Throughout 2017, the Istanbul-based country music collective Country For Syria has released tracks from its forthcoming full-length, one-by-one, via Bandcamp.
The band’s members are American, Syrian, Turkish, Czech, French, and Iranian. They draw from both American country music and Arabic folk sounds. In the same song, they’ll shift from riffing on banjo to featuring the oud, a pear-shaped string instrument used in Middle Eastern folk music. They also incorporate accordion, horns, violin, cajon, clarinet, and ukulele.
This meshing of traditional sounds is a form of “cultural diplomacy” to the band. Beyond that, they sing about issues facing refugees, and use their concerts to fundraise for Syrian refugee families. Guitarist and vocalist Bashar Balleh, who is from Syria, co-founded the group with his friend and former roommate Owen Harris, who is American; they both work at the Humanwire, a non-profit that supports refugees.
Earlier this year, they released one of their most potent protest songs to date, “In The States”—a story song sung in English and Arabic reflecting on their personal experiences being impacted by the effects of Trump’s Muslim ban. Another track, “Can’t Come In,” was written to speak to “the paradox that refugees, immigrants, displaced, and stateless people face in a world where goods, money, and weapons flow freely across borders but families and people seeking freedom, work, safety, and shelter are unwelcome.”
During an interview earlier this year, members of Country for Syria spoke about trips they took to perform for children at refugee camps, specifically one trip where they collaborated with the group Clowns Without Borders. They were stopped by the Turkish army.
In July, they unveiled “Brave as a Pigeon,” a song inspired by that trip.
“In January of 2016, we traveled to the Kurdish region of Turkey to play for children,” the band recalls on its Bandcamp page. “We played for a group of Yazidi refugees in their camp, who had fled ISIS in Iraq; for a group of Kurdish children in Diyarbakir; and for children living in the village of Dargeçit which had been under an imposed curfew and siege from the Turkish Army. This song is about the children we met on that trip.”
“A year later, many of the folks in towns under siege lost their homes,” the band adds. “Over 100,000 Kurdish folks in southeastern Turkey lost their homes in 2016. The Yazidi camp was closed down, and many who lived there are now in worse conditions in major cities across Turkey and Iraq.”
“Country kids brave as city pigeons / dodging soldiers’ boots for breadcrumbs / ain’t got no toys or televisions / just fire and melted crayons,” sings Harris, in English, for the first verse.
Balleh sings a later verse in Arabic that translates to, “Crayon and a white paper tells the story of this orphan child / war and troops rolled through the place / in their hand a power to control time / a child’s braveness shocks the deity / he begs with the sun of the land.”
During our interview, Harris elaborated on the purpose of their visits to refugee camps—to cheer up the children, but also to let them know they’re not forgotten.
“A lot of the time what goes on in these villages when they’re under siege never gets reported in the media,” Harris said. “People are dying, and people are getting killed and mistreated…We [traveled] to remind them that they’re not forgotten. And also to listen to their stories. So as much as they were listening to us play and sing, we were listening to them.”
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