“Collaborative arts projects that attempt to bring different voices together can often flounder when the goodwill that surrounds them simply isn’t enough to produce something workable, or let us be honest, listenable. “Stories of Sanctuary” I’m pleased to report comfortably breaks out of any such mould and takes us on a beautiful, rich, cultural, historic and moving journey through the workshops and ideas that brought it into being. Singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher working with a group of Syrian refugees (The Sanctuary Seekers) and talented musicians Raghad Haddad (National Syrian Orchestra) and North East Instrumentalist Paul Martin, has forged together a collection of songs and musical montages that deliver you thoughtfully and carefully into the heart of the experience of the sanctuary seeker.
“‘City of Sanctuary’ cleverly sets the spoken reminiscences of a young Syrian Refugee’s escape from war alongside the strikingly similar experiences of a Durham residents’ forbears who fled from the front line in Belgium a century earlier. These two accounts are themselves surrounded by Sam’s music and lyrics reminding us that Durham has spent a millennia being a place of sanctuary for those seeking safety and a hope for the future. In ‘Like A Butterfly’ a fleeting moment during the project writing sessions has been captured as a moving and powerful musical metaphor for the struggle and pain that the refugees have been through – “I may have lost it all, but I’ve not lost my soul”. There are two achingly beautiful A cappella tracks performed in Arabic by singer Hasna Al Hassoun. The depth and feeling with which she delivers these two pieces sits powerfully within the album and draws attention to her deep longing for the lost ‘everyday’ of a divided homeland. ‘Swallow and Saint’ is a particularly beautiful song and one of Sam’s solo compositions documenting the rescue of a trapped bird during the workshop sessions. Sounding pleasingly like a contemporary Nick Drake with his vocal style and guitar playing, the metaphors once again sing powerfully of the refugees lived experience.
“There are many other highlights in a work that speaks loudly of hope in the midst of difficulty and hardship, light in the midst of dark and dangerous times. As you journey with Sam and his co-collaborators through Stories of Sanctuary you will experience an album of great beauty, peace and musical depth. It is not hard to hear catharsis in the lines of the songs, in the working of the instruments and the gathered voices. This project was way more than just an artistic exercise as the songs, their messages and performances push firmly back against the hate and blame that is all to prevalent in our times – they bring us a different way. As Sam reminds us, we should share a heartbeat of sanctuary, for “we are all pilgrims of a kind”.”
Gareth Davies-Jones is a singer-songwriter with over a decade of hard graft and experience as a professional musician, writing, recording and playing his way around the UK & Ireland. Gareth is “one of the UK’s best-kept musical secrets, powerful songs and affecting performances” according to Properganda. Visit Gareth’s website to explore Gareth’s music, including a preview of his new solo Christmas album released 1st December 2018.
A soulful chorus of voices chanting “I may have lost it all, but I’ve not lost my soul” erupted in the Houses of Parliament last week (12th November 2018), as the Stories of Sanctuary project took to the stage at the annual Sanctuary in Parliament day.
Stories of Sanctuary performing in the Houses of Parliament. Photo credit: Simone J Rudolphi
Sanctuary in Parliament is organised by the grassroots movement City of Sanctuary that brings together refugees, asylum seekers and supporters of the movement, along with their MPs who had been invited to the event in the Houses of Parliament, Portcullis House. A total of 35 MPs attended the event who were invited by members of their local constituency campaigning for the right to work for people who have asylum claims outstanding for more than six months, the extension of refugee family reunion, as well as an end to indefinite immigration detention.
The event in Parliament came the day after a rapturous evening performance at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate Church, near Liverpool Street Station. Sam Slatcher, Raghad Haddad and Dewi Erwan performed, along with the choir. Special guest Hamsa Mounif joined the stage for an unexpected and painstakingly beautiful improved piece, accompanied by National Syrian Orchestra’s Raghad Haddad who’s mournful viola appears on the new Stories of Sanctuary album.
2019 is set to be a year of touring! Stories of Sanctuary will be returning to venues in the North East in the Spring, including ARC Stockton on 22nd March 2019 as well as Newton Aycliffe and Newcastle (TBC). The choir hopes to perform in other cities across the UK in 2019.
The Sanctuary Seekers Choir at St Botolph’s Church, Bishopsgate after a rapturous performance! Photo credit: Simone J Rudolphi
Raghad Haddad, Sam Slatcher, Dewi Erwan and the Sanctuary Seekers Choir (left to right)
One hundred and seventy people packed out the Chapter House in Durham Cathedral last night (19th October) for the sold-out premier of the Stories of Sanctuary performance. The two hour performance curated by folk singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher brought together new songs created over the summer in workshops with Syrian refugees, along with traditional Syrian and North East-inspired music.
“Wow. What an experience, both musically and emotionally”
The performance took the audience on a journey from stories of old – from an exiled monastic community laying to rest the body of the much loved Saint Cuthbert in the 10th century (in Durham Cathedral) – to recent stories of being forced to leave home, to the desire to “live together and “dream as one”, as one of the songs began. The songs were brought alive by the Sanctuary Seekers Choir – the participants themselves – most of whom had never sung in front of an audience.
“Stories and hearing the voices of those who are often overlooked or unheard, who have actually undergone the dangers of migration/seeking refuge”
At least six of the 12 songs had been directly written in the workshops. “I did not expect we had this talent in ourselves”, remarks Nousayba, “the songs just express exactly how we feel”.
Wafa conducting the choir
The performers included guest musician Raghad Haddad from the National Syrian Orchestra, who joined the project in August to record viola for the album. One of the highlights of the show included an improvised piece with Hurdy Gurdy player Paul Martin that fused together 12th century pan-European folk with classical Syrian music.
