Rachenitsa is the fifth song from Istanbul-based ten-piece Country For Syria (and that’s modestly counting their indispensable sound engineer). Witnesses to the evolving migrant crises since 2015 Owen Harris, accordion and tenor vocals; Bashar Balleh, guitar and baritone vocals; and Başak Oktay Harris on ukulele and alto vocals,* the band give their American, Syrian and Turkish perspectives on the issues that spurred their initial collaboration.
* Başak though, having a prior teaching commitment to attend, hands us over to Owen and Bashar to be our guides on this journey.
Let’s get going…
MakeSense STORiES: As a way to introduce you to the readers, who are Owen and Bashar, as the core founders of Country For Syria; beyond musicians?
Owen: So, I mean we’ve both worked in a few different NGOs, with different refugee groups… I mean, so I describe us first and foremost as an international musical collective, whose purpose is to benefit refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants… all over the world, but especially in the local community here in Istanbul.
We’ve both worked with different projects… either with NGOs, and University projects, and studies, the LGBT shelter… and it’s all part of being in the community… because there’s a global message, or whatever one tries to do… there’s expressing art, but the really powerful thing is… just… taking care of the community and friends around us, making sure everyone is happy and healthy, and has access to the things that they really need.
When we pass the cowboy hat at our concerts, we collect donations for local projects and refugee families. If you’ve never been to our shows, please pass the cowboy hat— give to these moms and then RT so someone else can give as well. #givingtuesday https://t.co/VgCTGuVhXv
— Country For Syria (@countryforsyria) 28 novembre 2017
MakeSense STORiES: How have you seen your live performances important to your own and others’ experiences of being displaced, in that you’re actually creating a space and the music becomes a great tool to make connections happen?
Owen: Bashar, you wanna go first?
Bashar: No, Owen, you first, you go on…
Owen: I believe that when we first started we played some Turkish songs, we played American songs, we played Arabic songs. And the Turkish people kind of got excited about the Turkish songs, the Americans got excited about the Country songs, and, you know… the Arabs were down for the Arabic songs.
And so at first it was like we had three different audiences, and we didn’t quite know yet how to get them to mesh. But I guess that just over time, and learning how to structure a concert, and perform… then the crowds started to come together more. Including expats, who are NGO workers who come to our shows, and a lot of Syrian refugees, many of whom work in community centers and stuff, and also a lot of Turks. They’ve kind of begun to form their own community; we didn’t do much besides play the music.
And out of that there’s Syrian/American coupling happening and people are getting married because, you know…. they came to our shows.
It’s great to say that we do have a reliable crowd of folks who get together on their own and come to almost all of our shows and are very supportive of Country For Syria.
Bashar: Yeah, I mean… I guess Owen covered all of the answers for this (Laughter)… I don’t have anything to add…
Owen: What about Kat?
Bashar: I mean… yeah… I met Kat [Bashir’s wife], but I can’t say that it’s through the link with Country For Syria we met, because we [Owen and me] knew each other before. But yeah… the way I met Kat, my wife… she’s American… she came to one of our shows because she knew that Owen was ‘playing for this kind of Country band’ that he’d told her about. So she came one day, I met her and we fall in love… you know…. we got married. And it was fast.
MakeSense STORiES: When did that [the marriage] happen? Congratulations…
Bashar: It was at the beginning of 2017.
MakeSense STORiES: In parallel with starting to play in the band?
Bashar: No… almost a year later.
MakeSense STORiES: So, the formation of the band came in early 2016?
Owen: More around 2015/2016. So the marriage happened quite some time after.
A story on the move
MakeSense STORiES: One of the reasons we’re chatting today is that it’s one year on since you kindly agreed to be featured in our web-series Waynak: Where Are You? There’ s a tongue-in-cheek moment in that; you say you’d begun throwing about musical ideas in a WhatsApp chat, calling it ‘Work and Money’. No problem in trying to make a living while trying to make positive impact on the immediate community…
Bashar and Owen: (Laughter)
Owen: The project, was mostly… in seriousness… to generate awareness about the refugee crisis. We were in a pre-Trump-era and at a time when people were still just casually saying ‘there’s a Syrian refugee crisis, just now hitting Europe’. And so people talked about Syrians in a ‘hungry masses’ sort of way, and few people were telling any of the personal stories.
