Making Music in Kakuma

This February, Michael Sackler-Berner together with his wife Ilana (see her post here) spent one week in Kakuma with FilmAid staff. Michael brought state-of-the-art sound equipment and conducted workshops with FilmAid staff and students. Here is his account of the week!

Flying to Kakuma can be misleading. Though the plane I took was chartered and run by the World Food Programme and headed to a massive refugee camp hours from any city, it felt much like a standard commuter plane, complete with drink cart and flight attendants. It took only a few minutes upon arrival to realize it was no usual puddle jumper.

Kakuma is in the desert and the only real road signs I noticed as we approached the camp were those pointing to NGO compounds.  The armed, gated compounds are tucked inside a surprisingly large city of small, dusty homes.  Some homes are mud brick with metal roofs, others are tarp relief tents, and none have flooring or plumbing. 

The tremendously bumpy roads and paths the NGO land cruisers use to get around led us right to FilmAid’s offices. I clutched my guitar and bag hoping the recording gear inside wouldn't be damaged in this last leg of my two-day journey from Brooklyn to Kenya.

After a warm welcome from FilmAid’s field staff, I found myself in a small community building just past the new arrivals check-in point, with a generator pumping outside.  Within a few hours, microphones were set up, software installed, and monitors blasting. I would spend the next four days in this building with refugee and host community musicians, FilmAid audio staff, and countless refugees who would hear music and wander through to see what was going on. Outside the studio window was a latrine and a road where goats would occasionally wander by, munching on garbage that lines the paths. 

Time, which has a way of moving at light speed in New York, moves mighty slowly in a refugee camp. Refugees from every corner of the region live in Kakuma, from years to decades, with no ability to work and nowhere to go. It is not unusual to see someone spend a whole day under a tree, resting, with nothing to do. So anything to do, particularly something creative that results in a final product, is much needed psychological relief. It is met with open arms, excitement and preparation. 

Every morning, I worked with 4 or 5 artists, rappers, and singers to write a song. Every afternoon, we tracked the tune. When I work in professional co-writing sessions in New York or Nashville, it often takes hours before the writers find a new way of saying something meaningful enough to consider the words "lyric." Not in Kakuma. The artists have a lot to say and it is right on the surface.

The opportunity to be heard is a rare treat for these artists. They live difficult lives in arguably some of the toughest of conditions.  No time I spent with them was ever wasted or taken for granted. Questions, ideas, titles, melodies, beats, and lyric were constantly flowing from the 8:30am car ride to the studio, until the generator ran out of gas after our final playback around 6:00pm.

I never could've anticipated the wealth of talent FilmAid’s outreach staff was able to find.  Everything I’d heard about African rhythm was true and there seemed to be a gold mine of incredible singers and rappers with something important to say. They also have fantastic stage names – Smart, Diddy Stone, Afisa, King Moses, Fire Man, etc. FilmAid’s staff audio producers, Victor K. and Abdul, have the skills and gear to make fantastic and meaningful records for years to come.  Their passion for making records was deeply refreshing.

I could go on for days about the artist’s individual talents, heartbreaking stories, hopeful dreams, and plentiful skills, but I will let their music do the talking. With the help of FilmAid, they have a microphone that has the potential to not just bring them moments of joy when it is needed, but with any luck, and a touch of musical magic, bring their stories to the world.

Making Melodies in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

This blog was reposted from Creative Time Reports
By FilmAid, Nairobi Kenya
December 14, 2012

“The Music Producer” is the story of Omwot Omwot Ogul, full-time music producer, part-time handyman, who lives in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee settlement.

After fleeing his homeland, the Gambela region in Ethiopia, in 2004, Omwot found himself in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. He subsequently moved to capital Nairobi, where he discovered his love of music. Five years later, Omwot was forced to uproot once again. This time, he relocated to the Dadaab camp, home to nearly 500,000 refugees.

Now an independent music producer, an unlikely profession in this isolated corner of sub-Saharan Africa, Omwot empowers his fellow refugees to make music about their lives and helps them record that music. On the side, he works as a handyman, repairing and charging phones for people in the camp, using a personal solar panel he built and installed.

“The Music Producer” was shot by Ramah Hawkins, a Nairobi-based filmmaker who spent several months in the settlement collaborating with FilmAid’s Kenyan and refugee staff and film students there. The short film is part of Dadaab Stories, a web-native, multi-media documentary project charting everyday life in the Dadaab refugee camp, located in eastern Kenya, on the border of Somalia. Using videos, poetry and music, Dadaab Stories provides a platform for refugees to tell their own stories to the world in their own voices.

Supported by the Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund and the Ford Foundation, this project aims to increase public understanding of refugee lives, forge a deeper connection between the refugee community and the outside world, offer a platform for creative expression and document the history of the refugee experience.

Personal stories are the central part of the project – a record of the extraordinary experiences of the refugees in Dadaab, and a powerful advocacy platform for ongoing international attention to the region. But the project does not only focus exclusively on the darker aspects of life in the camps. Dadaab is a living place and the people in it live their lives and dreams just like anywhere else.

We hope you enjoy this special preview from FilmAid’s Dadaab Stories. If it inspires you with a spirit of generosity this holiday season, we thank you for supporting our work, projecting hope and making change for refugees and other displaced communities:

FilmAid and The Joy Formidable “A Heavy Abacus”

This entry has been reposted from The Fader

Filmmakers Paola Mendoza and Topaz Adizes spent a month volunteering for nonprofit group FilmAid as visiting teaching artists in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. While there, they got inspired to shoot a video inside the camp, based around Welsh band The Joy Formidable‘s single “A Heavy Abacus.”

The video is a beautifully vivid portrait of young Sudanese refugees, a tribute to the strength and resilience of kids whose lives are in limbo. “So often refugees are forgotten because the problem seems too overwhelming,” the directors have stated. “This is an attempt to shake us out of our complacency and recognize the power that is in every one of us to help make the world better.” Impressively, the video was shot in just three days, using one camera, two light reflectors and an iPhone. It’s FilmAid’s first music video, released in support of World Refugee Day on June 20th.