Turkey’s Refugee Music Scene

Did you know that American Country music was born out of their civil war? I hadn’t made the connection. A genre typified by its amalgamation of geographically disparate styles, I had clocked how the sounds mingled with each other. The emotional root, however, was located in the fundamental disagreement over slavery.[1] The chasm between Confederates and Unionists imbued the genre with a gravitas that has since lingered. Still, something about it used to grate me - that thing being the stinging sound of a harmonica. However, as a growing child’s tastebuds change, so do the ears of an adult. I decided to give it another shot. Leaving the instrumentation to one side, I directed my focus to the lyrical content, the tales woven into the melodic framework. Such simplicity of form but rich with meaning. For all this time, I had not registered the vivid imagery available to me in the lyrics, the people I could meet, and the worlds I could imagine. This listening trail I had set myself wasn’t an aimless one; my discovery of a band sparked it. (Discovery is far too grand, I merely googled). ‘Turkish music scene’ was what I typed, and I stumbled down an intriguing path.

Country for Syria describes themselves as an ‘Istanbul based international music collective’ which fuses country sounds with Middle Eastern musical traditions.[2] I love the word collective when describing an ensemble; such a beautiful notion that you can musically bind yourself to another. Nationalities are the band’s fusing point; by all calling different places on this planet home, unity is achieved through difference. Often, the foundation of unity requires a base, a place to return. In the case of Country for Syria, Istanbul is their hub. It was this fact which drew me to their music and their cause. What was it about Istanbul that made it a home for an international collective? How did this imbue the sound they made? I should warn you, I hold no authority on Turkish music, merely a keen interest in the sonorities of Arabic musical traditions. With that guiding me, I wish to tell you about this fascinating band and how they harness their fusion of sound to propel action and change in a world ridden with humanitarian crises.

My initial window into the world of Turkish music was through makams, the classical and folk compositional system. As I was operating with a brain saturated in staff notation, I picked up on the elements it shared with the canonic repertoire I knew so well. Yet, the music operated with a different methodology. The triads which underpinned most of my music-making were replaced by a fabric of tetrachords built atop of petrachords, the necessary combination to generate a makam. Rather than selecting and pairing intervallic shapes, makams provide a route through which sound can travel. Crucial visits to notes of significance are made on the way, but the pattern is not so formulaic as a cadence - forms, time frames, or conventions don’t constrict the route. Of course, these assumptions I douse upon Western Classical music have also been shattered by those operating in that sphere. Still, what I wish to highlight is how the intentionality of music-making is different. An emotional intention is set when one selects their makam of choice, a symbolism innate in it is reignited and reinvented with each performance. Just as the rāga system in Indian classical music, Turkish makams are overtly infused with sentiment. It was this empathic centre which I was eager to mine out of the music of Country for Syria.

Before listening to their debut album ‘Brave as a Pigeon’, released back in February of this year, I was wondering how their proposed fusion would sound. Their website states the themes and narratives that country music and middle eastern traditions share - migration, longing, identity - but my imagination was at a loss with how the sonorities would combine on the record. Would it be the delicate, laminated structure of filo? Or the clearly divided sections of a Victoria sponge? Or would it be a marble cake, where all the components swirl together? It didn’t fit neatly into a food descriptor, much to my dismay. On first listening, the opening track ‘Hesitation Blues’ felt clunky. It reminded me of specific folk performances I have experienced where reels are attached to jigs and there is a necessary jolt of a gear shift to navigate the tempo change. The clunk was disorienting at first, but after a while, it started to fit. Distinctive qualities of each stylistic component fade so others can come into focus. The accordion is replaced by an oud while the horn section interchanges into a chorus of voices. All the while, the violin acts as this delicate thread of silk, linking up each branch of the collective.

Upon each reiteration of the album, my mind pondered on the significance of a makam in this sound world. Movement is stitched into the structure; travel mapped out in the melody. It’s the sense of odyssey that is so crucial to how I understand the tradition. It is also central to my understanding of the vast number of displaced individuals on this planet. Calling each horrific journey that is undertaken by a refugee or an asylum seeker an odyssey feels a jarring thought as glorifying such terror with the language of adventure is vile. However, I wish to use the term to draw attention to the epic nature of the routes people are forced to take. It is epic in terms of time, danger and distance. The music of Country for Syria will never be able to replicate or reflect the anguish bound up in the experience of 5.6 million Syrian refugees. Nevertheless, just as country music reflected the calamity of enslavement in the nineteenth century, the band’s musical amalgamation takes steps to reflect the current precarious realities of the lives of so many. The album never settles, it pointedly avoids it - my remarks on the clunky nature of the music map onto this. When sounds, people or even countries engage, there is never a seamless crossover. What the band wonderfully exemplifies is that clunky unification, in whatever way it manifests, is necessary in the process of moving forward.

Owing to the country’s imperial and colonial residue, the sonic culture of Turkey draws from many musical sources.[3] Country for Syria is a microcosm of Turkey’s wider music scene. The band’s website proudly states that members ‘hail from the US, Syria, Turkey, Czech Republic and France’. The manner of each member’s relocation to Istanbul was varied - different strata of privilege inevitably alter this experience of transnational movement. For some, it was relocation; for others, it was punctuated by escape. It is for this reason that, alongside the innovative music they create, Country for Syria’s mission statement is to serve refugees and all people who are affected by the Syrian conflict. This activism not only stems from deep humanity and for some, personal experience, they also wish to address the polarised cultural narrative attached to the Middle East and America. The food of populism is taking alternative manifestations of cultural practices and pitting aspects against each other - often on technological platforms. It is through layering musical sounds that Country for Syria hopes to ‘break down the stereotypes…illustrating how much we really have in common’.

On the 15th of March next year, the civil unrest in Syria will reach a haunting milestone of a decade. As the humanitarian disaster unfolding on the Greek Island of Lesbos illustrates, the ramifications are still as distressing as they were in 2011. Different lanes of resistance need occupying for structural change to occur. Country for Syria is occupying the lane of protest music and subsequent activism. There are those volunteering in refugee camps and those who are writing to their MPs, urging a governmental response. I’m guessing if you’ve got to the end of this, you are somewhat musically inclined. Therefore, one of the lanes I occupy might resonate with you. Expose the music you play and listen to; map out its journey; familiarise yourself with the external factors at play and the dynamics of power which reside in the sounds with which you engage. Armed with that understanding, we may have the tools to shatter pejorative accounts of fellow human beings and garner a climate of harmonious respect rather than one of hostility.

Meg Holch, September 2020

Meg has also written:

Siegfried Idyll: A Pastoral Expression of Love


[1] Country For Syria. n.d. Country For Syria. [online] Available at: <http://www.countryforsyria.com> [Accessed 15 September 2020].

[2] Lennon, T., 2015. Songs About Rebels: The American Civil War In Modern Country Music – U.S. Studies Online. [online] Usso.uk. Available at: <https://usso.uk/songs-about-rebels-the-american-civil-war-in-modern-country-music/> [Accessed 16 September 2020].

[3] Stokes, M., 2017. Turkish Popular Music in Global Perspective. In: A. Gedik, ed., Made in Turkey - Studies in Popular Music, 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, Routledge, p. 227.

Links to check out:

You can search for Brave as Pigeon by Country for Syria on Spotify or check out this video:



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