Front Porch

Refugee Songs: A Musical Journey

The Mystic Groove Collective with T.J. Moss, Rev. Stickman, Bahman Sarran, Sheava Rahmini, Dan Ochipinti.


Violinist Bahman Sarran. Photo by Denise Bonaimo Sarram.

American music is the song of a nation of immigrants. A wild, wonderful patchwork of sounds and instruments with origins in Africa, Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, South America, Jamaica, and Asia among many others. Our country’s amazing musical history is a direct representation of myriad influences from global culture, blending together to create something unique and beautiful that’s never existed before. New musical forms like blues and jazz were born here out of that diversity. In a way, that is what America represents to the refugee or forced immigrant. A place where anyone can belong and where individuality and hard work are cherished. The truth of what they find is often much more complicated.

On the evening of October 19, a new concert theater show will be presented at Mandeville Theatre on the UCSD Campus, which centers around the struggles and triumphs of an Iranian family who were forced to flee their homeland during their country’s “cultural revolution” and seek a new life in in this country. Titled Refugee Songs: A Musical Journey, this provocative and touching presentation relates the experiences from the viewpoint of bandleader, concept originator, and star of the show, Bahman Sarram, who was a young child during this tumultuous time.

The ambitious, multi-faceted stage production includes seasoned musicians, actors, and spoken-word artists who know firsthand about the immigrant experience and the search for self-identity and sense of belonging in a strange world. Racism and discrimination are an all too real aspect of life for refugees in the U.S. These and other challenging issues can be an everyday part of life, and even after living here for some time, the loss, loneliness, and longing for one’s home are never really gone. But Refugee Songs also illustrates that there is gratification in finding new paths to happiness, a new community to help ease the burden. There is healing and hope in discovering music again, and finding new family and new friends.

These themes and more are honestly explored through compelling and emotionally raw poetry written by Anita Casavantes Bradford with true-to-life stories both heartbreaking and heartwarming, told by Bahman Sarram and by others who lived them. The powerful new original music, performed by Sarram’s ecstatic world-fusion band Mystic Groove, underlines and illuminates the emotions displayed onstage—from the deep sadness and pain of loss to overwhelming joy and abundant hope for the future. The cast of dedicated and brilliant actors faithfully embody the underlying character of the roles they portray, taking the audience on a journey through the life of not just one person, but also by extension the lives of many forced immigrants. Highlighted by evocative images from past and present and curated by Sarram’s wife, celebrated local artist Denise Bonaimo Sarram, the memories, poems, and stories come virtually to life.

For Sarram, award-winning composer, violinist, and producer, staging this event has a very personal significance. His childhood memories of the music in his homeland were cut painfully short. The jubilant and free celebrations of song with the traditional instruments of his culture played by family and friends together with the comforting sound of his mother’s voice singing, familiar songs were suddenly just gone. The music that he so loved was missing from his life, along with many other things now prohibited by the new government.
Iran’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1980, saw universities violently overtaken, books banned, and music forbidden by the new religious regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Those who disagreed with the changes were persecuted and killed. Many fled, especially people with higher education and income, which resulted in the nation’s weakened economy. The Islamic state maintained a tight grip on power and brooked no interference.

For Sarram’s family—and indeed the entire nation of Iran—literally everything changed. His father decided then that it was time to leave the country, afraid that they were all in danger. Young Bahman, his siblings, and his mother stayed in Iran until she found a way for them to escape. He was old enough to remember the fear and the tension, “I was four years old, and my family was being exiled from our country, our home. We were fleeing a land ripped apart by turmoil and political and social revolution.” Going back home was no longer an option. They had become forced immigrants.

Clearly, being separated from music was only part of the story. Music had been a major part of his life and it was certainly a terrible loss. The Sarram family suffered numerous trials and tribulations both before and after reaching America. The entire culture in which he was raised had been left behind. Loved ones, friends, and neighbors were all gone from his life in the blink of an eye, known places were relegated to the past, and even food and drink were no longer familiar, but replaced with the unknown. Worst of all was the racism and discrimination that he and his family experienced. All this would have been difficult for anyone to endure, but even more for
a child.

Sarram’s story is not unique, but it is made even more poignant because of that fact. There are a large number of refugees who could relate a similar tale, and their incredible personal stories often go unheard in this modern age of sound bites and info-tainment. The real lives, the real hopes and dreams of these brave and vital people are overlooked in favor of easy stereotypes or extreme examples often cited only to make a particular point of argument.
The current social and political turmoil surrounding the issue of immigration illustrates the wide range of opinions held by the public, but no one can deny that our nearly 250 years as a nation have been influenced by immigrants as much or more than any other nation in the world.

