Anil Sebastian on uniting communities through the power of music
After a trans-continental trek of more than 5000 miles, Little Amal, a nine year old Syrian refugee, reached the shores of the UK to the welcoming sounds of 500 singers and 50 bells. As she was drawn up the shingle of Folkestone beach, composer and DLMMD creative director Anil Sebastian had one key message for Little Amal: “it is safe.”
Standing at 11.5ft tall, Little Amal is not your average nine year old girl. She is a puppet created by Handspring, the company also known for War Horse’s equine puppets. Operated by a team of three puppeteers simultaneously controlling her features, Little Amal and her team are on a journey, named The Walk, to raise awareness of the plight of young, undocumented migrant children. The idea for The Walk evolved from a play about migration produced by Good Chance Theatre, titled “The Jungle”. Now, the puppet and her team of around 25 people have been navigating covid border crossings since they left Gaziantep at the end of July, through Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, and finally – the UK.
“We have so many important demonstrations that bring us together in anger, such as protests, but what we don’t have much of are things that can connect us in joy and celebration. It is in those moments of celebration that we realise our humanity.”
The UK was the last leg of the journey, and it was Anil’s job to create and direct the sound to welcome her with. For her arrival, more than 2000 people gathered in Folkestone, welcoming her on the beach and accompanying her to the performance space of an abandoned railway station.
As she emerged from the difficult climb of the loose shingles on Folkestone beach, a nervous looking Little Amal was drawn towards the magical sound of bells rung by local hand bell ringers. A shipping bell rang out signalling the start of the performance, and bells in local churches began to chime, creating a ‘magical, sensitive, celebratory’ sound, as Anil describes it. As the bells and locals accompanied her to the abandoned railway station, she was then greeted by the sound of 500 singers, including singers from London Contemporary Voices, and Citizens of the World refugee choir. The breathtaking and intimate performance included local schools and communities, some of whom contributed to the creation of the performance.
“I wanted the people who have made that journey to be at the heart of it, and for them to write the music with me”, Anil said. They wished to facilitate the voices of the local community, and worked with the young people of Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAM) to create the final piece that would greet Amal. Through workshops, improvisation, playing and laughing, Anil and the young people of KRAM explored some of their challenging experiences, in the safe space that they had created together. Out of this, emerged the moving lyrics and melodies at the centre of the piece.
“I wanted the people who have made that journey to be at the heart of it, and for them to write the music with me”
When creating this piece, titled Hayati, Anil wanted to focus on the joy, celebration and togetherness in the experiences of the local refugee community. “We have so many important demonstrations that bring us together in anger, such as protests, but what we don’t have much of are things that can connect us in joy and celebration. It is in those moments of celebration that we realise our humanity.”
Anil has demonstrated the power of music and its ability to bring communities together, and hopes that the performance and their continued work within the community can help in turning around the divisive narrative around undocumented child refugees. There is strength when we come together, and, in their own words, “the bigger we circle, the better”.