In this blog, Ruth Nicholson describes a day of Music In Detention’s songwriting workshops in Campsfield House. Ruth is a musician, and a volunteer both for Music In Detention (MID) and the Detention Forum. This blog was originally published by Music in Detention in March this year here where you can also listen to the music recorded in Campsfield.
On a foggy, chilly morning in January, I joined two Music In Detention artists for a day trip to Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, where we would make music with men being held there as immigration detainees. Michael, Oliver and I squashed ourselves into a car full of musical instruments and equipment and drove through the grey haze towards Oxfordshire.
Campsfield House is located at the end of a long country lane, opposite Oxford Airport and just outside a village called Kidlington. We arrived about 45 minutes before our first workshop, and were greeted enthusiastically by Munya, an officer originally from Zimbabwe who would escort us all day and supervise our two workshops. He said he always looks forward to Music In Detention visits and Oliver agreed he “brings the hype”, making sure there are always plenty of people in attendance.
Our objective was to record a song in a day, but it’s important to be flexible in these workshops. As Michael said in the car on the way, “It’s like if you’re a vet and someone brings in a snake, and you say “Oh, I don’t want to treat a snake… Have you got a rabbit instead?” You’ve got to deal with what’s in front of you.” We can’t guess what the atmosphere of a workshop will be like, and we can’t predict who will come, what they’ll want to do or what kinds of skills they’ll have.
We set up for the first session in the ‘big screen room’, or cinema, where the end-credits of a film were rolling. We’d brought a couple of guitars, a drum machine, a few amps, a melodica, a multi-track looping recorder, microphones, a violin, lots of cables and other assorted pieces of equipment. Munya helped us carry a keyboard (a tone out of tune, as the pitch-bend wheel was broken), a couple of drums and more small amps from the chapel, and a bass guitar and a couple of beaten-up guitars from a locked cupboard.
Soon the room was filled with men wondering what was about to happen. “Are we having a music festival?” “Are you going to perform for us?” Oliver responded: “We’re all going to sing and make music together.” Michael and Oliver plugged in and straight away got a groove going using the drum machine, bass guitar and multi-track looper, and Oliver improvised lyrics over the top, inviting the men to join in. I plugged in my violin and jammed along, and Oliver gave me a space to improvise a solo. The workshop kicked off very quickly – the room was suddenly full of curious faces, and before long the microphone was being passed around for people to share songs.
There were three participants who stood out to me: first, a charismatic Kurdish man who performed in Arabic, galvanising the excitement and participation of other Arabic speakers in the room; second, a Bengali man who was initially shy about performing, but sat attentively with a djembe drum through the other performances, eventually gaining the confidence to sing himself; and finally, a young Indian man who showed Michael the keyboard accompaniment of a song he knew and performed at the end of the session.
The atmosphere of this first workshop was lively and loud, with lots of energy and excitement. It was quite chaotic, and very much led by the detainees! People sang songs they knew, and improvised vocals over beats and riffs provided by Michael, Oliver and me. Munya joined in with drums and dancing, and Michael and I were persuaded to play ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (not for the first time!). Two hours flew by and it was time to finish. There had been a camera going around the group for the whole session, and several of the men were keen to get photos of us with them.
After a much-needed pub meal in Kidlington, we went back to Campsfield House for the evening session. There was a big football match being shown in the big screen room so we moved the equipment and instruments into the education room, which was smaller. We set everything up, and Oliver and Michael recorded and looped some riffs we’d come up with in the first session.
The room filled up very quickly, with some of the same people from the first session, and plenty of new faces. The first workshop had been very cathartic and excitable, and this one was too, but in a more focused way. The atmosphere was electric. We started the same way as the first workshop, with the three of us jamming together to draw people in, and then Oliver inviting them to join in. This time the men taking part wanted to take turns freestyling raps to a beat. They would tell us the vibe they wanted (one guy was really into grime, and another wanted old-school hip-hop beats) and Michael and Oliver would immediately produce that sound using the drum machine, keyboard, guitar and bass. Sometimes I joined in on the violin, but only when I felt the music called for it. Otherwise I just enjoyed listening.
Michael was great at coming up with cool keyboard riffs on the spot, and Oliver was excellent at encouraging the men to speak or sing into the microphone. One man with a gold tooth began his rap by saying “This is my first time spitting bars!” and everybody cheered. And he was great. Another picked up the microphone, opened his mouth and said “Immigration … f*ck!” Everybody laughed and clapped. It seemed everybody felt they could just say whatever was on their minds – whether that meant talking about life in detention, or imagining themselves chatting someone up in a bar. It was heartening to be in such a warm and welcoming space, where people were egging each other on.
Very organically, this session had become about creating new music rather than performing known music, and Oliver got to work making sure it got recorded. Powerful streams of words were spilling out of the men’s mouths; they took turns, almost competing, with wide grins on their faces. The eventual song Oliver captured was based, by request, on Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, with Michael playing the keyboard.
“I like it how the music workers help us release our stress. They came here, gave us some entertainment, trying to kill time. I’m thinking right now, is it midnight?”
“Some people outside, they say, they got a lot of addictions: alcoholics, crackheads… and they have so much, you know, but I don’t think … nothing that can be more addictive than music.”
At the end of a long day, we drove back home feeling exhausted but accomplished.