Concert tomorrow!

We’re ramping up for tomorrow’s concert at the refugee camp in Calais, France. We’ll perform on the slanted ramp of a horse trailer converted into a wifi bus. Three short sets will feature Omer the outstanding Sudanese singer, Kasper the Iraqi rapper, Moira Smiley, and the American and Belgian EAR singers.


Omer (yellow scarf) needs no coaching. Every day, he uplifts the Sudanese community by leading traditional circle-singing. Yesterday, they sang and danced to celebrate the arrival of 100 migrants from the camp to the UK through some mysterious smuggling feat. What joy they express for their friends who will now have a better chance of work and safety!

Expressive Arts Refuge has shifted the focus of our daily music classes from learning and sharing songs to performing them.


Palestinian-American Tawfic (blue shirt) and Sudanese Bakree (middle) discuss how to share the role of MC. People from twenty countries live here. Many won’t understand the lyrics; the music will have to carry a message, a narrative, a feeling.

Sahlee never shows up for rehearsals. Just when we decide he’s opting out of guitar accompaniment for our youth singers, we find French volunteer Mathieu coaching him on I Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free. If Sahlee is not hunting down a door for his tent or a hammer to secure the door, his guitar practice should result in a solid performance. Two months agom he picked up a guitar for the first time. For weeks he’s said, ‘This is hard,’ to which we reply, ‘You can do it.’


We’re working with the generous musicians, producers and sound engineers at Calais Sessions, and the wifi bus for power and recording. Among the missing amenities in Calais Jungle is electricity.

How can we thank the people who make this concert and so much else in the camp possible? We start by thanking them here.



What we do here

I could say that what we do here in the camp is identify musicians who have become refugees and offer them a venue to perform. We also teach daily music classes to both youth and adults, focusing on songs in English, Arabic and Efik to improve their ear for language and their English vocabulary.

But EAR’s musical program goes deeper than that. We snap, clap and stamp rhythms to rebalance the nervous systems of traumatized youth and adults from conflict zones.

Making music leads them along the journey of a melody line, pulls them into the act of tracing a comforting gentle motion from note to note. The mind is lulled by the simple organization of a song. Learning new songs stimulates the brain, engages the attention, and realigns a jangled nervous system.

Other activities that mitigate the trauma and grief of refugees are those strong enough to overpower it – making art, watching films, taking drugs, swigging alcohol, and having sex. Art draws the attention in much the same way as music, engages the visual cortex, brings color and beauty to a page. The narrative of a movie can drown one’s own. But drugs and alcohol are forbidden for the many Muslims here, and films and sex are a rare option. These activities offer a distraction, but fail to build strength, new skills, and confidence – in a word, a life.

For our students her in Calais Jungle, sidling into musical challenges, shyly at first, then with growing skill, feels good, trains the attention, and produces pride that their efforts bring results.

What does body music do? Something magical happens at the moment of a sudden slap, clap or mouth pop. An exciting sound leaps from the body, electrifies the air. Musical experimenters fill a room with snappy patterns, using only their bodies, playing them like drums. Stomps and slaps on one’ own bones create more and more complex percussion. With complexity comes excitement and joy – sensations that elude people in deep grief.

Today, one of our students in the refugee camp referred to folks here as dead souls. Seeing death, smelling it, hearing its sounds lays claim to one’s soul.

So we sing. Eyes sparkle when someone succeeds in making their first mouth pop. We train our attention, trace the shape of a melody, blend in harmony, entrain to synchronize the start and end of a song. We do it with as much love as we can muster, both volunteers and people who have become refugees, just outside the purview of police who thwart their efforts to build lives, and the occasional disruptive refugee with a nervous system shaken by Taliban, ISIS, PTSD and histories I don’t understand.

That is what we do here.


Liquid gold, openness & strength

From the middle of a circle, Omer leads traditional and popular Sudanese singing, dancing, and clapping in a group of western volunteers and young men who walked hundreds of kilometers, endured beatings, and face uncertain futures. It is the most joyful gathering, a vortex among the tame Calaisians sunbathing or wading on the beach across the channel from the white cliffs of Dover, smaller than I remember them. They create intimacy by swaying close, here along the vast stretch of sand as in their tent.

My favorites among these young men spend last night in the EAR house. Omer said over breakfast, ‘A beautiful house is made more beautiful by good people.’ Then he sang in that voice of liquid gold, and the others streamed in, texturing the songs – Bakree with his wide open face (far left at the table), and Abdullah with his strength, equanimity, and foot broken by police (seated, indoors).

