The Sound of Belfast is a festival which champions the music community in Belfast, not strictly from Belfast. Safe Harbour: Concert of the Diaspora is a celebration of the diverse musical talent from across the globe that has found its home on our shores. Sponsored by PRS for Music, NI charity Beyond Skin hosted this intimate event at the Oh Yeah Centre to showcase a handful of global musicians who now call our city home. Against a backdrop of war and displacement, ever increasing numbers of people are finding themselves refugees and seeking safe passage. This migration is enriching our local creative scene, with instruments, songs, styles and skills we haven’t seen before. From Ukraine to Afghanistan to the Congo, the Oh Yeah stage is set for a night of world music.
First up is local band Cut Rubber, accompanied by Masha Myndru and the Lisburn Harmony Choir for an epic rendition of ‘Сестра (Sister)’ by Ukrainian band The Hardkiss. Masha, who worked as a teacher in Ukraine, is part of Beyond Skin’s Musicians Artists at Risk Resettlement Scheme (MARRS) which aims to help refugee and asylum-seeking musicians from high risk regions. Cut Rubber’s riff-driven garage rock propels Masha’s booming vocals as the choir swells in a cinematic, Evanescence-like performance.
Next we hear from 22-year-old Fatima Sarwari, chair of the Afghan Association of Northern Ireland. In her home country, music is banned in all its forms by the Taliban regime. As a result, Fatima’s presence as a young woman leading an Afghan organisation and speaking on stage is powerful. She is joined by Iranian multi-instrumentalist Omid who puts her words to gentle strings. She reads a poem, alternating the lines in her native Dari and then English: “Oh my ruined by beautiful house // don’t be sad // with the breeze of my hope I’ll build you one by one”. Her emotional plea is extremely moving and is a highlight of the showcase.
Yuliia and Kateryna, two teenagers from Ukraine and now based in Dungiven, are next to take to the stage. Wearing traditional Ukrainian dress and flower crowns, their voices are huge for such young girls. The pair’s vocals fill the room and convey so much emotion, even for those who cannot understand the words. A mesmerising performance.
The girls are followed by Bangor-based Harim, who plays a stringed Arabic instrument called an oud. His intricate finger plucking quickly erupts into a fast-paced tempo which moves the audience to clap along. His warbling voice dances along the jaunty rhythm and he sings the final choruses in English, revealing a love song delivered with a smile.
Congolese singer and producer Jay continues the uplifting, summery tunes. Having worked with Craig David, he makes music that makes you want to dance – self-dubbed “a little bit crazy”. He sings over a self-produced Afrobeat backing track and moves to the music as he twirls mic lead.
Some of the night’s most remarkable musicians are from Iran. Omid returns to the stage with Shiva, a gifted guitar player and teacher at Beyond Skin’s guitar club, a scheme organised to foster community through music among newly arrived asylum seekers. Back in Iran, Shiva wasn’t allowed to play music as a woman and so her performances in Belfast always feel particularly special. The pair perform two traditional Persian songs featuring beautifully warm acoustic guitar. The arrangement of the songs is an ode to the late Lily Afshar, an Iranian classical guitarist and inspiration to Shiva. Omid switches to the sitar for their final song, a joyful, captivating cover of Amy Macdonald’s ‘This is the Life’.
Fellow countryman Behnam Ghazanfari-Pour plays the santoor, a 72-stringed Persian instrument. Having been forced to flee Iran for political dissent, Behnam has lived and played across Europe and was reunited with his instrument when it was shipped back to him from Poland after he’d been in Belfast for some time. The concentration in Behnam’s face is obvious when he plays, creating unique tones and flourishes as his wooden mallets glide across the strings. The sound twists and turns like a wordless story.
A global mishmash of musicians brings the night to a close; Iranian singer Nasim Heidari takes the lead on vocals for a band with members from Italy, Slovakia, Iran and Belfast. She injects Farsi emotion into the Italian swagger of her co-frontman. Switching lead vocalists, the group puts their own worldly spin on classics like ‘Careless Whisper’, ‘Beds Are Burning’ and ‘Mustang Sally’ in an eclectic, experimental clash of worlds which weirdly works.
Tonight is a testament to the talent we have in our city. Darren Ferguson from Beyond Skin makes an appeal for our politicians to recognise the creativity and skill being brought to our shores and rails against the cruel schemes intended to send people away. The beauty of a night like tonight is that it brings together people who mightn’t typically be in a room together – and to what fantastic results.