“Music is the universal language”: the story of a Syrian refugee who became a celebrated figure in the Irish folk scene.

“Music is the universal language”: the story of a Syrian refugee who became a celebrated figure in the Irish folk scene.

At Lankum’s sold-out concert at Cork Opera House last summer, their sharp-suited support act had the crowd in the palm of his bouzouki-strumming hand. It was Kurdish Syrian singer and musician Mohammad Syfkhan, whose debut album I Am Kurdish has become part of a thriving, collaborative music scene in one of Ireland’s smallest counties.

Syfkhan, a 57-year-old man who is a father to five children, creates exciting music that blends electrified versions of Kurdish, Arabic, and Turkish traditional songs with covers and original pieces. He and his wife, Huda, who is a teacher, and their daughter, Noor, arrived in Ireland in December 2016 through a refugee settlement program. In an email, Syfkhan shared that he enjoys music that evokes memories of the past. He also mentioned that joyful music helps him forget some of the pain he has experienced. While he struggles with spoken English in interviews, his written English is expressive and warm.

Music was incorporated into his daily routine in Syria. As he pursued his education to become a surgical nurse in Aleppo, he also learned to play the bouzouki, a type of long-necked lute from Anatolia. Upon completing his studies, he moved to Raqqa in his mid-twenties. There, he established the widely-known Al-Rabie Band, performing at various festivals, concerts, and events over the course of several decades. However, in 2011, the Syrian civil war erupted. Two years later, Raqqa was seized by the Syrian National Coalition and then by Islamic State. Tragically, one of Syfkhan’s sons, Fadi, was killed by Islamic State a year later.

Syfkhan received news about his children from a jihadi terrorist who called his son’s phone. In an effort to find peace, he looks at photos of his children when they were young and imagines a better future for them. Although they were unable to leave Syria as a family, his three older sons were granted refuge in Germany while Mohammad, Huda, and Noor arrived in Greece in February 2016. After 10 months, the trio finally made it to Ireland and was accommodated in Mosney Village, a former holiday camp now used as an asylum center.

Reworded: A few weeks after his first performance, Syfkhan had the opportunity to perform at the same venue. The show took place during Christmas and drew in a crowd of approximately 100 to 150 people. Syfkhan recalls the audience being a special and unforgettable part of the experience. For him, singing was a form of communication as he struggled with his English proficiency. He believes that music is a universal language that speaks of all types of love, whether it be love between individuals or for one’s homeland.

After seven months, he moved into a council house in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim and began to connect with other musicians in the area. In 2018, he met Willie Stewart from Nyahh Records at a community event in County Leitrim that celebrated the diversity of different cultures. Syfkhan approached Stewart and asked if he could plug his bouzouki into the mixing desk to play, which drew a crowd of all ages dancing traditional Syrian and Kurdish dances. Stewart was impressed and immediately started booking gigs for Syfkhan.

Stewart also organizes experimental all-day events under the name Hunters Moon with musician Natalia Beylis. During one of these events, Syfkhan saw improvising cellist Eimear Reidy and saxophonist and sound artist Cathal Roche perform. He was so impressed that he later asked them to collaborate on his album. Reidy was particularly fascinated by Syfkhan’s use of precise glissandi (gliding between notes) and the 24-tone Arab tone tuning system. She described their collaboration as “intense, musically enriching, and joyful.” Syfkhan also expresses warm appreciation for concertina artist Cormac Begley, singer-songwriter Ciaran Rock, and Alan Woods from the Traditional Music Archive, whom he has met and considers to be wonderful musicians.

The album “I Am Kurdish” features beautiful renditions of popular Turkish songs from the 1970s such as “Leylim Ley”, “A Thousand and One Nights” by Baligh Hamdim, and “Put a Coffee in a Glass” by Kurdish songwriter Mihemed Elî Şakir. The title track, an original piece showcasing Syfkhan’s rich and deep vocals, stands out as a highlight of the album. This has led Stewart to contemplate on the plight of the Kurds, a population of 45 million people worldwide who have faced displacement and persecution in the Middle East without a homeland to call their own. The powerful choice of title by Mohammad for this album reflects the strength and resilience of the Kurdish community.

Mohammad Syfkhan performing on the bouzouki.

Display the image in full screen mode.

Syfkhan’s close friend, the famous Irish poet and playwright Vincent Woods, shares his sentiment of cherishing their brotherly bond. Woods also believes that Syfkhan longs for the depth of their connection. In the year 2021, Syfkhan, Huda, and Noor star in a film titled Hunger’s Way/Bealach an Fhéir Ghortaigh, directed by Woods and choreographed by Edwina Guckian. The film was commissioned for the Strokestown international poetry festival. It opens with Syfkhan and his family walking towards the National Famine Museum, where 11-year-old Noor performs Irish dancing at the entrance. The film concludes with their entrance into the museum.

Disregard the advertisement for the newsletter.

Woods aims to emphasize the ongoing presence of displacement in Ireland’s past, as many individuals who have been displaced are now seeking a new home in Ireland. Additionally, he and Syfkhan have conversed about the shared aspects of Kurdish and Irish cultures. Both cultures place storytelling at their core and have faced challenges in preserving their cultural identities.

When I asked Syfkhan about Ireland, he expressed his love for the country and its people. He also mentioned his appreciation for music that celebrates cultural heritage and is accompanied by lively dances and impressive footwork. He extends his gratitude to Ireland and its government for their support. The impact he has made on many lives is greatly appreciated by both him and the Irish community.

Source: theguardian.com