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'The Calais Sessions': How a Group of Refugees Produced a Record in the ‘Jungle’

“Activism is from the heart, and it needs a unifier,” said Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans. “And music has alway been this amazing unifier.”

This stands true for a benefit album recently released that was written and performed by musicians at the “Jungle” refugee camp known in Calais, France.

The album, titled “The Calais Sessions,” was recorded and released in the camp by about 20 refugees and professional musicians. The songs are from various genres, ranging from Middle Eastern pop to love songs to upbeat instrumentals.

The Jungle camp is home to more than 6,000 men, women, and children fleeing war, persecution, and economic hardship. The Jungle is serving as a temporary solution to the refugee crisis, which displace more than 65 million people from their homes in 2015 alone.

This album is exactly the kind of unifier these refugees need.

Though the refugee artists are mostly amateurs, they took the job seriously. “It’s hard work because you want to make something professional,” 24-year-old Iraqi refugee Kasper told The New York Times in a phone interview. They played instruments included a guitar-like oud, a flute called a ney, and a Kurdish drum called a daf. Others sang and rapped along to the music.

Kasper has been at the Jungle since October. He said recording the album gave him hope for the future.

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

Since its establishment 10 years ago, the Jungle has hosted charities, celebrities, and artists who offer cultural activities like concerts. They’ve helped build theaters and art schools. “The Calais Sessions” was just the latest project, developed by cellist and Allegri Quartet member Vanessa Lucas-Smith in London.

Lucas-Smith said in a phone interview that the project was intended to show a different side of those living in the camp and to empower them by showcasing their musical abilities. She and other artists visited the camp last September and brought instruments with them that would allow refugees to rediscover familiar sounds.

“When you take the instruments to people, it sounds as if it’s bread or water or coal, something they really, really need,” said Lucas-Smith.

Most of the album was recorded in a generator-powered studio near the Jungle of Books, a makeshift library in the camp. A team of around 200 people, including volunteers from Britain and Spain, helped to record and piece together the album. It’s available on Bandcamp for about $13 USD.

As of Aug. 2, 4,000 pounds (about $5,188 USD) had been raised by album sales to benefit the refugees and the British charity Citizen UK, The New York Times reported.

“The refugees don’t have many distractions in the camp, where the conditions are terrible,” said Lucas-Smith. This recording was the perfect distraction for the people.

“It’s the most beautiful and treasured music I’ve ever been part of creating,” she said. “Our hope is that presenting these migrants’ stories through music will mean that maybe people might pay more attention.”

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