So no-one had really told those stories yet, and it was frustrating for us, especially… even the term ‘refugee’… and I wouldn’t like to be called a refugee… it carries this implication of needing help and being helpless and so we were trying to push back against that… and because we were already friends and hanging out all the time, we just pushed back against this idea of a refugee crisis and that people moving in the void… we wanted to show it could be something additive…
Bashar: …something unique.
MakeSense STORiES: I saw there’s a timeline to the sensibilities in the tracks; pre-Trump-era and post…. some song lyrics seem reactionary commentaries, maybe using the music as a outlet for making criticism, alongside exploring musical landscapes. Your recent track Rachenitsa is an instrumental, and a track of endurance… was it a challenge to compose?
Owen: (Laughter) when we recorded… well we recorded all the basics for the whole album in two nights. And in order to get a basic track free of errors, perfectly; we had to play each song between five to ten times each. So playing a track so many times, is…. well… challenging (Laughter)… it took a lot of patience.
MakeSense STORiES: Featured in the line-up at the moment hows the collective working out and how do the individuals reflect the range of instruments across the tracks?
Owen: The album line-up, for this time is a maximum line-up. Yet we played a show the other day with just four of us, playing every Friday in a cafe in Taksim, downtown Istanbul. So there’s probably six or seven people who play with us most of the time. And then we expand out to a ten-piece when we’re recording and doing larger events. And we don’t always play with the horns for example… they come in and are part of another band called Uninvited Jazz Band. Then there’s Yasu who was featured in Waynak, a Kurdish member who was our drummer, and she’s since moved to South America.
We have a new drummer since the Waynak episode was filmed; me and Bashar are the constants and we’ve had different musicians around us.
MakeSense STORiES: A YouTuber commented on the Waynak episode Music Has No Race, that it was ‘Wonderful! Thank you for bringing us all these rhythms and energies form all over the world.’ So riding on that wave of energy; does that kind of reflect your ambitions for Country For Syria being a tool for promoting unity and cohesion in a mad world?
Owen: Bashar, what do you think?
Bashar: It was an interesting to a part of filming Waynak, but more so we always wanted to get more opportunities to get people more interested in inviting us for conferences and workshops, and we’d arranged to play at the Paris launch of the web-series, but disappointingly it didn’t work out. But yeah, we are always on social media.
Owen: Also, there’s two things to add. Chris and Ghinwa who filmed us; Chris has ended up visiting us another three or four times and I went and stayed with Ghinwa and her friends in Beirut. So we definitely made lasting friendships out of Waynak.
You we’re talking earlier about… was this project for fun and money, and to some extent… our main vision for the project has been a success… which is the idea of starting conversations and telling personal stories about Syrians and refugees and being able to also help refugees with money we raised has definitely happened.
We have though (Laughter) definitely not made any money from this project… and we don’t need to… you know, we’re super happy. We are having fun. And you know… it would be great to make money. But we have gotten a lot of coverage from the press and have been able to speak and… we went on tour in the States, which was great, in Oct 2016.
So we’ve had great opportunities that have emerged from it, being able to say the things we wanted to get across to our audience. And to also feel like we’re having some kind of effect on the refugee conversation.
MakeSense STORiES: On the song In the States, the lyrics make reference to the seven countries on Trump’s [now infamous travel ban] list; which may have put your concert in the US in jeopardy?
Owen: Well we’d left of the US concert right on election day and so we were there for the last week of the Obama Administration. On getting back to Istanbul we wrote that song; originally, the lyrics not making any reference to the current American president, and so was simply a reflection on our time in the States, which me and Bashar put together during our regular Sundays where we write.
And then the US travel-ban came into action, affecting several members of our band that had hoped to return to the States, or that have spouses.
Our bassist’s spouse is Iranian, and we were like well ‘you probably won’t have the chance to go anytime soon’. And the question loomed, that, will we ever be able to go to the States? Then just a few weeks ago, Turkey and the US had a diplomatic spat and Americans were banned from getting visas to Turkey and vice-versa. So it just became the only people in our band who could go to the US at that point were the Americans.
Two more of our members banned from the US as visas no longer being issued to Turkish citizens. That makes 5/8 of us https://t.co/Z3n4cUBptC
— Country For Syria (@countryforsyria) 8 octobre 2017
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About the interviewer – Paul @BienUrban is English working up his sloooooow-journalism in Paris, and won the best radio podcast award for Urbanstates and is part of the global network SpottedbyLocals.