Tomorrow, my team arrives — Palestinian Americans, Caucasian Americans, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Belgian Palestinian. Singers all, they run IT departments, engineer for a Bay city, choral-direct, run a summer camp, bartend, dance, compose and perform, speak Arabic and French. It has been challenging to run a program during these two weeks between the first and second stints of the Expressive Arts Refuge team. I roped in a French singer/guitarist, an English Mom and daughter, a Medecins Sans Frontier psychologist, refugee translators, and Omer who taught Sudanese songs.

I’m excited for the EAR team to sing in Omer’s rocking music tent, knee-to-knee with Syrians, Iranians, Sudanese, Afghans, feeling their openness and strength, displacing whatever stereotypes they have of refugees.

A most curious relationship

image.jpegThis is a cell phone that nearly sank in the pocket of my new Sudanese friend and translator when his boat capsized in the Mediterranean. He will try to repair it. He won’t find the missing part in the refugee camp, and even if he did, he wouldn’t purchase electronics here for fear that they’re stolen.

It is easy between us, this lovely man in his mid-twenties, two years into his computer science degree when a death threat sent him fleeing across the desert, into the car of a smuggler, sinking in the angry waters of the Mediterranean.

It is not easy with the Afghani man who almost punched my translator during music class last week. I remind you that he hated me because I taught Christian songs (which I don’t), and while not voicing this sentiment, because of what my country did to his.

After the argument in class, I initiated a conciliatory talk with the Afghan. But his distrust, even disdain, remained palpable.

The next day, he hung around the perimeter of music class. We held it outdoors in a packed gravel-floored teaching space shared by eight volunteer language instructors – French, English, and German, their students, and the generator whirling a constant, ugly noise. I was teaching a body music pattern to the song Bring me Little Water, Sylvie. It has an arm gesture that resembles giving. Each time the pattern cycled to the arm gesture, I sent the feeling of openness and giving directly to the Afghan.

At first, he was confused. Then his face softened, and he uncrossed his arms. Finally, he smiled. I don’t know whether he was smiling in the direction of the music class or at me.

We repeat this each day – his hanging back twenty feet from the music class, my arms sending him a personal message, his smile.

It’s a start.

My friend will catch a ride in my rental car to a phone store tomorrow in search of the waterlogged and bruised piece of his iphone. To thank him for translating in our music class, I’ll buy it. Here in the Jungle, every action feels like a start, a fix, a restart, a replacement, a stand-in, a new language, a new custom, a new relationship, an unfamiliar risk, a new comfort, and a new friend can embody any number of these.

Police and art

Following the massacre in Nice, the refugees of Calais Jungle wanted to express their condolences to the people of France.

A couple of French volunteers and I convened a deep conversation that resulted in a heartfelt message translated into both French and English. We asked the French police who guard the entrance to the camp for permission to paint the message as an art project on the underpass wall that motorists see as they enter the motorway. The wall is full of graffiti conveying the dreams and frustrations of the refugees.


Would they agree to let us cover over the crass graffiti with condolences to the people of Nice?


Was there any way for the refugees to write a message of condolence that they, the police, would approve?

A sheet.

A bedsheet?


We bought one sheet and English and another for French, and stretched them over the roof of a car. Thirty refugees drew careful letters, discussing grammar in French and English. All weekend, they wrote and drew. New refuges pitched in. By the time they finished, 100 had gathered around the sheet-draped car, asking for translations into Pashtun, Arabic, Tigrinya, Oromo.

Police watched us write the message all weekend. When completed, they forbid us from affixing it anywhere visible to motorists. They also forbid us from covering or painting over offensive graffiti. We could lay it on the ground at the entrance to the camp, out of the view of drivers.


I may be wrong in what I’m about to assert. I hope I am.

By allowing only refugees and volunteers who enter the jungle to read the message, and denying French motorists the chance to see it, police are encouraging the French to think all refugees and volunteers agree with the existing graffiti, ‘Fuck France.’

Back in singing class, the youth at Hummingbird Art Center hosted new singers sporting masks they’d made. To learn mouth pops, all but one removed their masks. The boy who kept his mask in place doesn’t talk. I don’t know why. His body percussion was quick and precise. He helped others for whom the body music came more slowly. His mouth pop on the mask sounded perfect.

Express as you can. You never know when it will be out of reach.


Worst day in refugee camp

imageWhen you greet people every day, see them sing as they step into the outdoor shower, veer off through the yellow mustard field because the port-a-potties are disgusting, you see in this picture not a soldier with questionable practices, but a man drawing a flower. In the next picture, our Sudanese students are singing a traditional song full of longing for home and family. While the cacophony of singing together in different keys drives me around the bend, these teens execute tricky vocal ornaments in their own language well enough.

