Culture

Syrian refugee, sensation on the Irish folk scene

At Irish band Lankum's gig at Cork Opera House last summer, their supporting act won over the crowd by holding them in the palm of their hand playing a bouzouki. It was Syrian Kurdish singer and musician Mohammad Syfkhan, whose debut album I Am Kurdish has become part of a collaborative music scene in one of Ireland's smallest counties.

A 57-year-old father of five whose music is a stirring mix of Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish songs, Syfkhan arrived in Ireland as part of a refugee housing scheme in December 2016 with his teacher wife, Huda, and the little girl, Noor. "I love music that reminds me of the past," he writes via e-mail (spoken English interviews are difficult for him, but his written English is expressive and warm). "Usually I love music that brings joy, because it makes me forget the pain of the past a little."

In Syria, music fit around the work routine. He began learning the bouzouki (a type of long-necked Anatolian lute) while studying to become a surgical nurse in Aleppo, moving to Raqqa in his mid-20s after qualifying. He then founded the popular Al-Rabie Band, playing festivals, concerts and parties over the following decades. Then, in 2011, the civil war in Syria began. Two years later, Raqqa was captured by the Syrian National Coalition, and then by the Islamic State, which killed one of Syfkhan's sons, Fadi, a year later.

Syfkhan was told the news by one of the jihadist terrorists, calling his son's cell phone. "When I try to relax, I look at pictures of my children when they were little and try to picture a beautiful future for them," he writes. Unable to flee Syria together as a large family, his three other older sons found refuge in Germany while Mohammad, Huda and Noor went to Greece until February 2016. The trio arrived in Ireland 10 months later of late, located in Mosney Village, a former Butlin's holiday camp which was repurposed as an asylum centre.

Syfkhan gave his first performance there a few weeks later. “It was over Christmas and about 100 to 150 people attended. It was great to see this audience. It was a special and unforgettable holiday." Singing was his way of communicating, he says. “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 of all kinds, people's love for each other and love for their country."

Seven months later, he was placed in a shelter in Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim and began to meet other people who had an affinity for music. He met Willie Stewart of Nyahh Records in 2018, who was DJing at a local event celebrating the culture of the young international communities in County Leitrim. Syfkhan asked Stewart if he could plug his bouzouki into the mixtape so he could play, which filled the room with adults and children dancing traditional Syrian and Kurdish dances. "I was both surprised and excited," Stewart recalls. "I immediately started booking gigs for him."

Stewart also runs all-day experimental programs called Hunters Moon with artist Natalia Beylis, where Syfkhan watched improvising cellist Eimear Reidy and saxophonist and artist Cathal Roche. He later asked them to play on his album; Reidy raved about his use of precise glissandos – glides between notes – and the 24-tone Arabic tone tuning system, calling their collaboration "intense, rich and joyous". Concertina artist Cormac Begley, singer-songwriter Ciaran Rock and Alan Woods of the Traditional Music Archive are also warmly mentioned in Syfkhan's email ("I've met wonderful musicians").

The album "I Am Kurdish" includes delightful reworkings of the 1970's Turkish hit "Leylim Ley", Baligh Hamdim's "One Thousand and One Nights" and the wonderful Kurdish composer Mihemed Elî Şakir's "Put a Coffee in a Glass". The album's title track is an original composition featuring Syfkhan's deep, husky voice as a highlight. This has led Stewart to reflect on how the Kurds, who now number up to 45 million people worldwide, “have been brutalized and scattered across the Middle East and never had a place to call their own. This fact from which Mohammad chose this title for the album, which has a lot of power according to him".

Another friend Syfkhan calls "a brother I love," acclaimed Irish poet and playwright Vincent Woods, says, "I think he really misses the depth of that connection." Syfkhan, Huda and Noor star in Woods' 2021 film made with choreographer Edwina Guckian, Hunger's Way/Bealach an Fhéir Ghortaigh, commissioned for the Strokestown International Poetry Festival. It opens with the Syfkhans walking towards the National Hunger Museum, where Noor, 11 at the time of filming, does an Irish dance at the door. The film ends with their entrance.

Woods hopes this film will highlight how the forced displacement of people continues to be a part of Ireland's history, as "so many displaced people are now coming to Ireland in search of a new home". He and Syfkhan have also discussed the common language between Kurdish and Irish cultures. "They both have the practice of confession in their hearts and are a key part of a cultural identity that had to fight to preserve itself."

"I love these beautiful people," writes Syfkhan when asked specifically about Ireland. “I love music that speaks to its cultural heritage, and music that is accompanied by dance, agility and footwork. I thank Ireland, the wonderful country and the government, for everything they have done to support people." For the many lives he has already touched, that gratitude flows both ways.

(Taken from "The Guardin", translated by: Enis Bytyqi)