In January 2016, I began volunteering at a refugee asylum center near the center of Brussels. I did a lot of research and contacted many places and organizations before happening upon one that gave a positive response to my request to offer songwriting from stories.
When I participated in an entrepreneur accelerator program in Lowell, Massachusetts several years ago, one of my greatest challenges was being able to explain in a few convincing phrases the kind of songwriting that I do and why it is important.
What kind of songwriting do I do?
I write songs from people’s spoken stories, using their words as lyrics in the song and asking them to sing through the words to derive the melody.
Why is it important?
This kind of songwriting gives people the opportunity to experience the creative process, which is empowering. Having someone invite them to share a personal story and to really listen communicates that their life and their experiences are of value and worthy of becoming a song. Asking a person to sing links their intimate emotional connection with their story into often hauntingly beautiful melodies. Most importantly, it demonstrates to the person that their voice is indeed beautiful.
The first afternoon I visited the center, I was fortunate to meet another volunteer, Sarah Van Hove, who had been offering poetry for the past five years for refugees living at the center. Sarah is an incredible being, open, innovative, and willing to try new artistic endeavors. She welcomed me into her fold, and together we began to weave the refugees’ lines of poetry into song. These songs have been performed at poetry open mics organized by Sarah and also at an open doors day at the refugee center this past July. It is my hope that we will be able to organize more events where we can invite the refugees themselves to share their stories and perform the songs with us in concert.
After a brief pause this past summer (Europeans take their summer vacations very seriously), Sarah and I reunited mid-September at the center to begin offering poetry and music once more. Shortly after we began, I invited yet another being into my life, a large, white, wolfie dog. Atticus, as I have come to call him, has been joining us at the center, which has relegated our songwriting space to the gated entrance. The guard told us the only way he would let the dog inside was if he would kill all of the pigeons. I am avid lover of all birds and once welcomed a pigeon with a broken wing into my fold, so there was no way I was going to encourage my white wolf to do the guard’s bidding.
Thus, for the past few weeks we have set up poetry and songwriting shop at the gated entrance to the center. As people come and go, we invite them to share words and phrases of poetry inspired by a single line from a published poet.
This week, Sarah brought a compilation of Anne Waldman poems from her book, Crepuscule, and we began with the line, How do I break the code and sing?
On his way out, one man wrote the line, I need somebody whose explain this to me.
A few minutes later, two more men came by to visit and one wrote the lines, I’m unhappy here. I miss my children.
There were misspellings and the grammatical errors, but the emotions in their words were loud and clear.
Another fellow came by and wrote two lines: I am an immigrant, but I am an optimist.
Sarah and I waited for a while in the quiet that followed. Then we began to weave words and phrases together into the beginnings of a song. As we shaped story into song, I found that I could already hear a melody forming from within.
How do I break the code and sing?
I need somebody to explain
I want someone to share my pain
Without my kids, I’m not the same
I’m an immigrant from a foreign land
I’ve been there, too, I understand
Come walk with me, we’ll make a stand
Heart to heart, and hand in hand
The past is past
I’m an optimist
The best is yet to come
As we were singing, a young man who we met the week before came up to us and asked if I could teach him the song on a guitar he had just bought. When he returned, I showed him each chord. He took a photo of my hand on the strings so that I could send him the chords to practice. He made a film of me playing the song and asked if he could come each Monday so we could practice music together.
Each visit to the center brings a new and unexpected experience. Sometimes, we have a crowd of people—adults and children—singing and laughing. Other times, like this afternoon, are quieter. All are equally meaningful and lift my spirit with hope for humanity and the world.