Recording Rohingyas' raw emotion

Rohingya refugee sings for Ian Brennan's "Once We Had A Home" album
The songs captured on field recordings in the Kutupalong refugee camp give listeners a brief glimpse into the sense of loss and abandonment felt by the Rohingya people (image: Marilena Umuhoza Delli)

Brennan's "Once We Had A Home" is a searing document of the reality faced by Rohingya refugees squeezed into the massive Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border

By Richard Marcus

In 1982 the Rohingya people became stateless on the land they had lived on for thousands of years when the government of Myanmar unlisted them as one of the country's 135 national races. This allowed the government to pronounce them illegal immigrants. Once over a million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, but after the genocide of 2017, 740,000 fled to Bangladesh

In Kutupalong – the largest refugee camp in the world with a population of around one million – the Rohingya eke out an existence on around 9 U.S. cents a day. It is here that Ian Brennan took his recording equipment. Brennan has made it his mission to document the lives of people around the world through music and stories. He describes himself as a narrator, responsible for telling the stories of the people he records. This is not as easy as it sounds. When it comes to music, there is always the temptation to make it sound "better".

Field recordings, by their nature, are ideal for this kind of work. The inherent limitations when recording in less than ideal conditions are a bonus. Instead of looking for perfect sound, the aim of the recording is to capture a specific moment in time, complete with all the imperfections that make it real.

While ethnomusicologists have used field recordings since the days of wax cylinders to make records of so-called vanishing cultures or "rare" and "exotic" races, these days producers like Brennan have a more urgent task. They give voice to those who have been denied speech, making something vast and impersonal intimate in the process. 

Cover of Ian Brennan's "Once We Had A Home"
"This is raw and undiluted emotion," writes Marcus. "It hasn't been processed or cleaned up for mass consumption, or given fancy packaging. It simply goes straight to the heart" (distributed by bandcamp.com)

"Their pain was not mine to claim"

Though we may read about the mass exodus of a people in the newspapers and be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the events, hearing the voice of one person – even if we can't understand the language they're speaking – recounting their sorrows, can bring a situation home with poignant, human immediacy.

The beauty of this style of recording is that it ensures the technology and the process remain secondary, keeping the focus directly where it belongs – on the subject. In his notes on making the recording, Brennan also recalls how he couldn't allow himself to be swept up in the obvious emotional toll these recordings were taking on the people whose stories he was hearing: "I was overcome, but refrained, turning away. Their pain was not my mine to claim".

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While it might not be anyone's to claim, the toll this enforced exodus has taken upon the Rohingya people is something we all need to understand – both in the context of their specific circumstances and to better understand the plight of refugees the world over. These days, displaced people are common currency in too many countries. If we are ever to stanch the flow, we need to become more empathetic to the plight of refugees.

The nine tracks on Once I Had A Home were written specifically by groups of male refugees in the camp at Bangladesh for this recording (women were invited, but because of local religious laws prohibiting them from performing in public they declined) to relate their experiences. The voices of the men singing are accompanied by either very simple percussion instruments and/or a mandolin, meaning our focus is naturally drawn to the sounds they create singing.

There can be no normal in this place

The first thing that strikes you is the raw emotion of each singer. There is no attempt to hide anything. Each song sounds like it has been ripped out of the performer's soul. While the title of each song gives us some indication of their content ("My Body Aches For Home", "The Soldiers Burned Down Our Mosque (They Stole Our Souls)" and "Let's Go Fight The Burmese (They Raped Our Women)"), they only hint at the emotional impact.

While these song titles reflect the extreme calamity the refugees have gone through since their expulsion from Myanmar, the album also contains songs about life in the refugee camp; depicting the singers' attempts to create something close to a normal life. However, the titles of these songs imply much of the same desperation expressed by the others. 

"I Want To Marry, Amira, From The Camps (If I Can't I Will Hang Myself)" is not what anybody would consider an upbeat title. There can be no normal in this place – it's not home – "We Are Stuck Here In The Camps" – sums up just how abnormal their circumstances are. 

The fact that these are not trained vocalists or musicians only adds to the authenticity of the album. In fact some of the most powerful moments of storytelling come on the tracks where we simply hear a person speaking his story, as in the second song "The Soldiers Came and Burned Down Our Mosque". Hearing the man's voice as he recounts this horrific event, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the depth of his emotions.

Like most field recordings the sound quality on this disc is all over the place. Sometimes the singers are barely audible, as the recording is so quiet, while on others the volume is very loud. However, this is to be expected from a recording under difficult conditions and it helps to add another layer of authenticity. The tracks were produced in a refugee camp, not a recording studio, and it shows.

Brennan has done an incredible job of not only recording the individuals who agreed to be part of the process, but keeping the focus solely on both them and their plight. This is raw and undiluted emotion. It hasn't been processed or cleaned up for mass consumption, or given fancy packaging. It simply goes straight to the heart.

Richard Marcus

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