Message from the President: Refugio del Sonido (Refugee of Sound)

There are more than 60 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and more than 20 million refugees fleeing war and persecution, according to a United Nations report issued in December 2015. Nearly 4,000 migrants and refugees perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. The crisis has continued to deepen in 2016.

In an effort to raise awareness of this tragic situation, the Berklee Mediterranean Music Institute (MMI) and the El País newspaper launched a music-focused, multidisciplinary project under the leadership of Javier Limón, MMI's artistic director, called Refugio del Sonido (Refugee of Sound). This piece was written as an album note for this project.

Imagine that you arrive home, and someone—your father, mother, son, daughter, or cousin—tells you to pack a small backpack. You are evacuating immediately. You are at risk. Your entire family will leave, wander on foot to a neighboring country, board a small boat, climb a mountain range, or cross a desert and hope to avoid being captured, interrogated, and tortured by government soldiers, informal militias, or invading armies.

Do you refuse to go? What do you pack? Money and valuables run the risk of being stolen, but do you leave them behind knowing you may never see your home again?

While their circumstances are wildly different, all refugees have made a common momentous choice between remaining where they are and fleeing to an unknown future in an unknown place. They pray, hope, and believe that the unknown will be better.

I spent several years working with refugee populations, first on the border of Cambodia and Thailand after the Khmer Rouge reign of terror ended, and next in Sudan where thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans fled famine. More recently, my wife, Linda Mason, has been working with Congolese and Syrian refugees and displaced people.

Refugees often end up in dense, unplanned settlements where poor sanitation, disease, and thuggery are constant threats. Through my work, I realized that these unfortunate circumstances reveal some practical truths. Securing water and shelter are the absolute, most essential daily obsessions; and jewelry, gold, and gems have value even when currencies collapse—a family heirloom is often more precious when used to pay off border patrol or a smuggler than as adornment.

One of the most startling observations I made was that despite the traumatic shock of becoming a refugee—the daily struggles to survive, the indignities, the sense of loss and hopelessness—music becomes the most portable and important part of a refugee’s culture. In the Cambodian refugee camps, Thai black markets supplied inexpensive boom boxes that became ubiquitous. During my time there, a German band with Caribbean roots called Boney M was at the height of popularity, and its song “One Way Ticket (to the Moon)” was among the hits. I remember several refugee friends thought the lyric was “One Way Chicken” and asked me, in all seriousness, to explain the meaning of a “one-way chicken.” Music of all kinds was played everywhere, but it was the resurgence of traditional Khmer folk music that one heard most often, sounds of home and of a peaceful life long passed.

And as we’ve seen with the diaspora of African slaves to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the U.S.; the Roma throughout Europe; and Celtic populations to North America, entirely new musical forms are born of displacement. Music travels the most dangerous roads and evolves to express both the darkness and light of the experience.

Through this recording, talented Berklee students have drawn from their family histories (most of us descend from refugees of one sort or another) and employed their empathy to create a musical tribute to express our sisterhood and brotherhood with refugees around the world. May we all listen to these sounds of home and imagine a peaceful future for all those who are displaced.