Finding Refuge and Friendships through Music in Cisarua, Indonesia

As part of its ongoing efforts to champion Arts for Good, the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) presented the Music Project, a series of workshops for Afghan refugees facilitated by musicians from Singapore and Indonesia.

Making beautiful music together - Musicians from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore collaborated with musicians from Bandung Philharmonic to conduct workshops for refugees at the Hope Learning Centre.

The cross-cultural initiative, which took place between 26 February to 1 March 2019 at Hope Learning Centre in Cisarua, Indonesia, was in partnership with Yong Siew Toh (YST) Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore and supported by Yayasan Bandung Philharmonic.

Indonesia has about 14,000 refugees and Cisarua, a mountain town near Jakarta, serves as a temporary haven for the bulk of these refugees who are primarily from the Middle East.  The Music Project is aimed at empowering and improving the emotional well-being of the refugees, many of whom are living in limbo as they await resettlement.

The workshops are also intended to build capacity amongst the local musician community in developing the skillsets required to run similar workshops across other marginalised communities in Asia.

Seven musicians from Singapore and Indonesia came together and imparted basic music skills, facilitated musical storytelling sessions and conducted various art activities with 18 Afghan refugees.

The sessions culminated in concert put together by both refugees and musicians. About 200 members of the Afghan refugee community attended the performance which showcased three original musical compositions that were co-developed and performed together by refugees and musicians. These compositions infused ideas and stories told by the refugees and were musically interpreted with the facilitation of the musicians.

As part of the creative process, workshop participants like Zuhal Mohammadi (right) were tasked to make visual artworks of what home meant to them. These personal stories and perspectives gleaned through the sharing were incorporated into the final music performances.

It was heart-warming for the musicians and refugees to exchange cultural perspectives and gain insights into each other’s lives the medium of music, observed Bethany Nette, YST Conservatory’s Coordinator for Professional Integration and alumnus of SIF’s Arts for Good Fellowship programme in 2017.

She said: “Here we had Singaporeans, Indonesians, Afghanis and an Australian all working toward a common goal, to connect with each other through an artistic pursuit. I think any social activity that can bring people together to connect in such an authentic and profound way should be cultivated and grown.”

The musicians from both countries also took great care to respect cultural preferences and differences throughout the implementation of the workshops. For instance, some of the workshop participants were experienced tambura (Afghani guitar) players, while others were learning the western guitar, pointed out Bethany.

The creative music making process brought together music from a range of cultures through incorporating the various music experience of the group. We focused on themes and stories during the music making, rather than a specific culture of music. The group decided their music would communicate themes of freedom, hope, love, joy, strength and happiness. The music also incorporated English and Farsi to help communicate the story behind the musical pieces,” she said.

Singapore and Indonesian musicians collaborating for a better world on the Music Project - (from left) Fiola C. Rondonuwu, Sulwyn Lok, Leslie Tan, Priscilla Fong, Bethany Nette, Neil Chan and Meirita Artanti Putri. A variety of instruments from classical to traditional as well as singing were tapped on to facilitate the music workshops.

The experience of working alongside refugees to create music was remarkable for the musicians involved. Leslie Tan, YST Conservatory Artist Faculty and member of the T’ang Quartet added: “For the musicians, it was wonderful to be able to work with refugees. It was a first for us, while the rapport started off with a little trepidation, it ended up with strongly formed bonds. We got to share the emotions of the refugees - something that was not always easy for them, but which they appreciated eventually through the sheer joy of music making.”

Indonesian musician, Meirita Artanti Putri’s experience working closely with Singapore musicians was a positive one. She said: “I really respect the responsibility and passion that the Singaporeans show in their work. They were very caring, helping to carry items when there wasn’t any transport and even making sure that no one falls behind when walking if it was getting dark.” 

For her, the project reaffirmed her commitment to contribute towards other Arts for Good projects through creative workshop models that prioritise social wellbeing, development and cohesion.

“Like what Leslie said, ‘Being a musician doesn’t always mean that your goal is to be able to perform in Carnegie Hall. We can always share our knowledge about the beauty of life through music and with everyone in need,” said Meirita.

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