Rock, Roots, Riffs, Refugees


Anbessa Gebrihiwot’s crime was penning a love song.

While touring Australia in 2007, he sought asylum from his native Ethiopia after authorities imprisoned another singer for performing his composition, "Zero". Ethiopia’s hardline censors claimed his tune was anti-government but Anbessa says they grossly misinterpreted his lyrics about homesickness.

"It’s about if you’re separated from family or friends then life is zero. That’s my opinion. If you can’t see your lover, your road is broken."

Anbessa travelled Africa and Europe with bands from the age of 14, singing and strumming the country’s traditional lyre as well as a one string violin called the masenko. Music provided a livelihood but left him exiled on a bridging visa from his wife and two children. This year the family was reunited in Melbourne but his two brothers and sister remain on the run and out of contact — so now he sings "Zero" for them.

Anbessa has just recorded the song with The Cat Empire as part of an 11 track compilation album called The Key of Sea.

"They’re famous and they’re fast," he exclaims "In my country it can take a month to finish one song with just keyboard accompaniment. One song! But we had to do it all in one day."

Tim Rogers, Oh Mercy and Sarah Blasko are among other big acts to donate time by collaborating on a track with local migrant musicians and asylum seeker artists. The album is the brainchild of Liberty Victoria’s Hugh Crosthwaite and Nick O’Byrne from the Australian Independent Records Label Association. Refugee lawyer Julian Burnside and the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival are among those financing the project.

The album is a cultural conglomerate where Eritrean hip hop, Yiddish folk and lilting Pakistani vocals intersect. Crosthwaite equates the listening experience to eating at a Vietnamese restaurant because the album demonstrates what refugees can bring to a new homeland.

"Why is it that we can go down and enjoy great Vietnamese culture any night of the week? The reason is that at some point there was a war. Australia fought in that war and Malcolm Fraser felt an obligation to the people of the nation in which that war was being fought."

With asylum seekers being hotly discussed from Inverbrackie to Indonesia, Crosthwaite hopes the album will break down negative misconceptions about refugees. "The run up to the last federal election was the last straw for me. It was so unnecessarily negative and I just felt like the whole politic needed a new perspective. Music is a great way to introduce a culture or idea to someone. It can touch people where the most meticulously well crafted argument will fail, " he told New Matilda.

The Vasco Era didn’t participate to make a political statement, they just wanted to record with someone who could play the oud. The raucous roots outfit ended up with refugee Yousif Aziz, an Iraqi Christian popstar with a large YouTube fanbase and a Masters degree in music. His soaring Arabic vocals and delicate oud playing on the album’s final track ‘Habibi Ba’ada Zelan’ pushed the band to take their music to a level they’re not used to.

"It’s a pretty quiet instrument," says lead singer Sid O’Neil "We’re very loud so we had to write different to fit that instrument in. He started playing on a completely different beat but that whole verse he sings is the best bit of the song. It gave me a smile."

Aziz has only been in Australia for 18 months and the Key of Sea recording was his first experience playing with Australian musicians. On Thursday night, he and the Vasco Era will be among those launching the album to a sold out crowd at St Kilda’s Prince of Wales. "I’m so afraid. When I sing to Iraqi people, to Arab people I know how to touch their feelings and make them happy, I can make them dancing but now I’m facing Australia people so how do I touch their feelings?"

He’s not the only one to feel trepidation. Urthboy, aka Tim Levinson has never felt more nervous about producing a song than his contribution the Key of Sea project. It’s not about reviews or the response from his hiphop fanbase. He wanted the approval of one Afghani refugee who had escaped the Taliban in a pickup truck and ended up in offshore detention on Nauru.

His song "Letters from Jamshed" chronicles the life of "Jams" through excerpts from letters sent from the remote Pacific island to Tim’s brother’s girlfriend when they began a penpal relationship seven years ago. The lyrics are direct quotes from his new friend who now helps other refugees as an interpreter on Christmas Island.

"He loves the long, his eyes filled up with tears thinking back to those times because it makes him think about Afghanistan." He wouldn’t have released the song if Jamshed didn’t like it.

"There’s a tendency of an artist to be all knowing. I wanted to make a snapshot and have that tell a bit of the story, rather than bang on about how tough refugees have it. Sometimes that approach just makes the issue black and white.

Every year Tim receives presents from Jamshed at Christmas catchups and other family events. This year, the boot is on the other foot: Jamshed has been given a voice.

For more information, see The Key of Sea.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.