How A Joy Formidable Song Found Its Way to a Kenyan Refugee Camp
20 June 2012-There is a proverb from Ghana that says “the drummer does not know how far the sound travels.” The Joy Formidable found out recently that this piece of wisdom holds as true for Welsh rockers in the UK as it does for West Africans.
The trio has become known worldwide for big swelling anthems that mix extremely loud shoegaze with the emotional punch of melodic post-hardcore. As of late, they’ve finished a second album, mostly recorded and written in Portland, Maine and finished on the tour bus while making their way through the US in March, followed by a big date at Bonnaroo. It was a bit rushed but they did get to see the Beach Boys. They’re busy building on the success of 2011′s debut album The Big Roar. They’ve reached a lot of people with their music, but about a month ago they found out just how far their sound had traveled.
Two filmmakers who had been volunteering as teaching artists in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya contacted them to say that they had used the Joy Formidable single “A Heavy Abacus” in a short film they shot with kids in the camp, most of whom are fleeing violence in Sudan. It shows some of the camp’s youngest residents smiling and mouthing the lyrics of the song, creating a very compelling impression that they are singing Bryan’s emotive vocals.
The filmmakers, Paola Mendoza and Topaz Adizes, wanted to know if it was alright with the band. It was. More than alright with it, The Joy Formidable has been enthusiastically spreading the word about FilmAid, the organization Mendoza and Adizes work with. “We’re very keen for people to see it,” singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan says, “We’re just very, very honored to be involved in the project.” She got to see the rough cut a couple of weeks ago.
Bryan admits she hadn’t heard of FilmAid before Mendoza and Adizes got in touch, but is now one of its champions. “There are a whole lot of problems to tackle in the area where they’re working, but I think the way they’re approaching it, through the power of images and art as a way of connecting with people is great,” Bryan says. “It’s a great charity. We hope the video helps them reach a wider audience. It challenges people to think for a second about how other people are living. Ultimately the idea of the video is to encourage people to donate to what is a great charity.”
FilmAid uses video in different ways to uplift refugees and other vulnerable communities all over the world. Workers teach filmmaking, help refugees tell their stories, and bring movies to inform and entertain camps using mobile movie screens attached to trucks. FilmAid released the video to raise awareness, not only about their work but about World Refugee Day. Observed annually on June 20, the date was created by the UN to remember those who have been forced by conflict or disaster to leave their homes, people like the kids in Kakuma.
The band members themselves wanted to find out more about Kakuma after they saw the video. “We were curious. It definitely affected us. The images are very moving. I think we all need to be shaken out of our complacency, to take a moment to think about other people’s situations,” the musician said.
Bryan explains “A Heavy Abacus” is in some ways in harmony with the video. Even if they didn’t have a refugee camp in mind when it was written, it is a song about children. “When we originally wrote it a year and a half ago it was very much inspired by themes of children growing up too fast, losing innocence, not being shielded from adult problems, materialism. That was what was driving the song originally, and a lot of that was just based on the current state of what children are exposed to. And wanting children to be children for as long as possible.”
“Obviously, the video has put it in a completely different context. It brings a whole new level of poignancy. These children, they’re facing a much more serious challenge of basic survival,” the soft-spoken frontwoman reflected.
Being forced to leave your home in the wake of civil war can certainly bring a loss of innocence, but in the video, kids of all ages are just being kids — laughing and playing, albeit under difficult circumstances. That’s part of what makes the film so poignant. The stars of the video might show resilience, but the filmmakers depict something far more precarious, explaining in text that 2,000 new refugees arrive at the Kakuma each month.
The video was shot in just three days using one camera, two light reflectors and an iPhone, but it’s hard to imagine it being more impactful. The final shot shows the entire cast singing the chorus: “Abacus watching me.” Their faces, like the accompanying words and melody, are hard to forget. It puts a vibrant human face on a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s a beautifully shot video and it kind of underscores their mantra at FilmAid. The way that they’re connecting with people in places like Kakuma is through the power of film. I think it’s a very obvious example of how that can transcend other forms of communication. Music, art and visuals combined can bring home a very powerful message,” Bryan says of the clip.
The award-winning filmmakers made a similar statement about their project: “While working in the Kakuma Refugee camp we were inspired by the strength of the people we met. So often refugees are forgotten because the problem seems too overwhelming. Our intention was to have two worlds crashing together with the hopes that in the mash-up both worlds’ beauty would shine through in their purest form.”
It seems to be having the desired effect. “Certainly, there have been a lot of people watching it who have been curious about the background, the charity and the work that FilmAid does. It’s had a great response. It’s been shared by a whole host of people from different walks of life it seems,” Bryan reports.
There is more information about World Refugee Day at Worldrefugeeday.us