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'Time After Time': A day of participatory music-making with men detained in Campsfield House IRC

March 23, 2017

By volunteer Ruth Nicholson

On a foggy, chilly morning in January, I joined two Music In Detention artists for a day trip to Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, where we would make music with men being held there as immigration detainees. Michael, Oliver and I squashed ourselves into a car full of musical instruments and equipment and drove through the grey haze towards Oxfordshire.

Campsfield House is located at the end of a long country lane, opposite Oxford Airport and just outside a village called Kidlington. We arrived about 45 minutes before our first workshop, and were greeted enthusiastically by Munya, an officer originally from Zimbabwe who would escort us all day and supervise our two workshops. He said he always looks forward to Music In Detention visits and Oliver agreed he “brings the hype”, making sure there are always plenty of people in attendance.

Our objective was to record a song in a day, but it’s important to be flexible in these workshops. As Michael said in the car on the way, “It’s like if you’re a vet and someone brings in a snake, and you say “Oh, I don’t want to treat a snake… Have you got a rabbit instead?” You’ve got to deal with what’s in front of you.” We can’t guess what the atmosphere of a workshop will be like, and we can’t predict who will come, what they’ll want to do or what kinds of skills they’ll have.

We set up for the first session in the ‘big screen room’, or cinema, where the end-credits of a film were rolling. We’d brought a couple of guitars, a drum machine, a few amps, a melodica, a multi-track looping recorder, microphones, a violin, lots of cables and other assorted pieces of equipment. Munya helped us carry a keyboard (a tone out of tune, as the pitch-bend wheel was broken), a couple of drums and more small amps from the chapel, and a bass guitar and a couple of beaten-up guitars from a locked cupboard.

Soon the room was filled with men wondering what was about to happen. “Are we having a music festival?” “Are you going to perform for us?” Oliver responded: “We’re all going to sing and make music together.” Michael and Oliver plugged in and straight away got a groove going using the drum machine, bass guitar and multi-track looper, and Oliver improvised lyrics over the top, inviting the men to join in. I plugged in my violin and jammed along, and Oliver gave me a space to improvise a solo. The workshop kicked off very quickly – the room was suddenly full of curious faces, and before long the microphone was being passed around for people to share songs.

There were three participants who stood out to me: first, a charismatic Kurdish man who performed in Arabic, galvanising the excitement and participation of other Arabic speakers in the room; second, a Bengali man who was initially shy about performing, but sat attentively with a djembe drum through the other performances, eventually gaining the confidence to sing himself; and finally, a young Indian man who showed Michael the keyboard accompaniment of a song he knew and performed at the end of the session.

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