On 27 January, a packed and appreciative audience in Brighton’s Jubilee library enjoyed beautiful music by local Ukrainian, Syrian and Sudanese choirs and musicians. What better way to spend a cold afternoon than at this Winter Warmer, a free concert coordinated by Best Foot Music, in collaboration with Jubilee library staff, to share and celebrate diverse communities and cultures. With ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, the performances were especially moving and powerful.
Holding the event in the library made for a warm, informal atmosphere, which really suited the occasion. The audience could come and go during the afternoon, buy tea and cakes from the café or browse the stalls of community organisations, including refugee support groups Hummingbird Project and Sanctuary on Sea. While music filled the space, the usual activities of the library carried on as usual; people popping in to change their library books lingered to listen to the music.
Evocative music from Sudan
Sudanese poet and musician Bashir Al Gamar was the first performer. Born in Sudan, he came to the UK in 1993 after being forced into exile, and has lived in Brighton ever since. He writes and composes poems and songs, usually in Arabic, accompanying himself on the Oud, a melodic, lute-type instrument from the Middle East. Bashir’s poetry and music mainly deal with his homeland, exile, human suffering and love – emotions you could feel in listening to his evocative music.
Powerful poems from Palestine
Next, we heard some powerful poems by well-known Palestinian writers, read by two local poets. Tanushka started with an expressive reading of Rafeef Ziadeh’s poem ‘We teach life, sir’, which takes the form of an imaginary interview with a TV journalist and challenges stereotypes about Palestinians.
Then Sara read the very moving poem ‘The earth is closing in on us’ by Mahmoud Darwish, regarded as Palestine’s national poet. Darwish wrote about the suffering of Palestinian refugees and has been described as “the eloquent witness of exile and belonging”. Sara also read recent, hard-hitting poems by Rabeea Eid, who writes about social justice and political activism.
Ukrainian-Syrian fusion and a call for peace
Ukrainian Voices are a Brighton-based all-female choir, created to share Ukraine’s rich musical heritage, who perform a capella with strong vocal harmonies. According to Phillip Minns of Best Foot Music: “Many choir members are refugees who have fled Ukraine’s ongoing conflict and sought safety and new beginnings in the UK.” The women performed a rousing set of traditional Ukrainian folk songs, joined for some by a children’s choir, and Ukrainians in the audience were encouraged to join in. In an impassioned plea, the choir also urged everyone there to support Ukraine in the ongoing war with Russia.
Also from Ukraine were duo Dina and Polina, who’ve been playing together since 2022, when they first arrived in Brighton. I’ve heard them perform before at one of the Razom (Ukrainian for ‘together’) events at the Rose Hill. They joined forces with Syrian pair Jamal and Alaa (another wonderful Oud player) to sing a range of beautiful Ukrainian and Syrian songs – their first performance together. The four musicians were joined by the lively Sussex Syrian Community children’s choir to sing Salaamun – a moving call for peace composed by Jamal.
Yiddish songs from Eastern Europe
Couple Polina and Merlin Shepherd played a wonderful, varied set of Yiddish songs. Originally from Siberia, Polina is a well-known performer and choir leader who is dedicated to keeping Yiddish language and culture alive. Her singing style is deeply rooted in east European Jewish and Russian folk music, though her raw and passionate voice reminded me at times of Edith Piaf. She and Merlin, a virtuoso clarinet player in the klezmer style, engaged the audience with their brilliant playing – at times lively, at other times deeply emotional, with reference to the Holocaust and “political struggles against oppression” of the Jewish diaspora.
The Choir with No Name
An upbeat ending to the afternoon was given by The Choir with No Name, made up of people affected by homelessness, and led by their charismatic director Freya. She soon involved the audience in clapping rhythms to accompany the enthusiastic singers in some rock and pop classics.
This uplifting and moving event was sensitively orchestrated by Phillip Minns, who set up Best Foot Music to work collaboratively with musicians from refugee and migrant backgrounds who have moved to the UK, seeking to “encourage social inclusion and cultural diversity”. In his closing words, Phillip reminded us that the performers not only represented their “diverse heritages” and communities, but also the rich community of Brighton and Hove. He thanked the library staff, without whose support it would not have been possible.
It was a really special afternoon and I was moved to tears several times.
Many thanks to Phillip Minns from Best Foot Music and Jubilee library staff. The concert was supported by the National Lottery Community fund. The next Razom event will be held at the Rose Hill, Brighton, on Sunday 17 March 2024, 14.00-18.00.