I know you want to see their faces, but due to asylum issues and families back home in conflict zones, I’m not free to show them.image

I am beating around the bush. It’s hard to admit how awful today was.

This week, two young refugees died here in Calais. Then the massacre in Nice happened. Smells, sexism, pickpockets, cross-cultural boundaries, distrust, and guns and knives cast a pall over the decency and openness that have dominated my time here. Crisis and chaos loom at every turn, little effective leadership seems to curtail bad behavior in the camp, there is no clean place to sit. Concert dates approach, and none of my youth students can find a starting note for any of the songs they will perform. Three boys arrived forty-five minutes late to music class and lied about where they were. People constantly disturb the focus needed for listening, and what is a music class without listening? I haven’t found a translator who demonstrates both concentration and musical curiosity. One got sick, another fails to show up, one came an hour late when I was packing up. Most answer my request to translate with ‘Inch Allah,’ which means they’ll come if they happen to remember.

And then there was the translator who started an argument that nearly broke into a fight. I brought it on. You could argue that the mayor of Calais sparked it by announcing the demolition of the camp ‘very soon.’ Since bulldozing the southern half of the encampment in March, an extreme shortage of space crowds over 7000 people into half the space. You could say that density caused it.

ItThe altercation happened in our adult music class. Afghans were wandering in and out, lounging and chatting in a room that serves as both classroom and lounge. The pitch and focus of the singers was abysmal. My ears were crying. I was coughing from dust and cigarette smoke. Irritation coursed through me.

I told the lounging Afghans that this was a singing class and, in order to learn songs, we were trying to focus and listen. Would they please join us or leave the room? I may have neglected to say please. My translator omitted most of the preamble and said with aggression, ‘Leave.’ One of the Afghan men leapt from a sofa and bounded toward the translator. He looked huge and red-faced. They were now standing rigid, three inches from each other, chests pumped up. Their shouts drew a French film crew and my singing students who softly pleaded, ‘My friend, it’s okay. Let’s go over there.’ I kept repeating to my translator, ‘Quiet voice.’ He doesn’t have a quiet voice.

Later, I learned that the Afghan didn’t like me because I taught Christian songs and touched my body. All the songs were secular and ‘touching my body’ is the asexual body percussion we use to teach rhythm.

After the argument subsided, I did my best to connect with the wranglers — refugees whose days are mostly bad days. I learned that the Afghan’s friend was one of the young people killed this week, hit by a leaping log placed on the highway to slow a truck, so he could jump on it to sneak through the chunnel to a better life in England. To make matters worse, police bullied him while showering, half-clad, at the water trough. He was not singing, not in the shower, not in class, not today, and not with the American lady who touches her body in public.




Day 12 in Calais Jungle

This place grows on you – the friendliness of the refugees, their hardiness, the smiles that erupt when you say hello, bon jour, salaam. Volunteers work long hours without familiar comforts. All day, refugees and migrants ask for help: Can I find a saw for a 16-yr-old who’s fortifying his tent with a tree limb? Can I help the extremely thin Sudanese guy, Sahlee, learn guitar? Soon there are seven young men strumming the chords to Jimmy, won’t you please come home.

For a couple days, I’ve looked for the Sudanese singer and translator I’d hoped would teach with me. They didn’t pick up the bike I found for them. They didn’t come to music class.

Today’s youth class nearly finished me off. Doctors Without Borders was drilling and pounding in a new fence to protect the Youth Safe Zone. Boys popped in and left when they heard that the distribution center was handing out jackets. Two were hungry and the prospect of a hot meal trumped. One left to get his friends, leaving me to teach a private lesson to a boy who can’t carry a tune. He loves English so the lesson morphs into an English class. He traces on a map his journey from Eritrea to Calais, France. Then the boy who promised to return with friends hops over the threshold into Hummingbird Art Center’s shack, full of excitement, with three friends, and the singing and body music come to life.

It’s not long before two Afghan teens run around disrupting the class. I throw them out. Someone fetches one of the singing boys who then leaves. I have no idea why; someone is always searching for someone else. Finally, as I’m packing up, a boy arrives. The twenty flyers we posted around camp apparently failed to hammer home the start time. There is no central bulletin board, and French police are not letting in building supplies with which we might erect one.

An hour later, Gaetane, a talented French singer, co-teaches the adult music class. It’s lively and productive. I see the nervous systems of participants rebalance with body percussion.

This is why I’ve come.