How singing can give migrants a voice
Singing and music-making promote inclusion and intercultural contact in a way that is often more accessible than language
The Elikya Choir (Elikya means ‘hope’), which was formed 14 years ago in association with Doras Luimni and University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy. Photograph: Maurice Gunning
Last year, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that there are more than 65 million people currently displaced across the world. This is the largest number in recorded history. Approximately 1 per cent of the global population is an asylum seeker, a refugee, or a forcibly displaced migrant.
Behind these hard-to-grasp numbers are human stories. There is the story of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach, trying to escape to Greece with his family. There are stories of Eritreans and Sudanese, many of them only teenagers, still arriving into Calais, months after the “jungle” camp was demolished. There are more than a quarter of a million stories of Rohingya refugees, flooding into Bangladesh in the space of two weeks.
For every migrant, there is an immediate preoccupation with the basic human needs of food, shelter and safety. But like every other human being, migrants also have complex emotional and psychological needs. One of the most fundamental of these is the need to belong. Our desire for autonomy and self-identity is balanced by our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves: a group, a club, a family, a community.
There is a growing body of research indicating that music – and particularly singing – can play a very important role in meeting this need to belong. I have been involved in this research for almost two decades at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick. I am the child of Irish migrants to America, who returned to Ireland when I was in my early teens. Like so many Irish people, I have first-hand experience of being Irish in America and American in Ireland: that strange in-between place familiar to all migrants. Singing Irish songs and playing Irish music in New York, I grew up with a powerful sense of the role of music in creating my identity and my sense of belonging.
Children with access to high-quality singing education not only demonstrate more positive self-identity, but also a higher sense of social inclusion
Singing does this in a number of ways. In an evolutionary sense, humans have used singing to create and maintain larger social groups than most of their primate relatives and ancestors. Group music making increases feelings of social inclusion, connectivity, positive affect and endorphin release, fostering a sense of social closeness. This is seen to be the case, even as the group becomes larger and more diverse. Singing can create a sense of temporal inclusion even in political environments where civic or political belonging is ambivalent or refused.
Singing and music-making also promote intercultural contact in a way that is often more accessible than language. It arouses curiosity and interest, and creates a social atmosphere. Singing also elicits memory and emotion, allowing us to access past experiences, as well as the emotional and psychological space to integrate them into new environments. Children with access to high-quality singing education not only demonstrate more positive self-identity, but also a higher sense of social inclusion.
The briefest history of war, religion, nationalism or communism will demonstrate how effective singing is at promoting belonging through a sense of hatred for the other
Despite these findings, my early research around singing and belonging was somewhat discouraging. While singing can create amazing experiences of social bonding, these experiences are often used to enforce “closed” communities i.e. communities that develop a sense of belonging based on the exclusion of others. The briefest review of the history of war, religion, nationalism or communism will demonstrate how effective singing is at promoting belonging through a sense of hatred for the other.
It took much more work to isolate the uses of singing which encourage a more open, diverse, fluid sense of belonging. In most cases, these were linked in some way to particular ritual experiences. Rituals are performances that societies use to mark rites-of-passage (birthing, dying, coming of age); to celebrate events (marriages, parties, festivals, personal joys); or to mourn losses (funerals, disasters, personal sorrows). When rituals utilise singing to mark the lives of migrants in respectful and inclusive ways, they almost always result in this more integrated sense of belonging.
The book Singing the Rite to Belong looks at this phenomenon in my home city of Limerick from 2000, when the first asylum-seekers arrived in the city as part of the government’s policy of dispersal, to the citizenship referendum of 2004. It explores religious, educational, civic and community-based rituals. It does so against the changing landscape of the boom and bust economy of the Celtic Tiger, the decline in moral authority of the Irish Catholic church, and changing understandings of what it means to be Irish and who gets to belong here. Fundamentally, it asks questions about how singing might play a role in this emerging Ireland.
The “sounds” of this research include the first and longest surviving Congolese choir in Ireland. It looks at the phenomenon of “borrowed” ritual spaces: when churches around Ireland threw open their doors to new ritual communities. What happens when a Russian Orthodox ritual is celebrated in an Irish Catholic church? When an Anglican community opens its ritual space to a new Nigerian Pentecostal church? The resulting musical osmosis is sometimes as temporary as these transient communities. But it can also signal a new diversity, as when African indigenous hymns get taken up by Irish Gospel choirs.
The sounds of the research also include a “world carnival” at one of Limerick’s most multicultural primary schools. It includes a festival of world sacred music which brought Zimbabwean mbira player, Chartwell Dutiro; Greek Orthodox chanter, Ioannis Arvanitis; Senegalese kora player, Seckou Keita; Yoruba dancer, Peter Badejo; Tibetan chanter, Yungchen Llamo; Vietnamese overtone singer, Tran Quang Hei and Syrian chanter, Marie Keyrouz, as well as many others to Limerick to share their rituals and their songs. It includes a community festival, which resulted in a new choir formed by women from the Traveller and asylum-seeking communities.
The work culminates with the Irish citizenship referendum of 2004 when Ireland had the opportunity to decide which children born on the island of Ireland had the right to belong here. It charts the songs and rituals of those women caught in the agony of not knowing where their children might call home.
It has been said that those in power write the history while those who suffer write the songs. It may well be that singing provides us with a new way to write the future – a future where singing the right to belong happens through rites of song.
Helen Phelan is Professor of Arts Practice at the University of Limerick. Her book, Singing the Rite to Belong Music, Ritual and the New Irish, is published by Oxford University Press and will be launched on Tuesday, October 17th at 5.30pm by Prof Declan Kiberd at the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson St, Dublin