Monday, May 18, 2009

the iranian band 'font' win bbc newsnight's 'immigrant song contest'

above: Font in action

From a Tehran jail to victory in the BBC's 'Immigrant Song Contest'

In August 2007, the members of the Iranian indie-rock band Font were thrown into jail for 21 days after police swooped on an underground concert at which they were performing in Karaj, near Tehran.

Now, in a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes, Font have won Britain’s first-ever Immigrant Song Contest. The contest, held over four evenings last week, was organized and televised by the BBC 2 TV channel’s daily current affairs program Newsnight. Font’s five members [pictured] entered the contest while living in London on six-month artists’ visas. They are enduring cramped conditions residing in one room as they pursue their musical dreams in the country that gave rise to some of their favorite groups, including Radiohead and Pink Floyd.

The Immigrant Song Contest was timed to coincide with the build-up to last Saturday’s final of the 54th annual Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow. As presenter Tim Samuels explained, it aimed to “put a human face” to some of the millions of immigrants who come to Britain.

The contest featured bands from six countries – Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Poland. Each band was given a classic Eurovision Song Contest entry to perform. Font were asked to cover “Congratulations”, which Cliff Richard performed in the 1968 Eurovision, and they gave a punk rock style interpretation, a world away from Cliff’s version.

The contest had three judges: singer Sandie Shaw, who in 1967 was the first-ever British winner of Eurovision, with “Puppet on a String”; Conservative MP and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, and former immigration officer Steve Bateman - who is now a musician.

Each evening from Monday to Wednesday last week, Newsnight featured performances by two of the six competing bands. On Thursday the judges considered the entries, and announced their decision. Sandie Shaw said they had chosen Font as the winner for both musical and political reasons, picking “the people we thought really need someone on their side.”

The contest highlighted the immigrant musicians’ backstories as much as it did their music. Somali rapper Dhalad [left] said that had he not fled the Somali civil war for Britain, “I would either be dead by now, or I would have killed many people and become one of the warlords.” Dhalad performed the song “Save Your Kisses for Me”, with which Brotherhood of Man won Eurovision in 1976. This was a far cry from his usual repertoire of Somali and Yemeni -influenced fusion music. Sandie Shaw told him: “I really liked what you did; I thought you brought something really special to the table. “

The Afghan singer and musician Hashmat Ehsanmand [pictured below] arrived in Britain in 1995 during a time of fierce mujahedin fighting. From London he has built up a career performing at Afghan weddings, concerts and other events. He said that many artists and singers had been killed over the years in Afghanistan, and described how “well known faces vanished all of a sudden without anyone having any news of them”. He said that through watching news on TV people in Britain tend to see only the bad side of Afghanistan, and “I’d like them to experience Afghan music and the nice side of Afghanistan too.”

Hashmat was given the challenge of interpreting “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, the song which made Scottish singer Lulu one of four joint winners of Eurovision in 1969. Playing keyboard, and accompanied by a tabla player, he gave the song a charmingly romantic rendering with oriental vocal inflections.
Singer-songwriter Ya Freddy Wanga escaped the conflicts of the Democratic Republic of Congo to come to Britain. He put a Congolese spin on his performance of Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String”, complete with girls gyrating in the background. Sandie commented generously, “I thought it was really good, much better than my version.”

The Zimbabwean group Mann Friday left the restrictions of Zimbabwe to try to establish themselves in London, and they have built up a considerable reputation. The band was unable to fly back from an engagement in South Africa to London for the Immigrant Song Contest because lead singer Rob Burrell had perforated a lung while singing. Instead, Burrell and bass player Ryan Koriya performed via satellite link their version of Abba’s “Waterloo”, which won Eurovision in 1974. Their movingly simple and soulful interpretation revealed a new dimension of the original song.

Steve Bateman commented: “Musically I was absolutely knocked out by your performance: you’re a world class band, and you are absolutely stunning.”David Davis added: “I really feel for you guys as you come from a country that has been turned from paradise to a hell on earth.”

Members of the Polish heavy metal band Why Not Here originally came to Britain for the economic opportunities, and their day jobs include fitting kitchens. They now feel culturally embedded in Britain. One of the band members said: ”When you are going to Poland for a vacation you can see sad people and here you can see happy people.”

Why Not Here’s entry was Bucks Fizz’s “Making Your Mind Up”, which won Eurovision in 1981. Steve Bateman praised their treatment of the song as “great fun” but added: “If you want to make it, then obviously you’ve got a lot of work to do because there are a lot of great bands over here.”

Alongside the judges’ deliberations, Newsnight held a studio discussion on immigration. It featured the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Andrew Green, who chairs the Migration Watch think-tank, and the Bangladesh-born novelist Tahmima Anam [pictured].

Sir Andrew agreed that the stories of the migrant musicians were quite remarkable, but added “You will not get the kind of welcome that these people deserve, especially refugees but other migrants as well, unless people are at ease with the numbers.” He said that the government’s own figures suggest there will be another seven million in the next 20 years. “This is having a huge impact on our whole society,” he added.

But Tahmima Anam was more upbeat, and found it striking that the immigrant bands not only performed the Eurovision songs “very earnestly and with enthusiasm”, but that they also “expressed a kind of optimism about Britain that I really haven’t heard anywhere else.”
She asked why - in the absence of reliable numbers on immigration - there is a preying on people’s anxieties. “Why can’t we talk about the great contribution that migrants have made to this society over many generations?”
Susannah Tarbush

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