Jammin’ & bluesin’: Music in Detention at Harmondsworth

MID

This blog post was written by Music in Detention volunteer, Alicia.  

I have been volunteering in the office at Music In Detention (MID) for the last two months and I was really excited when I found out I was going to the YMCA in Hayes, and Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) to experience my first music workshops. I met the artists for this project, Shammi and Oliver at my first stop, which was the YMCA. As soon as I walked in I heard one of the kids MC’ing on the mic, and his flow was absolutely ridiculous. He was so talented and confident, and in retrospect it was a great warm up for the session.

Shammi and Oliver began the session by trying to get the young people to think about the meanings they attribute to their home. Not all of the young people spoke English, and so the artists asked them to draw a picture of home. Generally, home was a positive place, it was warm, reminded them of cooked food, and a safe haven. Shammi then asked them to think about what life would be like without home, what would that feel like, and how would you cope? And actually, I had a think about that myself, and I was reminded of my friend’s trouble having her visa rejected two weeks before she was due to begin university. Previously, she had described home (Nigeria) in much the same way as these young people had, but to be sent home was devastating for her, and so home took on a new meaning completely. Being born British, I have never known that concern about the insecurity of whether you stay here or are deported; a situation that is completely out of your hands. It was an interesting exercise… The session continued, and there were young people rapping, playing the drums, and others who just listened and soaked up the atmosphere. The children recorded questions for the detainees at Harmondsworth for later, and the session was wrapped up with pizza.

As a Criminal Justice student I’ve had the opportunity to go to two prisons, one visit was to a prison restaurant run by the prisoners, and another was an actual tour of the prison. On my first visit I found the whole experience very depressing, and very claustrophobic. It was obvious to me that some of the prisoners were suffering with anxiety, and were in a constant state of alert, which I guess is indicative of the whole unpredictability of the prison. As I reflected on my previous visits on the way to Harmondsworth, I was apprehensive as I considered the prison and the detention centre to be like first cousins. I was unsure of what I would find, how peoples’ state of mind would be, and how I would be received by the detainees. The security point at Harmondsworth was very claustrophobic and reminded me of the prison security; I wanted to be out of these confines and delivering music! After over an hour of this limbo, and jarring key-churning sounds, we were allowed to go through into the arts block. On the way I did see some detainees, and I was immediately struck by their demeanor. I like to paint, and I feel that the eyes reveal so much about how a person feels, and I definitely saw a lot of powerlessness, fear and loneliness in that place…

We walked onto the arts wing and were greeted by a spiritual art teacher. She teaches a form of spiritual art, otherwise known as healing art, which helps the detainees feel positive, allowing them to feel and express powerful emotions, thoughts, sensations, memories, visions and dreams. She had two students at the time, and one man was so into his painting that he did not look up once. He was so talented, and I got to see some of his previous artwork. As I looked around the room, I kept seeing these amazing artworks, which displayed the trauma and angst of a lot of the detainees. They used such bright colours, and some used really heavy impasto strokes, and there was a ton of mixed media work, and other things that I had no idea how to make. Next it was down to the music, I was really looking forward to this!

We went into the music room, it was a decent size, and full of instruments, they had a keyboard, djembe drums, electric guitars, bass guitars, and a drum kit and we had the addition of the Cajon and other instruments from the artists own collection. Because of the delay in security processing, the artists decided to start with a jam session playing music and singing, with the door wide open so as to attract people who would like to come in and join. Shammi and Oliver played some really amazing music with their guitars, I played the Cajon, and Michael, one of the guards at Harmondsworth played the drum kit.

I’ve not been to many live concerts, let alone held a concert of my own, but I think today was the day. It was so much fun and I think there was a sort of reggae vibe going on, which reminded me of Jamaica. In no time, a few men from Albania came along and they were absolutely loving it! They listened at first, and Shammi encouraged them to play music themselves. At first they didn’t want to, but Shammi persisted, and one of the guys played the keyboard, Shammi gave him some notes to play and I took over from Shammi playing the bass guitar. I have never in my life played a bass guitar, but I must say I picked it up pretty quickly, and really enjoyed it. It was so relaxing, and I felt all the nerves and anxiety from before leave me. If it had that effect on me, I could definitely see the impact it would have on the detainees. Soon after, I synced up my chords with the new notes the detainees had just learnt on the keyboard.

More detainees, some from Bangladesh, others from China and Turkey came along, some sat down and played the drums and others just sat and watched. One moment that was quite moving for me was we were playing, and then one man came in and played the drums for a while, then he stopped and just looked around, and listened. After that he got up and left, and it made me feel that music is very powerful and can make you miss home, and even resent your current situation. On the other hand, maybe he had other things to do! But, I did sense a bit of frustration about detention in general, and the unnecessary pain it causes people, who ordinarily wouldn’t be in this position. I could tell I was amongst talented people, fathers, husband, brothers, doctors, students and more.

Towards the end of the session, the artists played some of the questions from the children and young people at the YMCA. One of the Albanian men was happy to record some answers for them. We finished off by singing a chorus together as a group, which we recorded, and we also recorded the piece we had played earlier. A really great addition to the piece was a rap recorded by a man from Bangladesh, and his talent just beamed through!

Some of the detainees told us how long they had been detained, the liveliest of the group had been detained for 4 days, and one man had been detained for 2 years. It was hard for me to imagine that kind of experience, and I now have a great appreciation of the damage done by detention in the UK, especially indefinite detention, and its psychological impact on people. As I packed up for the night I felt so privileged to have met the people I had met over the course of the day, and I was so proud to have given some joy to people’s lives through music.

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