Overcoming obstacles that many would find too daunting to attempt, striving in the wake of fear and despair, never giving up despite all the odds, and keeping an eye on the goal through the hard times are common denominators throughout immigration history. In fact, throughout the entire history of our nation, they have come to exemplify the very spirit of America.

That spirit is the same force that drove our American ancestors to come here from places all over the globe and work tirelessly toward a better life. America has become what it is today because of its diverse population.

Our differences define our national identity while making us stronger. Our varying backgrounds give us more perspective, and our melting pot of cultures provides the opportunity to better understand the world around us.

Similarly, the blending of musical styles from varying cultures is a way of fostering peace and creating harmony between strangers. This is in large part the inspiration behind Refugee Songs: A Musical Journey—the belief that people are people, that they have important stories to tell and beautiful songs to sing, and that they deserve compassion and respect, no matter where they were born.

According to the members of Mystic Groove, “Nothing demonstrates this idea more perfectly than music, making it easy to share ideas without pressure or preconceptions. We might hear a song we’ve never heard before and we can immediately love and accept it, even if it’s not familiar. Sometimes that unfamiliarity is the very thing that attracts us, that causes us to really take notice.”

Playing music in a band is indeed a cooperative effort. It confirms that truly amazing things can be accomplished when people work together, but it can also demonstrate what it’s like when we disregard each other. Musicians must listen to each other to integrate their instruments during a performance, which is a lesson that applies to so many things in life. The idea is simple: that we can all live, love, and learn together through sharing this kind of genuine communication.

Mystic Groove’s members are just as diverse as the evening’s program, comprised of multi-generational Americans from both Europe and the Middle East. Bahman Sarram is a true virtuoso violinist and premier guitarist who brings his rich musical heritage to every performance. His soulful vocal style complements his original expressive and emotional compositions. Reverend Stickman, multiple award-winning guitarist and composer, plays an intriguing and intricate blend of genres on acoustic and electric guitars and also performs lead vocals on a song he wrote for the show, based partially on his own family past. Dan Ochipinti, a master of drums and world percussion, brings a wide variety of influences into the band, specializing in a self-taught hybrid technique, fusing ethnic hand percussion with the traditional drum set. He will perform lead vocal on a song that he has arranged for the production. Sheava Rahimi, the band’s gifted keyboard player and backing vocalist, earned her bachelor’s degree in music, worked in music licensing for film and TV, and is now a licensed therapist that utilizes music as a valuable tool for healing. Emmy award-winning singer-songwriter and musician T.J. Moss, who toured for five years with The Yes Team and performed for the Dalai Lama, will be playing electric bass guitar and joining in on backing vocals.

Anita Casavantes Bradford, associate professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and History at the University of California Irvine, has been the guiding force behind the grant application and approval process. Her important and timely script and the forthright, sincere poetry around which the scenes revolve, bring to bear her passion, commitment, and resolve to deal with the issues meaningfully and positively, which are facing today’s immigrants, and draw from her extensive knowledge about the issues facing today’s refugees. Her professional work focuses on comparative and transnational Latino history, Cuba and Cuban American history, the history of immigration, race, and ethnicity, the history of childhood and critical refugee studies. Herself an immigrant to the U.S., she has a long record of educational and immigration rights advocacy.

Bahman Sarram and the Mystic Groove, with the help and support of Dr. Casavantes Bradford, University of California’s Critical Refugee Studies Collective and the refugee storytellers themselves, will bring their message of truth, understanding and connection to the stage in San Diego for a truly groundbreaking show.

This community conscious event is funded by a generous grant from University of California’s Critical Refugee Studies Collective (criticalrefugeestudies.com), an organization dedicated to research, teaching and public initiatives on refugees. Tickets to the opening night show are free in order to ensure that everyone is able to attend the event without concern for financial considerations.

Even though tickets are free, they are required for entry and available through www.RefugeeSongs.world. No tickets will be given at the door. Parking for the event is free but is a short distance from the theater, so you may wish to arrive early to ensure ample time. Doors open at 6pm and the show starts promptly at 7pm in the Mandeville Auditorium, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla.

For more information, go to (www.MysticGrooveCollective.com) or (www.RefugeeSongs.world).

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