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.

How A Joy Formidable Song Found Its Way to a Kenyan Refugee Camp

This entry is reposted from MTV IGGY

Band Aids FilmAid in Time for World Refugee Day By Beverly Bryan

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

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.