‘Music is the language of the world’: how a Syrian refugee became the star of the Irish folk scene | Music

AAt Lankum’s sold-out concert at the Cork Opera House last summer, their well-suited supporting band had the crowd in the palm of their hand playing bouzouki. This was Syrian Kurdish 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, 57, a father of five whose music is an exciting mix of traditional songs, covers and electrified Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish originals, Syfkhan arrived in Ireland as part of a refugee settlement program in December 2016 with his teacher wife, Huda, and young daughter, Noor. “I like music that reminds me of the past,” he writes via email (interviews in spoken English are tricky for him, but his written English is expressive and warm). “I generally like music that brings joy because it makes me forget a little bit of the pain of the past.”

In Syria, music adapts to work. He began learning the bouzouki (a long-necked Anatolian lute) while studying to become a surgical nurse in Aleppo, before moving to Raqqa in his mid-20s after graduating. He then founded the popular group Al-Rabie, which performed at festivals, concerts and parties throughout the following decades. Then, in 2011, the Syrian civil war broke out. Two years later, Raqqa was retaken by the Syrian National Coalition, then by the Islamic State, which assassinated one of Syfkhan’s sons, Fadi, a year later.

Syfkhan heard the news from one of the jihadi terrorists, who called her on her son’s cell phone. “When I try to relax, I look at photos of my children when they were young and try to draw a bright future for them,” he writes. Unable to flee Syria together as a large family, his three other eldest sons found refuge in Germany while Mohammad, Huda and Noor reached Greece in February 2016. This trio arrived in Ireland 10 months later, hosted in Mosney Village, a former Butlin’s holiday camp converted into an asylum centre.

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Syfkhan played his first concert there a few weeks later. “It was at Christmas and about 100 to 150 people were there. It was nice to see this audience. It was a special and unforgettable celebration. Singing was his way of communicating, he said. “I didn’t speak English well, so music was the language I spoke to everyone because music is the language of the world. It talks about love in all its forms, the love of people for each other and the love of the homeland.

Seven months later he moved into a council house in Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim and began introducing himself to other musically-minded people. He met Willie Stewart of Nyahh Records in 2018, who was DJing at a local event celebrating the culture of Country Leitrim’s new international communities. Syfkhan asked Stewart if he could plug his bouzouki into his mixing board so he could play, which filled the room with adults and children practicing traditional Syrian and Kurdish dances. “I was both amazed and excited,” Stewart recalls. “I immediately started booking gigs for him.”

Stewart also runs experimental programs called Hunters Moon with sound artist Natalia Beylis, where Syfkhan has watched improvising cellist Eimear Reidy and saxophonist and sound artist Cathal Roche perform. He then asked them to play on his album; Reidy discovered his use of precise glissandi – slides between notes – and the 24-tone Arabic tuning system, calling their collaboration “intense, musically enriching and joyful.” Concertina artist Cormac Begley, singer-songwriter Ciaran Rock and Traditional Music Archive’s Alan Woods are also warmly mentioned in Syfkhan’s email (“Met some wonderful musicians”).

I Am Kurdish includes succulent covers of the 1970s Turkish hit Leylim Ley, Baligh Hamdim’s Arabian Nights and Kurdish songwriter Mihemed Elî Şakir’s magnificent Put a Coffee in a Glass. The title track, an original featuring Syfkhan’s deep, raspy vocals, is also a highlight. This led Stewart to reflect on how the Kurds, who now number up to 45 million people worldwide, “were brutalized and scattered across the Middle East and never had a place where to feel like theirs. The fact that Mohammad chose this title for the album has a lot of power behind it. »

Mohammad Syfkhan playing the bouzouki. Photography: Caroline Minshall

Another friend whom Syfkhan calls “a cherished brother,” the famous Irish poet and playwright Vincent Woods, agrees: “I think he really misses the depth of that bond. » Syfkhan, Huda and Noor star in a 2021 film that Woods directed with choreographer Edwina Guckian, Hunger’s Way/Bealach an Fhéir Ghortaigh, commissioned for the Strokestown International Poetry Festival. It begins with the Syfkhans marching to the National Famine Museum, where Noor, 11 at the time of filming, is doing Irish dancing at the door. The film ends with their entrance.

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Woods hopes this highlights how displacement continues to be a part of Ireland’s history, with “many displaced people now coming to Ireland in search of a new home”. He and Syfkhan also discussed the commonalities between Kurdish and Irish cultures. “They both have storytelling at the heart of themselves and are a key part of a cultural identity that has had to fight to preserve itself.”

“I love these beautiful people,” Syfkhan writes when I ask him specifically about Ireland. “I like music that speaks to one’s cultural heritage and music accompanied by dances, agility and footwork. I thank Ireland, this wonderful country, and the Government, for all they have done to support the people. For the many lives he has already touched, this gratitude goes both ways.

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