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Artists In France’s Biggest Refugee Camp Are Topping World Music Charts

Migrants cook food near a huge pile of rubbish inside the Jungle. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARKUS SCHREIBER
Migrants cook food near a huge pile of rubbish inside the Jungle. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARKUS SCHREIBER

Ten refugees are currently shining in the spotlight at the Rio 2016 Olympics Games. But outside of Brazil, another set of refugees is setting a record — this time on the music charts — after releasing an album recorded at an infamous refugee camp in Calais, France.

Released in late July, The Calais Sessions is a collaborative effort by 20 refugees and professional musicians that intends to “empower and entertain Europe’s refugees,” according to the New York Times.

The musical collaboration —which features music that “ranges from Middle Eastern-inflected pop to Iraqi rap to tunes from the Balkans and Spain” — has hit a nerve with the public. The album topped the music charts on Bandcamp and iTunes, according to a Facebook post.

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Refugees at the camp started playing music together last September, after a British cellist visited Calais with musical instruments.

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One of the refugees who participated in the project — a jewelry maker and amateur rapper who fled from Iraq — said that playing music brought “a glimmer of hope” into his life at France’s largest refugee camp, which is known as the “Jungle.”

“I hope it changes something,” he told the New York Times. “I can’t do anything for me here in the Jungle.”

War and persecution drove more than 65 million people from their homes last year, forcing them to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the refugees who survive this trip wind up in the Jungle, where 4,500 displaced people — mostly from Africa and the Middle East — face a long wait for asylum in the European Union.

The conditions in the makeshift camp are slum-like and many of the refugees who live there are treated with contempt by local officials. Indeed, authorities have already bulldozed the southern part of the camp, while a government-approved “New Jungle” was built in April 2015.

One musician featured on the album, Ismail, plays a cello-like string instrument made from scrap materials that he collected in the Jungle. Ismail and his family fled from Afghanistan after he was threatened and tortured for playing music.

They put my right arm into boiling water saying it is because that is the arm that I make music with.

“The Taliban heard me playing one day in my house,” he said. “They put my right arm into boiling water saying it is because that is the arm that I make music with. They also shot me in my side and in the foot.”

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Other artists have also used their work to bring global awareness to the refugee crisis and the anti-immigrant policies adopted by many European Union nations. Last year, Ai Wei Wei, a Chinese dissident and artist, recreated the death photo of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. He has also showcased drawings from Iraqi refugees, and even wrapped the columns of a German concert hall with thousands of refugees’ life vests.

And Banksy, a high-profile street artist, has brought his art to the Jungle himself. Inside Calais, he did a piece depicting the late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs — whose father was a Syrian refugee — and a piece showing refugees on a boat attempting to flag down a luxury yacht.