Before an enchanting encore of drumming and improvised viola, Sam Slatcher performed a solo acoustic performance of ‘City of Sanctuary’; the song he wrote that inspired the project, with the music video reaching over 75,000 views on social media earlier this year.
Raghad Haddad, from the National Syrian Orchestra, improvising with multi-instrumentalist Paul Martin
The songs appear on an album that has been recorded by Sam along with Raghad, Paul and participants from the workshops singing and performing on the songs. The album Stories of Sanctuary has been produced by Ron Angus at Studio One, County Durham. The album is available to preview ahead of the release on 9th November on Bandcamp.
The project is funded by the National Lottery via the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts programme.
The recording for the Stories of Sanctuary album began on the 9th August 2018, at Studio One with music producer Ron Angus in his home studio in County Durham. Ten new songs that tell the stories about seeking sanctuary – four of which directly written at the Stories of Sanctuary workshops – have now been recorded. We’ve had a total of eight participants from the workshops lay down their vocal or instrumental parts, plus guest musicians Raghad Haddad (viola player from the National Syrian Symphony Orchestra) and Paul Martin (multi-instrumentalist and specialist in historical music) in the studio. Ron has been recording professional music in his studio for the last 19 years, including leading British singer-songwriter Jez Lowe and the band Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements.
For most of those from the project who came to the studio, it has been their first experience in a recording studio and singing in front of a microphone. There is something very special about listening back to your voice for the first time, through a high quality pair of headphones. This was certainly the case for sisters Hasna and Sabah Hassoun (see photo to the left) who joined the studio to record their vocal parts to the songs ‘So May we Find Peace’ and ‘Like a Butterfly’, as well as a song that poet and songwriter Hasna had written. Hasna’s songs are inspired by overcoming very traumatic experiences she faced living through the war in Syria, as well as her motivation for peace and harmony. The song ‘Let Us Be Together’ cries out for a world in which we realise we all breathe from the same air, live under the same sky, and bleed the same blood. Her song will no doubt be a highlight on the album.
On one of the seven days recording, we had huge privilege of working with Raghad Haddad, viola player from the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. Raghad has performed across the world with the Orchestra of Syria Musicians, as well as performed with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and now lives in the UK having fled from the war in Syria in 2016. Raghad now performs with the Orchestra of All Saints MAS in Brighton and the London Syrian Ensemble, a group of Syrian professional musicians which performs traditional and classical oriental music around the UK.
Ron Angus (left), Raghad Haddad (middle left), Paul Martin (middle right), and Sam Slatcher (right)
Raghad performed viola parts arranged for three of the songs as well as spontaneously improvised with folk musician Paul Martin, who goes by the name ‘The Dunholm Piper’. Paul is a multi-instrumentalist from the North East of England who plays an impressive number of instruments including bagpipes, the fiddle as well as the Hurdy-Gurdy. Their improvisation brought together pan-European folk, with classical Middle Eastern quarter-tones in an unforgettable half an hour of music, reminding us of the deeply woven nature of music that has no respect for divisions or borders.
The album will be released in the Autumn and performed at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October 2018, along with Raghad Haddad and members of the Stories of Sanctuary project.
To commemorate Refugee Week, a gathering of thirty people – including Syrian refugees recently settled in County Durham – met in the city of Durham on Sunday to explore Durham’s history of sanctuary past and present. The workshop is the first of three in an Arts Council funded project called ‘Stories of Sanctuary’ curated by Durham singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher, along with members of Durham City of Sanctuary. The project encourages people to share their own stories of sanctuary, alongside learning about ancient stories from the past, through photography, creative writing, and song.
Photo credit SJ Rudolphi
The event began with a sanctuary walking tour around Durham Cathedral to learn about the history of sanctuary in the city. The tour included the arrival of St Cuthbert’s body carried by an exiled community fleeing the Vikings in the 10th century, the famous ‘Sanctuary Knocker’ on the north entrance to the Cathedral, through to modern stories of people seeking sanctuary from war and conflict.
The group then received a warm welcome by the Dean of Durham Cathedral, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett, who explained how the day was the feast of St John the Baptist, who both Christians and Muslims revere and who grew up in a suburb of Damascus, just like some of the Syrian refugees in the group. The afternoon continued with a participatory photography tour around the city, facilitated by professional photographer Simone Rudolphi, and the evening concluded with an impromptu singalong and traditional folk dancing in the evening sun in the shadows of the Cathedral. One young Syrian living in Darlington expressed, “it was a completely new experience for me. I learnt we all have different stories and all looking for family in one way or another”.
Photo by SJ Rudolphi
The project is inspired by Sam Slatcher’s folk song ‘City of Sanctuary’ which was released online in January 2018 through a catchy music video that went viral on social media back in January. The song’s chorus chants that all are seeking sanctuary: “In these ancient streets, there’s a heartbeat of sanctuary. All are pilgrims of a kind”. Sam hopes the storytelling project will change the way we think about people seeking sanctuary in the North East:
“It’s all about creating a new story about the rich history of sanctuary that has shaped the city we know today, and in doing so discovering our own story of finding sanctuary among each other”
The stories that will emerge from the three workshops will inspire the creation of creative writing, poems and songs that will be performed by Sam Slatcher and Raghad Haddad, viola player of the National Syrian Orchestra (herself a refugee from Syria) along with participants from the workshops at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October. The project has received National Lottery funding via the Arts Council’s Grant for the Arts programme.