11 November 2021
My lockdown Zoom album collab with Jalal Mahamede
Keyna Wilkins writes about her new collaboration with Jalal Mahamede - refugee, poet, artist and a detainee for nine years. The related album is out on 17 November through online streaming platforms, with CDs available from www.keynawilkins.com and selected music stores (all profits going to the poet).
It started at the beginning of lockdown this year, sometime in July. All my shows were being cancelled, so a lot of space was suddenly created. Around this time I had been connecting with a brilliant Arab Ahwazi poet and artist Jalal Mahamede, initially through a social media refugee action group. Jalal is a refugee who arrived here by boat and has created poignant and beautiful, haunting poetry and art from detention. The first thing that struck me was how direct, passionate, refreshing and inspiring his work was. So ripe for collaboration.
While chatting about a possible collaboration, we discovered that we got along well. He is polite, gracious, kind and compassionate and a really great listener. I soon noticed how naturally musical his voice was, and we tried a few free 'jams' on Zoom with his spoken poetry and my music, and it just clicked. So began the idea for my ninth album.
As I discussed the project with more musicians, many were keen to be involved, especially as their calendar was suddenly clear as well. Soon I had 19 special guest musicians involved, who each sent me 1-5 minute stunning improvisations on Jalal's poems. Even my seven-year-old twins and neighbour's kids got involved! About a third of the music on the album consists of my improvisations and the rest is from guest musicians: Elsen Price, Gumaroy Newman, Rhyan Clapham (aka Dobby), Carl St Jacques, Will Gilbert, Shane Carpini, Jenny Eriksson, Dawn Barrington, Susie Bishop, Laura Bishop, Byron Mark, Emanuel Lieberfreund, Josh Shipton, Connor Malanos, Karen Cortez, my former students Isaac Lombard and Elliot Lombard, and my 7-year-old twins, Lyra Rosen and Sol Rosen.
The album is stylistically broad, from art music to jazz, to folk and Middle Eastern - I was very influenced by music Jalal sent me from Ahvaz, and tried to mimic certain note-bending techniques on flute and Phrygian modal tonalities. But the poetry is the unifying force.
Over time, more details about Jalal's background emerged. Of course, I knew a little about the reasons someone decides to get on a boat and flee his country, his family and his friends, and I knew about the way boat refugees are treated by our country. But I was still horrified as the details were suddenly up front and personal, coming from someone I had got to know and like.
At the time of writing this article in 2021, Jalal has been in detention for 9 years from the age of 26. This has included 6 years on Nauru and 7 months on Christmas Island. Currently Jalal is in a Brisbane detention centre. During his long-term confinement, in often horrific conditions, Jalal has experienced serious mental and physical health issues, as well as suffering a vicious attack on Nauru. Doctors Without Borders described conditions in Nauru refugee camps as 'beyond desperate'. UNHCR described them as 'some of the worst conditions seen' and Amnesty International describes them as'"cruel and extreme'.
Jalal has committed no crime, has never been charged, but he remains in indefinite detention with no idea when he will get out. The region of Ahwaz has significantly diminished in recent times, due to land seizures by the Iranian government. The Ahwaz people are a persecuted minority and continue to be subjected to many forms of discrimination. Jalal is in frequent contact with his large family, whom he loves dearly, and who are suffering every day from discrimination and limitations on their lives.
He says he was strong for the first few years of incarceration; in fact, the Australian government promised all those arriving at Christmas Island, in 2013, that within 3 to 5 years they would be settled somewhere - definitely not Australia, but somewhere safe. America took a few thousand, New Zealand a few thousand more, but there are those that are left, who weren't lucky, whose names were past the cut off number and who have been in prison now for 8, 9 or10 years and more.
There are only about 300 refugees left in this situation. They are scattered across detention centres around Australia, Nauru and Christmas Island. By the way, the boats stopped arriving here a long time ago.
But it was after the death in 2019 of his father, Kazem Mahamede, a renowned poet and photographer, while Jalal was on Nauru, that he felt really broken by life. Soon after that, he was viciously attacked by a gang. And it was during this painfully physical and emotional experience that he started to write poetry and draw. He writes and draws about heartbreak, profound disappointment, love, yearning, solitude, trust, and acceptance. So far he has completed 34 poems and 127 drawings.
I asked him if I could make some enquiries to publishing houses on his behalf. He was delighted. Tangerine Books in Queensland were impressed by his work and are creating a beautiful book of his illustrated poetry called My Tears Will Calm The Sun. Designed by Maryann Hine, this book will soon be launched and available on all online platforms and selected book stores (Maryann Hine has also beautifully designed the album notes).
Everyone who knows Jalal hopes he will be released soon and be allowed to live a normal life in Australia. He is a peaceful, kind and compassionate person with so much to offer.
> For more info about this project, see https://www.keynawilkins.com/set-me-free.html
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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