 17 people each week.

Dr James is an experienced community music leader. “You’re looking at a whole web of relationships that can build over time. . . And the kind of community we’re talking about is only really going to be made manifest after about three years, in terms of having something that feels like a real centre for people.”

The project helps people from the asylum-seeking community to learn new skills. “It’s easy to see it as a paradigm of music therapy or something, which it isn’t. I mean, it is, de facto, but it’s an educational space, and people are learning a new language on the new instrument, as well as the opportunity to learn English and socialise in new ways.”

Graham MaughamTaban and Norbert, a fellow Dovetail musician, enjoy a Congolese moment

For some, the orchestra may help to open doors. Mr Ates, for example, who has been brought on to the wider leadership team, “has a stunning voice and natural ability; he’s not a trained musician, but he is a natural performer. The story there is that I’ve been able to link him with a producer, with the aim of getting him signed to a minor record label that would be interested in world music. That’s really exciting — that’s come from contact with the group.”

Dr James acknowledges the emotional and spiritual dynamic of creating music together. “It is surprising how quickly you step into mystery with music. You quickly run out of words to describe quite how music is doing what it’s doing.

“As well as bringing people together, and allowing people to express identity at the deepest level possible, I think that in the context of this project. . . that music is setting up a temporary home, because of the associations and memories people get singing songs from their childhood.

“The main emotion we see is joy. We haven’t had people expressing the negative side of their experience or suffering through music, but that will come, no doubt, as it gets safer and safer as a space.”


THERE are difficult aspects, however. “There’s a fundamental precariousness to projects of this kind. . . and it’s about the fact that, in the early stages of the asylum application, in particular, they can be subject to the whims of so many different agencies, meaning that they don’t stay in one place for any length of time.

“So that’s what we’ve been learning, how best to deal with that musically and in terms of relationships. We really miss them; even after two or three rehearsals there’s a real vacuum in the group, because it’s amazing how quickly music bonds people.

“And, from my perspective, I’ll have just found someone who I’ve coaxed into a place of being about to lapse into song, for the very first time, and it’s absolute magic, it’s gold dust, and then the next week they’ve been shifted to another city. . .

”People are already saying within the group: ‘This feels like family to us,’ and they’re so grateful to have a musical community, and to be in a space where their main identity is as a musician. That’s very powerful. For those two hours, they are a musician, and they can go back to other labels afterwards. It’s a lovely escape for people.”


THERE is no formal church aspect to the project; but St Ambrose’s gives free rehearsal and storage space (only a small heating charge is made). And the congregation are involved behind the scenes, supporting the orchestra by making cakes and donating instruments.

“Initially, I was wondering about the wisdom of setting up in a church . . . but it’s been a completely non-issue. . . For me, it’s significant in the fact that there is this figure of Christ illuminated through the window, sort of overlooking us, but that’s just for me, personally, almost like a talisman.”

Dr James on piano, Özcan Ates on baglama guitar, and Pippa Craggs on flute, make music with orchestra members

Churches are built to house music, so, acoustically, it fits. “St Ambrose’s had the nickname, maybe still has, of being the cathedral of East Bristol. . . It’s got this really high roof; so there’s a warmth to the sound without it being oppressively echoey. And it benefits from having huge windows right the way down the nave; so everything is bathed in light. It’s a very welcoming space.”

Aside from offering sanctuary, he hopes that the orchestra will develop serious musical credentials; the Christmas concert is the first in an escalating plan of performances, including an event at the prestigious St George’s concert hall in July. “That was very much part of [our] funding bids, getting this group to the point of performing in that venue and being recorded.”

Dr James has high hopes for the future. “I’d love us to get to the point where we’re a world music orchestra that gets invited to festivals to play and inspire, and for those performances to be a powerful testimony for bringing asylum-seekers together in that way.” 

Watch the orchestra in rehearsals for their Christmas performance:



‘It helps me feel more confident’ 

“I CAME here from Kurdistan [Iraq] in 2006, with my husband. After the 1991 war, Iraq was destabilised, and it never went back to normal.

“In Iraq, I was an actress in TV dramas. Pre-pandemic, I was involved in a refugee music-therapy group. But it wasn’t a place I could progress musically.

“I’m interested in singing; my hope is to sing solos. I don’t mind sharing other people’s music, but I enjoy it most when there is the chance to sing Kurdish music.

“You find your own identity again. I am an artist. I need music in my life; I need cinema and songs. I can’t just be a machine.

“People come feeling ill, low self-esteem, or confused. Some are traumatised. By the end they are calm; just happy. It helps me feel more confident, like I can be something.

“When we have cake and tea, we laugh, share moments, and interpret for each other. We try to understand who is who, and what is going on in each other’s countries.

“It’s spiritual, as well. When you are playing music and singing, people see your soul and they love you, and you love them. It’s about loving human beings.”

Taban, a former actress with refugee status

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