Haringey Welcome coordinator Lucy Nabijou and her nephew, freelance musician Kayvon Nabijou, discuss the creative process.
It all started with Syria. After taking ill-health retirement I’d joined a local poetry class. This was at the height of news coverage of dangerous Mediterranean crossings by refugees, many from Syria. I wrote a poem telling the story of one woman’s escape from war and her journey towards Europe with her young child. This was also the time Haringey Welcome began our first campaign, to resettle Syrian refugees in Haringey, and like many I was preoccupied with the news.
Having written the poem, I thought it would make a good song lyric, having a clear rhythmic and rhyming structure; but I only set the words to music (voice and piano) much later, in 2019. I edited it down and added the ‘Greek chorus’ in Arabic. These lines represent ‘the people’, and the thousands of other stories.
For a while, Haringey Welcome has been discussing starting a community music collective, and I had in mind that we might use the song to get something started. After lockdown this idea had to be put on hold. Then it occurred to us that we could record the song anyway and use it as a Covid-19 fundraiser, as an act of solidarity with a grass-roots migrant rights organisation.
I am an amateur musician, and although I had some ideas about how I’d like the song to be arranged and interpreted, I needed the help of a professional. Kayvon, having had much of his work suspended due to lockdown, was available and very keen to help.
Together we discussed the brief, which instruments would work, and how it could be arranged. I wanted the interpretation to be gritty and unsentimental – my reference point was Brechtian theatre – but I had no idea how to achieve this!
All that remained was to cut together an accompanying video – achieved by assembling the musicians’ footage plus other generously donated footage, with time volunteered by Haringey-based friends of our group.
Lucy sent me a recording of ‘Adversity Rhyme’ with her singing and playing piano. It was up to me to transcribe this into a musical score, which in turn could be sent to the musicians involved
Lucy had the idea of using a cross-cultural mix of instruments, some Middle Eastern and some Western, reflecting the journey from East to West. After putting out some feelers, we settled on a 5-instrument ensemble: vocals, piano, qanun, clarinet and oud.
Lockdown created some interesting problems for us, principally: how can we create something that sounds cohesive, as if the musicians are playing together, without actually getting all the musicians in one place?
Many people opt for the ‘click track’ approach: setting a common speed (e.g. 90 beats per minute) and having the musicians play along to it, so that the individual recordings are in time with one another. Having heard Lucy’s original recording, with its frequent pauses punctuating the different parts of the story, I decided that this method would detract from the natural ‘flow’ of the song, and leave it sounding disconnected and static. Instead, I filmed myself conducting, ‘hearing’ the song in my head as I did so, imagining which sections should be faster and more intense, and which needed to be taken at a steadier pace.
This method did capture the mood we wanted; but it also lead to a sort of ‘hydra effect’; the solution to one problem causing many more! The audio recordings were mostly in time with one another, but with a shimmering effect, quite undesired, as the parts occasionally staggered in and out of time. This, thankfully, was a quick fix, using editing features on the Ableton software.
This project has presented some unique musical challenges that have really stretched my ability. It came at a time when many were feeling powerless to help, as the world changed massively before our eyes. It still seems that musicians face a long wait before things resume in any ‘normal’ way. Adversity Rhyme gave me the opportunity to help in what small way I can, and I’m truly grateful.
You can hear Adversity Rhyme, watch the video, and make a donation to support the migrant domestic workers Covid-19 hardship fund on our Crowdfunder page: