How Migration Inspires Music

An article for the European Music Council's annual magazine - Sounds in Europe - which introduces readers to the latest trends, policy developments and best practices from within the European music sector. This edition concentrates on Europe's cultural identity, which is found in its rich and diverse cultural heritage, and looks at the impact of migration on musical engagement and activities. Have musical activities, projects and engagement been influenced as a consequence of encountering musical practices from other cultural traditions? What projects are being carried out instrumentalising music as a tool for the inclusion of migrants and their musical traditions in European societies? Are there political implications affecting the music sector?

The world we live in is an evolving, exciting and enchanting place whilst also violent, confusing and unjust. The after-effects of current global events, be it the cataclysmic civil war in Syria, the devastating refugee crisis, or the numerous terrorist attacks across the world, are driven by mistrust and misunderstanding. They are sparked by a lack of dialogue and communication between different cultures and people, and exacerbated by marginalisation and discrimination. The notion of “us” versus “them” is suffocating and omnipresent. Therefore the sharing of different cultures and the celebration of cultural diversity is essential in order to empower and integrate marginalised communities and break down the discriminatory barriers, which fan the flames of intolerance and misunderstanding. Music can and does play a key role in this process as it offers a shared emotional language, not predicated on the meaning of words, but on how it makes us feel.

Our world is experiencing one of the worst refugee crises in history. Millions of people are currently displaced around the globe, fleeing from war, persecution, poverty and hunger. Migration is not a new phenomenon but when people move en masse, their cultural traditions move with them and this can be unsettling for the host communities. As new people and cultures take root in old, established communities, it is not surprising that feelings of alienation can occur on both sides. Music can act as a valuable tool for integration, especially community music-making, as it offers a fun and engaging way to connect people from different backgrounds with varying levels of skills and knowledge. It can also mobilise communities around common issues. From Northern Ireland to Bosnia to Rwanda, music has long been used as an instrument for peace and reconciliation, as can be seen from the work of Musicians without Borders.  However, this is often a reactive process in the aftermath of conflict. In order to ensure the cohesion and social inclusion of future generations and to deal with conflict as it arises, we need to promote greater intercultural dialogue through the medium of arts, especially music, as a matter of course in schools and youth and community settings, and across different generations as well as different faiths and ethnicities.

Music can be an effective first step for intercultural dialogue, a form of welcoming of others and an invitation for them to share their culture. Music can help build the bridges between different cultures, genders and generations.  When you cannot understand another language, another culture, another history or another way of life, you can still instinctively understand music. The practice of music crosses ethnic divides and provides neutral space for people to meet through shared talents and passions, creating new hybrid forms in the process, as seen with Damon Albarn's project, Africa Express, which is a series of collaborations between Western and African artists, many of whom with multicultural heritage. From Britain to Nigeria, America to Mali and France to Somalia, these collaborations create a fusion of different sounds and techniques, giving an insight into the cultures and traditions of different artists around the globe, and creating brilliant, innovative music.

Music can help explain that multiculturalism is not a threat and promote the beauty and richness of diversity. Music has always been subject to the influences migration. From the great composers of the 19th century who lived, worked and travelled from one corner of Europe to the other; to the Spanish flamenco singers whose musical heritage is embedded deep in Romani, Jewish and Moorish inspiration; to London’s Notting Hill carnival (Europe’s largest street festival) which celebrates Afro-Caribbean and British culture side by side, migration has positively influenced the evolution of the music business and festivals such as WOMAD. Music is constantly evolving and so therefore echoes the constant movement of people.

All of Europe needs to work together in order to prevent and tackle marginalisation, intolerance, racism and radicalisation, which are exacerbated by mass migration. The power of music is such that Beethoven professed that ‘he who divines its secret is freed from the unhappiness that haunts the whole world of men’. It is no surprise then that in the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk, which I have visited, volunteers and aid convoys have brought musical instruments for the dispossessed inhabitants to play.  Music dispels animosity and hostility, causing us to sing and dance instead of fight Music is the carriage of empathy, understanding and communication and the cradle of inclusion. Music is the universal language of all.