‘The Calais Sessions’: UK musicians search for talent in migrant camp


When Europeans talk about the migrants arriving on their shores, many imagine them as being unskilled, with little to offer. However, many migrants are in fact skilled workers, and they possess a wide range of talents. Our Observer went looking for one skill in particular: musical talent.

Vanessa Lucas-Smith is a professional cellist who lives in London. Last weekend, she and a group of UK-based musicians crossed the channel to visit the “Jungle”, a makeshift migrant camp in Calais, France, to look for musicians.

An excerpt from an upcoming documentary on the Calais Sessions, featuring Mohealdeen, a singer from Syria. 

The Calais migrant camp has existed for more than a decade now. It is a forced stopping point for those hoping to reach the United Kingdom after fleeing wars, persecution or economic hardship in their homelands. However, the current wave of migrants – notably from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Eritrea - has put the camp back in the spotlight.

Vanessa and her friends spent 48 hours jamming and recording music with camp residents, and are now editing the result into an album, “The Calais Sessions”, that they plan to release on iTunes. Proceeds will go to charities that help refugees.

“We figured that in a camp of 4,000 people, our chances of finding musicians were pretty good!”

In the United Kingdom, we gathered a team of ten musicians – Syrian, Romanian, Kurdish, Nigerian, and British, playing ney, oud, darbuka, djembe, accordion, violin, cello, and all sorts of percussion instruments. We brought tons of African and Middle Eastern instruments, in particular drums, since we wanted to be able to do workshops with people who didn’t have any musical training. We honestly had no idea whether we would find people with musical talent at Calais, but we figured that in a camp of 4,000 people, our chances were pretty good!

Camp residents try out the instruments. All photos courtesy of the Calais Sessions.

When we got there, we basically just said ‘hi’ to everyone, and showed people our instruments. It didn’t matter if they were complete beginners or professional - we wanted as many people as possible to play. And it didn’t take long at all. The drum beats begun, as did the singing, clapping, dancing, with crowds surrounding any musical activity happening. It seemed people were desperate to express themselves, to perform, to just be involved.

The drums come out.

As soon as people learned that we wanted to record some songs, they all started saying, oh, you have to meet this guy, he sings to us all the time! They introduced us to a Syrian man named Mohealdeen who had an incredible voice – apparently he had never made a career out of it, but he certainly could. We also met another Syrian who was an excellent darbuka player. The singer sang us a beautiful song that he had composed himself, and some of the musicians started to improvise along with him. We knew we had to record it. The song's lyrics, which are in Arabic, are about the people that were killed in the war in Syria, and how he stays connected to them in his heart. He dedicated the song to his deceased brother. [Editor's note: see video above to hear him sing and learn more about his story].

On the Sunday, we used a makeshift recording studio to start recording. We had a sound engineer with us who brought a lot of kit with him. There is no electricity at the camp so we had to hire a generator and bring it with us. Throughout the day, many other camp residents came in and played our various instruments. There were people from Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan. We recorded tons of drum tracks, which we’re going to edit together into a dance track.

“We held a giant drumming circle in the pitch dark”

  Then that night, we gathered a huge drumming circle, outside in the pitch dark. There were over a hundred people, which at first we were a little worried about, since we thought it might be tough to manage a big, noisy crowd, who don’t all speak the same language. But everyone was very respectful, shushing each other when my friend who was leading the drum circle wanted to explain something.

Alpha, a camp resident and musician (right) plays with Sola (left), who lives in the United Kingdom and is a percussionist in the band Jamiroquai.

The migrants don’t have many distractions in the camp, where the conditions are terrible. They live in tents on a landfill site, and when the rain comes, so does the shifting of the land to reveal all matters of unmentionables, from nappies to industrial waste to rotting food. And it’s only going to get worse, since winter is coming.

We plan to go back soon to record some more in other parts of the camp, but we’ll start out by releasing 4 or 5 tracks in the coming weeks. We are currently very busy editing, mixing and mastering the tracks and creating short documentary-type films to accompany the tracks for sale. It’s the most beautiful and treasured music I’ve ever been part of creating. Our hope is that presenting these migrants’ stories through music will mean that maybe people might pay more attention.

To follow news from the Calais Sessions project and find out when the tracks are released, you can follow their Facebook page.